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The Art of Laboratory Feng Shui: Your Scientific Castle

A researcher's lab is their scientific castle, a tower of research, expertise, and ambition. And although you may well become the next scientific sensation, to perform awe-inspiring research you will need an awe-inspiring laboratory. Creating that bastion of research excellence brick by brick, however, can be a challenge. One way to become successful is to make sure your laboratory sits on rock-solid foundations--and to do that, you need to start putting the bricks into place long before you start your new job.

The day you start making plans to set up your laboratory marks a significant milestone on the road to scientific independence. Waiting until you show up at your scientific sanctum before figuring out your needs can set you back months, and before you know it your departmental support is running out and the frantic scramble for grants begins. Managing your time effectively and efficiently is critical. Get off to a flying start by laying the groundwork while finishing up your postdoc: Start designing your most immediate experiments as well as those you'll be tackling 5 years from now, prioritize how you'll spend your start-up funds, and remember never to burn your (draw)bridges--communication and networking are always essential.

So, what can you do to ensure you hit the linoleum floor running?

Plan Your Projects

"I think you have to ask yourself: What is the first project I'm going to be working on? What do I need to do that science?" says neurogeneticist Fuki Hisama, an assistant professor at Yale University School of Medicine. Juggling bench research with clinical duties, Hisama agrees that early planning is key to a successful lab start up: "It's best to create a resource list while you are still performing an essential protocol," says Hisama. "Write down everything you are using as you go along." If you're going to handle animals, human samples, or radiation, get institutional approval and licenses ahead of time if possible, otherwise your research will languish--no matter how state-of-the-art your new lab is. Compile a list of equipment and supplies and divide it into resources that are very expensive and resources that are essential to your lab, she advises. Doing so helps categorize what you need to spend money on, explains Hisama.

In the few weeks after accepting a position you should:

  • Generate a prioritized list of resources and equipment needs.

  • Obtain information from company representatives about discounts or start-up specials.

  • Begin working with the floor plan of your future lab.

  • Get an e-mail account at your new department and have your address added to group e-mail listings.

  • Order "dry" reagents that do not require special storage.

  • Find out at which local appliance stores your new department has accounts.

  • Order a departmental credit card.

  • Introduce yourself to the department's financial and purchasing officers.

  • Check out your current laboratory and make a note of what you like and what you don't like.

  • Explain some of your ambitions with your current boss--if possible, establish collaborations and ease the transition.

  • Creating a "mission" for your lab this way, however, requires careful consideration: You don't want to compete with your current boss nor do you want that relationship to deteriorate. "Each postdoc should have at least two projects--one which they can take with them and one they leave behind with their supervisor," suggests Yuji Mishina, head of the Molecular Developmental Biology Group at NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

    Saving Money

    Take the opportunity while visiting departments to ask about specific institutional resources: You can save tremendously by sharing instruments that are already in-house. "I made note of what equipment was available in the university and department during my interview," informs biomedical engineer Paul Gratzer, who applied for an assistant professorship at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia last August. After receiving the good news that he had been hired, Gratzer was in a better position to budget and prioritize his objectives because he knew "what equipment I could use via collaborations or as part of the existing facilities."

    "People were willing to give me equipment--I just had to ask for it," exclaims Greg Kelly, a zoologist at the University of Western Ontario who ended up walking away with, among other things, two centrifuges. "I didn't have to go up and solicit equipment," he says. "It's a given you're coming [to the department] and people are always happy to help out," he says. Sharon Milgram, currently an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill, also adopted this approach and reckons she "probably saved $100,000." Such astuteness freed up valuable start-up money that she used to buy major instruments--a bench-top ultracentrifuge for $30,000 and a $35,000 microscope.

    "A good rule of thumb is that general lab supplies--tips, tubes, glassware--will cost about $10,000 a year for each researcher," discloses Todd Primm, who is slated to begin his assistant professorship at the University of Texas, El Paso, in July. Save money by "being creative" adds Hisama: "You can buy a perfectly good 3-channel timer at RadioShack or Walgreens for far less than you would find one at a biosupply house." And if your institutional regulations and policies allow it, you can further save by purchasing equipment like refrigerators and microwaves at appliance stores.

    To clarify your objectives, Todd Primm recommends this 6-step guide to creating your shopping list:

  • Brainstorm.

  • Come up with a number of ideas that you want to pursue as individual experiments.

  • Rank your projects according to experiments that will yield preliminary data more quickly than others.

  • Categorize the list.

  • Check what equipment is available at your future department.

  • Find out order numbers and prices of what you need.

  • Primm only has another 12 weeks or so before being catapulted into faculty life, and he is well on his way: "I have already contacted representatives from various companies, obtained price quotes, and negotiated the all-important service contracts," he reveals. In a similar vein, Hisama says that "years ago, I started a folder called "Future Lab." In it she put fliers for equipment and copies of favorite protocols and recipes--an invaluable approach to preparing your laboratory shopping list. "Learn to do the ordering, and learn to get equipment repaired during your research training--no one else wants to do it," suggests Hisama. This way you can familiarize yourself with the process.

    There are other advantages to learning the ins and outs of purchasing: "Nobody ever told me how complex the rules of purchasing were!" exclaims Milgram, who wishes in hindsight that she had met with a UNC purchasing person before moving to Chapel Hill. "UNC had a list of vendors under state contracts that we had to buy from, and approval had to come from the university administrators and from the state office in Raleigh," enlightens Milgram. Although she didn't know it at the time, it can take 6 months or so before such purchases are finally approved, making Milgram all the more relieved she started ordering when she did. When she arrived at Chapel Hill, "my lab was full of boxes ready to unpack," and 2 weeks later she was already getting experiments under way. "It felt very good doing [research] and it also signaled to grad students my lab was going to be 'open' very soon." While "nothing worked" in the beginning, "getting down to experiments quickly gives you an emotional boost," explains Milgram. "The most important thing is to make your lab a 'happening place.' " And being able to give people fun and interesting experiments to do right off the bat boils down to--once again--spending time as a postdoc thinking about the kinds of projects you want to pursue later in your career.

    Getting Advice

    Take advantage of your current environment to ask colleagues for pointers and advice: "People fresh out of the gate know what to expect--talk to these people," urges Kelly. Ask how difficult (or easy) it has been for them to settle down into their labs; what were their biggest lab set-up problems? Another good idea is to get yourself added to departmental listservs or group e-mail listings: Soliciting electronic advice is a very useful way to help clarify concerns you may have before you step foot in your new department.

    Such communications also demonstrate that you are not shy or timid: "I received an e-mail from someone one day who said they were coming to the university and were starting up in the pharmacology department," explains Milgram, who by then already had her lab in full swing. "Our research overlapped and she asked if we could talk--she took the time to find people with similar interests and that impressed me." That initiative paid off--Milgram, whose own lab consists of more than a dozen people, keeps an eye out for students that might be suitable for her colleague's laboratory, and she also shares common reagents willingly with her. "It is critical to be friendly and to talk to colleagues," reemphasizes Milgram.

    It all comes down to your personality: "The single biggest point is that you have to believe in yourself, and that means you have to take certain risks," says Milgram. Not every professional gets the opportunity to build castles both at home and at work--so start planning early, be creative, and don't be afraid to take those risks: It might take some time to find the right bricks and considerable effort to haul them into place, but once they're set, you'll be well on your way toward building the research castle of your dreams.

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