Lab meeting musings

Jan 21 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

lab meeting [lab meet・ing] noun : a sometimes regular gathering of two or more members of one or more laboratories, during which discussion of science sometimes takes place.

One thing (of many...so many) that's been particularly challenging in this new gig has been instilling in my lab members a sense of both independence and team spirit. It's incredibly important to me that my grad students feel like they each own their projects, and that the work that they do is part of their personal education and career growth. But I also want them to feel like they're part of something bigger--that in the end, the common themes running through our research mean we're on some level all working for the same goal. Toward the first end, I try to find regular time to chat with everyone one-on-one, sometimes through a scheduled meeting, and sometimes just by wandering into the lab. Toward the other, we have lab meeting. But how can you know what lab meeting should look like? There are so many kinds.

1. The seminar. In grad school, I did a rotation in a lab whose weekly lab meetings were huge, 35-person affairs. Catered. Each week, one of the members of the 3 or 4 labs that participated gave a full hour presentation of their recent work, followed by another half hour of heated discussion. People stressed for months preparing for their talk as if it were a prestigious speaking engagement. Luckily, as a rotation student who couldn't get anything to work, I was exempt.

2. The I-guess-maybe-we-should-have-a-lab-meeting. The lab I ultimately chose for my thesis work did not really "do" lab meetings. Once in a while we'd try to get it going, but it was mostly just to work out animal testing schedules with the technicians. It never really stuck.

3. The rapid fire. My post-doc mentor had a lot of administrative duties that kept him out of the lab most of the time, so our weekly lab meetings were generally a time for him to catch up on what equipment was currently broken. Once in a while someone would present some cool new data they had, but more often than not it was just people going around the conference table accusing each other of leaving oil on the confocal objectives.

4. The journal club. My post-doc sabbatical lab was small enough that our PIs could give us the face time we needed during the week, and so our weekly lab meetings were primarily used as an opportunity to have journal club, with a smattering of data presentation here and there. This worked out really well for me, since the focus of the lab was somewhat outside my general repertoire, so it helped catch me up on the literature.

Currently, our lab meetings are mostly journal club-style. I think that first and foremost, it's important that we as a group get together and talk about science, whatever shape that might take. We usually use 10-15 minutes in the beginning to talk about whatever's been going on in the lab during the week, make sure that any issues that arose are being dealt with. Then, all lab members--grad students, tech, and undergrads, rotate weeks presenting a journal article of their choice, which has honestly been one of my favorite parts of this job. Providing nothing majorly falls apart, we should be able to start having some data presentations soon, which will be exciting. Also, I find that I give a lot of pep talks. Do other new PIs find this, too?

Lab meetings are certainly not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing, but still I'd love to know what you've found to be successful or not. Comment away!

24 responses so far

  • Anka says:

    My lab's meetings are sort of a mix. We rotate taking turns doing lab meeting (including my PI) but when it's your turn you can do either a research update or a journal club. This is sort of at the discretion of the presenter, basically if you have something new or interesting research-wise, you can do it, if you're in a setup phase or whatever, you do a paper. Then in the last 15 minutes we go around doing quick updates of what we're each up to, what's broken, upcoming stuff like conferences or grant applications, etc. It works pretty well.

  • My old (grad) lab recently started a system with two meetings: one is seminar-like and involves a lot of people not officially in the lab (I'd say half the attendees and speakers come from other labs). The other one is lab-members-only and deals with practical things (equipment, purchases, etc.). This seems like a pretty good strategy, though it's still early to see how well it works.

  • megan says:

    I think all of these are interesting ideas - including the comments. I guess one thing I'd ask (as I'm thinking about how to organize my time with my students) is what goal do you have for the meetings? Is it just about facilitating information transfer? teambuilding? conflict resolution? Having upper level students model 'science' for newer students? Keeping up on the latest research? Ideally, what do you want people to get out of the experience?

  • joatmon says:

    I hate going around the table — that is a huge waste of everyone's time as it often times involves very specific topics that no one else in the room will be able to understand.

    I have one-on-one meetings with everyone on Friday to talk about progress (or the lack there of) and help them plan their experiments for the upcoming week. And we we have our lab meeting on Monday to 1) follow up any unresolved issues that were brought up during our one-on-ones; 2) discuss common lab business/issues (e.g. equipment problems, reagents/mice sharing, colony status, needs, deadlines, etc); 3) present data/paper every other week.

    This system has been working pretty well for us (at least for me).

  • @OmicsScience says:

    Nice topic!
    i've passed through different forms of labmeeting but the one we currently have works best for me. Of course it depends on the size of the lab and their motivation.

    We are around 10 people, including postdocs, PhD students, technicians. We do labmeetings every Monday morning. So one week is a round table in which each of us has 10-15 minutes to talk about the latest results obtained. The second week one of us presents his data in detail in a 30-45 min talk. We are about 10 so you get to present once every 3 months.

    i think thats the best way for me.
    Maybe another topic would be when is the best day to do labmeeting. Monday mornings, Friday evenings or other days. I see labs having labmeetings on Wednesday morning, when i am in the middle of most of my experents...and i wonder why!

  • gerty-z says:

    I started out with my lab meetings being kind of haphazard. But then I started to think more about the goals of the meetings and came up with a new system. We cycle between journal club and research meetings. I also wrote up a "what I expect at lab meetings" guideline to help my (relatively new) labbies be able to know what to expect. I think it is going well so far. But ask me again in 6 mo.

  • biochembelle says:

    I think the format that works depends very much on the size and style of the lab and PI.

    There were about 15 members in my PhD lab during my time there, covering a range of chemistry, biochemistry, and cell biology, and my mentor traveled quite often. We ran a mix of meetings.

    We split into sub-groups of closely related projects for data meetings every 2 weeks, and each sub-group member was allotted 15 min for discussion of hir data. These were good for troubleshooting, bouncing ideas around for followup experiments, and keeping members working on related projects in the loop. (Note: Our projects were not so related that we'd be in competition with one another).

    We also had a seminar-style meeting, with one member preparing a report and formal presentation (though we certainly didn't spend *months* stressing); it worked out that each person would present about every 6 months. This meeting was good for evaluating the big picture and what remained to be done on a project, as well as communicating our work to the members outside our own area of expertise.

    We then had a journal club meeting to discuss a recent paper; each member ended up presenting every 6 to 8 months. As you said, Becca, great for catching up on the lit. We had a couple of special series of journal clubs specifically to get more in depth with the history and background of the field - incredibly helpful for newer students and postdocs.

    So we would be in 2 to 3 lab meetings every week that the PI was in town. It seems like a lot, but a couple of things made it work. One was frequency of presenting at the larger meetings. The other was scheduling. First and foremost, meetings started on time. They never ran longer than an hour. (I got much more out of those 3 x 1 hr meetings than I ever got out of the 1 x 3 hr data meeting in the next lab I joined.) The times selected for meetings were minimally disruptive - one was at the start of the day, one at the end, and one over lunch (with lunch provided).

    I will add, though, that now, in a much smaller lab, we are still trying to find the balance and format to make the meetings most useful.

  • Our lab has monthly labmeetings, which are pretty much the only chance we get to meet with the PI (lots of clinical and administrative duties).
    I have to say this is far from ideal, also because our group has a loosely organized group of clinicians and a small animal lab (in a different building).
    The meetings tend to be a really unproductive mix of basic research data/method talk, complaints about clinic stuff and really long discussion on how we should have better and more frequent meetings.
    I guess our group is a prime example of how not to do it...
    That said, I really like Friday afternoon labmeetings (for discussing research stuff, anyway). It gives you some time to digest the criticism you got, come up with solutions, make a proper plan and then start again on monday. But I guess there is also something to be said for starting a week out that way.

  • scicurious says:

    We do biweekly meetings, almost always data presentation. It's been very good, before we started meetings, I had NO idea what other people were even working on.

  • eeke says:

    When I started, I asked a colleague who did closely related work if we could combine lab meetings. We went with the data presentation/journal club format, as our labs, together, reached a critical mass that everyone rotated through at reasonably comfortable intervals (meetings were held approximately once/week or 2 weeks). It was especially helpful to get feedback from an outside lab, and likewise, to keep up with what was going on in their lab. My own lab was so small that I felt like I met with everyone daily anyway; a formal meeting (on our own) seemed silly.

  • darchole says:

    Like Anka, we have weekly lab meetings where 1 person presents their research or a paper, and then each person gives a short update of what they plan to do this week. This includes the PI, graduate students, technicians, post-docs (if any), and undergrads (as many as can attend, some can't). The undergrads usually present as a group during a couple of meetings, the first time is a presentation of what they did the previous semester or summer (most of out undergrads do REU programs during the summer), and the 2nd time at the end of the semester of what they did during that semester. Although some of the undergrads actually do enough work and can discuss their work well enough they can present their work by themselves. The update part is more for the PI, although it helps the undergrads understand a little of what everyone else in the lab does. Weekly lab meetings can be a pain, becuase some members of the lab also attend a weekly meeting with some collaborators in another department, where everyone presents an update of their work. Some people end up discussing the same project twice in one week, which is annoying.

  • Our lab does weekly meetings, rotating between JC & lab meeting. At the meetings, a different person presents there data. Anyone doing research must present, UGs, RA's, techs, and even the PI when she was on sabbatical.

    We have "formal" power point presentations. I put formal bc we have to have figures made, but they're not always pub quality and we have to always present what we're doing & why.

    I've been in 3 labs and in only 1 lab did I hate doing it. The other two (this incls first PhDLab) I didn't mind because the emphasis was always about providing constructive feedback. We had to present not just what was working but what wasn't so we could get help troubleshooting.

    As a student, these are hugely important to do.

    This comment is goingn to get to long and so i'm going to go write a blog post.

  • Bashir says:

    Man, our current meeting is just a free for all. Huge lab. No time limit. PI who can really talk. And a few grad students who like to ask a lot of questions. PI doesn't have regular meetings with individuals so many use this as an opportunity to ask every single little thing on their mind. What do you think of this. What do you think of that. 3 hours certainly not unheard of.

  • DJMH says:

    Bashir, that is my personal definition of nightmare.

    We have every other week (is that biweekly? Or does that mean twice a week?) meetings, and one person presents their data. With six trainees and the occasional schedule interruption, it means you present approx every 3 months, which I think is pretty ideal....anyone can have an unproductive month, but an unproductive three months is (and should be) a red flag.

    My favoritest lab meetings involved the PI, who was also doing some admin and therefore tit on time, going around the table very briefly at the beginning of the meeting, not to get data updates but instead with paper or project where-do-we-stand interactions. It would go something like, "Ann, you gave me your manuscript on Monday and I should have it back to you by early next week. Dan, you were going to show me a couple of figures when, Friday? Ok yes 2 pm Friday. Jan, we agreed you were going to send me a conference abstract by the end of the day today, right?" etc. This way, everyone was on the same page about expected progress regarding papers etc and there wasn't a lot of grumbling about "Gee will I ever get tht manuscript back?" I just loved the openness of it. Then after that we'd have one person present either data or journal club.

  • DJMH says:

    Er, "tit" = "tight".

  • qaz says:

    I do weekly lab meetings, which combine the practical (equipment, statuses) with quick discussions of data. Because my lab is still relatively compact (even though we have 10 people, the topics are still relatively close to each other and the students talk to each other about data every day) the "data discussion" is usually done informally.

    I guess you'd call it a "rapid-fire" meeting, but most of the time, its not about the new so much as getting everybody on the same page. (It's a lot like what DJMH is talking about - where are we on papers? what grants are due? who's done what this week?) We do often present data, but its usually just a couple of new figures if someone has it. I used to have them do presentations (10-15 minutes with ppt) but I found that there was no way to find a good medium between everyone-knows-it-already (because the data has already been discussed informally, so you don't need the background) and three-of-us-need-two-hours-to-discuss subtleties. So now at lab meeting, we go around the table to say "here's what I did this week" and the in-depth discussion happens outside of lab meeting. (Sometimes the upshot of a "here's what I did this week" is three of us need to meet outside of lab meeting to discuss data.)

    We have a separate journal club for those who are interested. For example, my techs need to be at lab meeting, but don't want to come to the journal club. And journal club is open to people outside of my lab as well.

  • We have weekly lab meetings in which one person gets to present. You can choose whether you want to present data or a paper relevant to the work you're doing. We are a relatively big lab (~18 people). So what I don't like about it, is that you don't get to present often, and that some people 'get away' with never showing data, because they always choose to present a paper.
    I've interviewed in a lab that was similar in size, where every week they went around the table and people had to tell what they had done that week to troubleshoot things together. I like that approach, but it does lead to extremely lengthy labmeetings...

  • Alice says:

    I have a 10-person lab and hold once a week journal clubs (lasting 60-90 min) plus general lab maintenance/organization discussions (10 min tops). I also have 2 days a year in which everyone presents their results to everyone else and thoroughly discusses them. Those are our "group sessions".

    I have weekly one-on-one discussions with each student, in which I have them to bring their data compiled/analyzed. I find that most students will not sit down to analyze data and think about it, mindlessly doing experiments without knowing the true results, unless I make them do it!

    I tried lab weekly data discussions in the past, and find them very unproductive, since the student often gets overwhelmed with the ideas and comments from all colleagues (who often forget the central aim of other persons studies) and loses focus on the big picture. Individual weekly conversations are better to keep projects on track.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    We do weekly lab meetings...almost always all data. With the exception, if there is an interesting guest speaker coming, we review papers from that person's lab. Sometimes, I also review some of the research misconduct findings from the NIH TOC -those pertaining to commonly used techniques in the lab.

    The morning of lab meeting, I also have everyone in the lab send me (in bullet point format), what was accomplished the previous week and what are their plans for the upcoming week....this helps with discussion during lab meeting and everyone comes prepared. It used to be a lot of fumbling around and wasting of time.

    As a group, we present data to the department about once a semester/person...this is truly helpful getting outside opinions on the data.

  • MitosRock says:

    If our lab meeting gets any longer, I'll have to give it a % effort on my next grant app. Lab meetings are a bi-weekly 4 hr pissing contest to see who has generated the most data. I always lose because that's not my approach to science. Basically, its the opposite of how I intend to run my own some day.

  • SB says:

    I love my lab's lab meetings. Each person gets to present once a month for an hour, and there is a 3-slide limit (with rare exceptions made if someone is practicing for a conference talk or presenting figures from a paper they're writing). About 25% of the time, the person will give a chalk talk without showing any slides at all. The whole lab is typically very engaged and the focus is on nailing down the experimental design; helping the presenter formulate the right questions, and then find the right approaches to test them. The lab meetings are also grueling; nothing is more difficult than having to justify WHY you're doing something to a group of highly critical people with deep knowledge of the field, the strengths and weaknesses of all the techniques you use. Presenting is a very stressful, yet satisfying experience.

  • [...] *This could easily develop into a whole post about lab meetings and what I think we should be getting out of them but I’ll save that for another day. In the mean time check out Dr Becca’s great post about lab meetings.  [...]

  • [...] Dr. Becca put a post up a post today, asking about lab meetings and how different PI’s run them. I totally and completely understand that 1 style does not fit all and that everyone is going to have a different opinion. In the comments I mentioned what our lab does and then I was going to go on a rant about why I think its important to have students give “formal” presentations in lab meeting. However, I realized  my rant many reasons were going to turn into an essay, so I”m posting it here. [...]

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