Getting to know your colleagues outside the lab
makes for better science.
Every winter, throngs of sleds carry children of all ages down Marshall Hill in Stowe, Vermont. Hands down, it’s “the world’s best tobogganing and inner tube hill,” sending fearless young sledders down its slope at “a million miles an hour,” says William Lensch, senior scientist in George Daley’s lab at Children’s Hospital Boston. Followed by his son and a colleague’s child, Lensch made his way up the steep hill. Only minutes later, down they flew, frosty-cheeked and squealing. It’s not doing science, but out-of-lab experiences such as this one in Vermont grease the wheels of scientific collaboration, says Lensch.
“As a parent, I know that it’s really hard to find time for yourself, especially when you have little kids,” says Lensch. So he volunteered to take care of his lab mate’s child so her parents could hit the nearby ski slopes. After a day of sledding, Lensch drove both kids down to the Ben & Jerry’s factory in the nearby town of Waterbury, and all returned to the inn with bellies full of ice cream.
The Daley Lab colleagues are no strangers to each other’s private lives. In many ways, there is no line for them between the professional and the personal. “I don’t think you would leave your kids with someone whom you think is going to steal your data,” says Olaia Naveiras, a former grad student and postdoc of Daley’s. The strong community feeling and trust cultivated on these “labcations” filter over into work at the bench, says Lensch. Getting to know your lab mates and potential collaborators outside the confines of work is extremely valuable. Here are a few ideas for cultivating community and jump-starting collaborations by taking your group outside.
Length of stay: 3 days, 2 nights
Location: Stowe, Vermont
Expenses: Lift tickets, equipment rentals, and meals
Olaia Naveiras stood at the top of a mountain in Stowe, pointed her skis downhill, dug in her poles, and took off still feeling the adrenaline from her first run. Having just returned from schussing down Colorado’s powder-perfect slopes, she overestimated the less-than-ideal snow conditions in the Northeast. Around one sharp turn her ski got hooked on a rock and she tumbled, tearing a major ligament in her knee. After bravely skiing down the mountain, Naveiras went to a small clinic in Stowe where Lensch met her and stayed with her as a doctor x-rayed her leg and diagnosed the damage. When Naveiras hobbled through the doors of the inn on crutches, she was greeted with cheers of joy by the other members of Daley’s lab. They rushed to make her tea, propped up her leg, and made sure she had a good place to sit, she says. Instead of going home early, she stayed for the rest of the trip because it was better to have that community around her when she wasn’t well. “It felt like family,” she adds.
Every other year, the members of Daley’s lab go skiing in Stowe, where food and drink is bountiful and relaxation is a priority. They rent an entire inn late in the ski season to accommodate their lab of more than 30 people, and they cook breakfast and dinner together to save on expenses. These experiences outside of the lab cultivate the sense of community that just makes their lives easier, says Naveiras.
“It’s a horse of a different color when you see somebody in the morning and their hair is sticking this way and that way. All your defenses are down and all your posturing is down,” says Lensch. “You’re just there as a person.”
TIPS FOR COMMUNITY BUILDING
Drink and sing
On the very first ski trip the group took in 2005, Daley brought a collection of red and white wines for everyone to taste. “George really knows his wines,” says Yates. To add to the merriment induced by sampling quality wines, the group followed the tasting with an impromptu international karaoke session. Everyone took out their iPods and sang songs from their country of origin. Not only was it nice to share each other’s national music, “it’s a lot easier to work with someone you’ve had a laugh with, someone who is more than a colleague,” says Yates. “It takes the edge off.”
Model your bathrobe
Developing a thick skin is essential for meetings in the Daley Lab, says Lensch. “I’ve always felt that if you can put your data up at our lab meetings and walk out with it intact, then you can do it anywhere.” Without the personal comfort level the group has acquired by spending time together socially, the level of honesty they express in their meetings would be difficult, says Lensch. When you know your lab mates well, “they’re not going to take it personally” when you criticize their data, he says. “They’ve seen you in the morning in a bathrobe.”
When in Stowe, “George likes to cook dinner and then I help, and I like to cook breakfast and he helps,” says Lensch. But the lab cooks together year round. In the summers they have a barbeque at Daley’s house and in the winters they have a holiday potluck where everyone brings their national cuisine, says Lensch. They also have sushi-making parties occasionally. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to get groups their size together. “I grew up on a farm in Utah. It’s not that easy for me to get up and think about how to make breakfast for someone who’s a vegetarian or vegan, but, dang it, I’m going to do it,” says Lensch.
The comfortable atmosphere cultivated on these trips makes it easier to share data and honest criticisms back in the lab without the risk of hurt feelings. Also, people are usually more willing to take time out of their busy schedules for someone they respect on a personal as well as professional level. “Nobody in this lab ever has any problem finding people to help,” says Lensch.
The time they spend getting to know each other on the ski trips, says Frank Yates, former postdoc in the lab, facilitates teamwork back in the lab. After getting to know Elayne Penebre, another postdoc on the trip, “it was easier for me to speak with her and to begin a collaboration” on a lab project, says Yates. “We worked together for nearly 18 months.”
“It’s important to work well together while we’re [in the lab], but it’s also very important to recognize that we’re building lifelong relationships,” says Lensch. “The people you’re sitting next to today are going to be your colleagues for the rest of your life.”
Length of stay: 2 days, 2 nights
Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
Expenses: Drinks, dinners, gambling
— William Lensch
In Las Vegas, a city brimming with temptations, three labs unexpectedly found the perfect balance of work and play for their joint lab retreat last July. With the help of a grant from a San Francisco Bay venture capital firm, the three came together to explore ways of using the strengths of each group to search for cheap drugs with chemical structures similar to more expensive drugs available for malaria, African sleeping sickness, or cancer. Vijay Pande’s lab at Stanford University uses a 3-D method for viewing chemical structures. While it is extremely precise, providing the exact configuration of the drug and protein target in question, it produces a very large number of possible configurations. Brian Schoichet’s laboratory from the University of California, San Francisco, on the other hand, is an expert in 2-D molecular modeling, which produces a more manageable range of outcomes, but lacks the resolution that is sometimes needed. By applying the 3-D method to the configurations that Schoichet’s group produces, the team hopes to narrow the possibilities and sharpen the results. Russ Altman’s group, also from Stanford, would then apply his atypical method of 3-D modeling to extract key features in the interacting molecules, and predict other drugs that might have the same binding patterns.
With the shaky economy, “the Las Vegas resorts were very willing to make really good deals,” says Altman, and the grant covered lodging and two meals per day.
After working from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in their hotel conference room, the group indulged in all of Vegas’ finest attractions: cocktails, all-you-can-eat Brazilian barbeque, live shows, and, of course, a little gambling. After Altman gave an impromptu lesson on the basic rules of the dice game craps, students and postdocs from all three labs tested their freshly minted skills on the old Vegas Strip, where tables had a lower minimum bet. “I trained people in craps simply to keep them together,” says Altman. By pure beginners luck—not to mention this group’s expert grasp of probability—they won a total of nearly $1,500.
“If you work on science all day and then you go out and drink together, the result will be boisterous discussions usually ending back at science,” says Paul Novick, graduate student in the Pande Lab. “I can think of at least one new collaboration that has started recently due to the enthusiasm I apparently demonstrated after all-you-can-drink sake.”
LAY FERTILE GROUND FOR COLLABORATIONS
Give them incentive to stay inside
“The appealing thing about Vegas is the hotels are quite nice, but can be extremely cheap if you pick the right time,” says Pande. The group travelled to Vegas during one of the hottest weeks of the year, so that might have helped bring down the price, he adds. Another plus to the extreme temperatures is that participants weren’t tempted to skip out on the meetings to see Sin City’s myriad attractions during the day be, says Pande.
Sing pop songs
To get to the old Strip from their hotel to play craps, says Altman, the bellman informed them that it would be cheaper to take a party bus than three taxis. The bus, says Novick, was equipped with a disco ball and a karaoke machine. Altman, postdocs, and graduate students from all three labs lost some of their inhibitions singing and listening to Lady Gaga songs. “I have to think some bond was forged,” says Novick. “When you see Russ Altman sing ‘Poker Face,’ you feel a lot more comfortable approaching him with new scientific ideas.”
Pick a place rife with distractions
Though the group spent the hot summer days in a hotel meeting room consumed with work, they spent the cooler summer nights getting to know one another in a city buzzing with entertainment. “Scientists are still human beings,” says Pande. After a long day of meetings, “it’s useful to have a place to go that’s rife with distractions, where people can interact and get to know each other in a nonscience setting.”