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Lab Rage: Dealing With Personality Conflicts

Picture the scene: It's the end of another long day pushing back the frontiers of science and a pipettes-at-dawn scenario is erupting over at the PCR machine. The assertive, aggressive, know-all (AAK) Ph.D. student, not known for his patience even when things are going his way, is arguing with the trusty, pig-headed technician (TPT) over who should get to use the machine first. The AAK is just about bursting a gasket explaining, "but everyone knows I'm PCRing this week, and I need to get a result for my abstract for the Biochem Soc."

Note the use of the terms I and me, typical language used by the egocentric AAK. This personality type hates: waiting turn, cleaning up after herself (a waste of precious research time), taking other people's needs into consideration, or spending any time teaching or explaining techniques to anyone else. On the up side, this type of personality can be incredibly enthusiastic (when positive results are flowing their way), but on the down side they feel an overwhelming need to share their success with you. This is particularly galling if you have just forgotten to put the comb in your gel, or to add Taq to your PCR reaction mixture. This personality type, combined with an above-average IQ, displays a tendency to patronise, which tends not to be appreciated by trusty, experienced technicians and world-weary postdocs (WWPs). The AAK often prefaces explanations with: "In my experience ... (oh yeah, all 18 months at the bench) or "I've developed a great technique for ..."

This type of approach is of course anathema to the TPT who likes things done the way that it says in the methods book. This personality type is usually reliable and helpful, so long as you don't ask them to do something new, or modify a tried and tested technique. "If it's not broken, why fix it?" is the maxim of the TPT. Conflict arises when the AAK tries to tell the TPT that steps 3, 4, and 5 of the DNA purification are not required. The AAK has carried out a careful trial and shown that yield and purity are unaffected by removing these steps. Which ought to be music to the ears of the TPT, but it's hard for an old dog to learn new tricks, especially from an AAK Ph.D. student.

The WWP on the other hand, claims to have found out the same thing 5 years previously, but to have forgotten to update the methods book. There are two main types of WWP, manic-depressive WWP or chronic depressive WWP. The former seesaws between bouts of feeling their research will change the world (or at least see the light of publication) and feeling it is all totally pointless (and will never see the light of publication). The chronic depressive WWP is past the point of caring whether his research sees the light of publication and spends endless hours agonising over where the next research grant will come from. Tension erupts when the ever enthusiastic AAK Ph.D. student refuses to remove his rose-tinted spectacles and understand the jaded perspective of the CDWWP. Flushed with the success of his first publication, he does not want to be reminded by a WWP that one publication does not a career in science make.

This is not a problem that affects the BAMs (bold, ambitious medics), who are only taking a couple of years out to do a Ph.D. in order to further their medical career. Some BAMs recognise that they have entered a world where the scientist is king and respect their greater knowledge and experience. These guys generally ask for help when they need it and work hard toward their goal without treading on too many toes. Sadly, other BAMs think that their research projects should take priority, preferably with the scientists on hand as technicians.

So is the lab any different from your average office, with people bitching over the photocopier? There is probably more scope for conflict in a lab, with its ill-defined hierarchy and lack of management structure. In an office, there is a clearer demarcation of roles and areas of responsibility. In labs, where working space is limited and equipment is at a premium, there is also more likelihood of conflicts arising. Scientific research is a highly competitive world, so professional rivalry and jealousy are always bubbling beneath the surface. So how do we go about creating harmony in the lab?

  • Recognise that other people have needs and expectations too: Ph.D. students and postdocs should remember that the technician may not need results to stay in post, but they do need to feel motivated and valued. Conversely, technicians need to acknowledge that the Ph.D. students and postdocs are under pressure to get results in order to obtain their Ph.D. or next contract, respectively.

  • Be sensitive to other people: If someone is hurling test tubes across the bench accompanied by a flurry of expletives, they're clearly having a bad day. Now is not a good time to impart news that your paper has been accepted for publication.

  • Impose clear rules and regulations for use of equipment and use booking systems so that everyone can get equal access.

  • Organise cleaning rotations for shared bench space and equipment and make sure that whoever manages the lab ensures they are adhered to.

  • Air grievances at lab meetings: Harbouring grudges just builds resentment. However, try to be as diplomatic as possible and don't use aggressive language.

  • Cooperate: Spending a day teaching someone a new method can be a rewarding experience and not just a waste of your research time. It's always wise to remember that you might need their help another day.

  • The AAK, TPT, WWP, and BAM are only four of the myriad personality types, not to mention TLAs (three-letter abbreviations), that you will encounter in science. Hopefully, if you learn to recognise them, you will be ready to inject some TLC into your lab.