Managing a lab move

Eric Pop’s renovated lab

Eric Pop's Stanford lab after construction was completed but before he moved in.

Credit: Eric Pop

When Jay Lennon decided to take a new faculty position and move his lab, he didn’t expect it to lead to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But, just a few months after he arrived at his new institution—Indiana University (IU), Bloomington—in 2013, the microbial ecologist found himself spending an afternoon answering questions from two USDA officials because he had transported international soil samples across state lines. “The samples never left the freezer, but I violated one of the rules,” he recalls. “Technically, I think they could have shut down my lab.” The investigation was resolved several months later, after costing Lennon a significant amount of time and hassle. “I think I have a record now with the USDA cops,” he adds.

Lennon’s experience may be extreme, but it highlights the potential complications and unexpected hurdles that can arise when scientists move between institutions. In addition to the practical challenge of physically packing up and moving the lab, principal investigators (PIs) must also consider the financial implications, effects on lab personnel, and myriad other details—often in just a few months—to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Jay Lennon

Jay Lennon

Courtesy of Jay Lennon

Manage the bottom line

One of the most complex and time-consuming aspects of moving, many say, is transferring grants. National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants, for example, are awarded to institutions, not individuals, so when investigators decide to move, they must ask the old institution to relinquish responsibility for the project; the future institution must submit a new application. NIH then completes an administrative review of the application to make sure the institution is appropriately equipped to manage the grant. Usually the review is strictly administrative—peer reviewers are not involved—but the process can be complex and time-consuming. National Science Foundation (NSF) grants are subject to a similar process.

The process will always be more complicated than you think because it’s tough to anticipate all the little things.

—Eric Pop
Even when everything is done right, the transfer process can be extremely slow. When electrical engineer Eric Pop moved to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 2013, it took almost a year for all of his grants to be transferred “for reasons that are beyond any one person’s control,” he says. “It’s just a complex apparatus.”
Eric Pop

Eric Pop

Courtesy of Eric Pop

“My strategy was just to call people,” Lennon recalls. That approach is in line with recommendations from NIH about how to handle these situations. “I called the program officers, the people in the Office for Sponsored Research at my previous institution and my current institution, explained the situation to the best of my ability, and tried to put them in touch with each other. You’re the middle person, and everyone assumes that you’re going to take care of it, but I didn’t know what was going on.”

In some cases, a move may force faculty to relinquish some funds entirely. Grants that are closely linked to the institution—institutional training grants, for example—usually aren’t portable. Grants from state governments or other local entities, and also collaborative grants shared with other local researchers, may need to be left behind. Sometimes it isn’t obvious that a grant can’t be moved, as Lennon discovered when he tried to transfer an NSF grant funded from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (also known as “stimulus”) funds. He was deep into the transfer process before someone at NSF told him that stimulus money cannot move between states. He had to give up the final year of funding remaining on his grant. “If somebody had known that rule right up front, it would have saved me months of time,” he says, although he acknowledges that it was also partly his responsibility to be aware of the stipulations of his award.

Equipment custody

Another crucial step is deciding which equipment can be moved to the new institution, and then figuring out who actually owns it. Investigators are generally entitled to take with them any equipment associated with ongoing, transferable grants, but the investigator’s old institution usually owns any equipment purchased with startup funds and expired grants. If investigators want to take any of that equipment along, they may be able to buy it at a discounted price, or perhaps even free of charge, but these decisions often come down to case-by-case negotiations and can vary greatly depending on the relationship investigators have with their institutions, and the institutions themselves.

Holland (left) and graduate student Ryan Cowley sealing an air-sensitive compound in a quartz tube to send to a collaborator.

Holland (left) and graduate student Ryan Cowley sealing an air-sensitive compound in a quartz tube to send to a collaborator.

Credit: Karen Chiang, Karpatchi Photography

Some choose to avoid this issue altogether by taking advantage of a move—and the relocation package—as an opportunity for upgrading equipment. Chemist Patrick Holland didn’t bring much equipment with him when he moved to Yale University in 2013, after 13 years at the University of Rochester. “That’s pretty close to the lifetime for some of these pieces of equipment,” he says. “It’s like a 13-year-old car: If you had the opportunity to leave the old one behind and get a new one, that would probably sound like a good idea.”

Biologist Irene Newton, who moved to IU Bloomington in 2011 after 2 years at Wellesley College, also left most of her equipment behind. She offers a word of caution for junior investigators setting up a new lab after a move. “You come into this empty space and you want it to feel like your postdoc lab, some high-powered HHMI lab that you’re never going to replicate as a junior faculty” member, she says. “Don’t be impetuous and feel like you need to fill your lab.” Instead, she suggests that junior investigators “design an experiment and buy the equipment and reagents you need to do that experiment.”

Be a people person

Despite the opportunities a move can offer, it is also likely to be a difficult time for students, postdocs, and technicians in the lab. Whether they decide to stay at the original institution or move, the transition can be challenging. It is important to have one-on-one conversations with each person about the decision, Pop says. “Every student has his or her own motivations. … Really delve into the details and find out what’s best for them.”

Irene Newton

Irene Newton

Credit: Kathy Sheehan

Once the decisions have been made, next steps may include confirming that there are funds available to pay lab members who are staying behind and figuring out which institution will grant degrees for students who are moving. If any students stay at the old institution and do not switch to a new adviser, the PI will need to make arrangements to continue to supervise the student and coordinate their research.

Expect the unexpected

One of the most challenging parts of managing a move is simply figuring out what needs to be taken care of and how to go about doing it. “For a lot of the high-level planning, you’re kind of on your own,” Holland says, “but as faculty, we’re kind of used to winging things and hoping they work out in the end.”

Because each move is unique, involving different individuals, institutions, and instruments, even speaking with colleagues who have moved is unlikely to unveil all the issues that can arise. “The process will always be more complicated than you think because it’s tough to anticipate all the little things,” Pop says. He dealt with the complications and frustrations by focusing on the future. “When you deal with these moves, you have to keep a longer perspective in mind and really think about where you want to be in 5 to 10 years,” he says. “If you think about it in the grand scheme of things, transferring a grant is only a small disruption. It’s a blip.”

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