Writing therapy – Part II

In my previous post, I wrote about communicating the death of our lab manager (LM) to my research group. As I already pointed out, he was very central to my lab’s organisation and instrumental in implementing the research I’m directing.

A very good and constructive conversation with my Head of Department today -aimed at determining where I’m going to need practical support in the next few months- flagged a couple of problems where my management strategy was not bus proof, and where in the future I’m going to do things differently.

Problem 1: Built-in redundancy, but not on the most critical level. Over the years I’ve had nearly forty students on the undergraduate or graduate level coming and going. For those with computational projects, I kept DVDs, disk images and even external hard drives. For the experimentalists, I left it to my LM to organise their useful remains, throw away irrelevant samples, or document successful protocols.

The same is true for ongoing projects. While I’m very much on top of things in regards to my computational students, I’ve only set the aim for my experimentalists with the expectation that they’re going to be coached through cloning strategies, fly crosses and imaging experiments by my LM. I spoke to my LM every day and I was continuously updated about progress or setbacks, but I haven’t engaged with the details for a long time. In cases where my LM had offered my students to chose from different experimental paths without them fully understanding all possibilities, from their descriptions now I can only guess which ones they’ve chosen.

In that sense, whatever students worked on was always saved, secured and documented by my LM. It made those students “dispensable”, and many have disappeared as it goes, thus losing my LM equates the loss of my hard drive and master backup. (Yes, “his notes”, I hear you say… …read on).

Problem 2: Trust in systems that I didn’t understand. I used to joke that I’m not allowed in the lab as I only disturb the way it’s organised. In fact, my LM led a tight ship and while I know where my fridges and freezers are, he told me off a few times for rummaging through boxes in which I assumed my 10yr old cDNA library etc. With my role shifting from doing to managing research, over the past years I’ve totally lost oversight of how he kept things. Now that in itself might not be a problem, but he was probably the only one who knew how to navigate what just seems like a random heap of nondescript Eppendorf tubes to me at the moment. While it was great for the students to be served from LM’s enzyme bar (“lemme know what you need, but after you’ve taken your three units gimme me tube back”), losing the keeper of the invisible inventory of lab consumables and student project results is a problem.

Now. Note keeping. I mentioned it earlier. Research data is diverse, and while back in my days a paper notebook, some sticky tape and the occasional gel picture seemed sufficient, my LM had the most meticulously organised collection of pictures, spreadsheets, documents, websites, notes, manuals, protocols and only-he-knows-what in… …in Evernote. We had often spoken about me buying Evernote Business that allows joint projects, but somehow he always convinced me that his personal account would be totally sufficient for his needs. Right. His needs. For those who don’t know Evernote, it stores all data somewhere in the Internet, and I’m royally screwed now without knowing his password.

Another issue that falls into this category: The University regularly sends out emails to update personal information. Changes of address, phone number, bank details, next of kin, etc. I always filled those out, I had assumed everyone else filled those out, but identifying where one of my best mates exactly lives turned into a nerve-wrecking six hour exercise. Enough said.

Problem 3: Disinterest in micro-management. The University regularly offers courses in all sorts of administrative hurdles. How to buy from Sigma. How to buy from Sigma when it’s more than £1k. How to order a £60k piece of kit. How to pay the facility on the floor above for media. How to, how to, how to. My LM dutifully visited all these courses, but I could never be asked – why should another person lose four hours of their life time just because the University doesn’t give out credit cards to their PIs? Needless to say that I’m aware of how we bought things about ten years ago, but as time has progressed, with the new ordering system I feel like a senile pensioner who’s confronted with an iPhone for the first time in his life.

It seemed like more problems when I had thought about them in the first place, but after a pint and with the same sort of humour I was used from him I managed to summarise them into these three critical issues. At the moment, it seems like none of my mistakes are actually going to be really disastrous (though unnecessarily annoying and inconvenient), but again, I thought sharing my thoughts might help other people at some stage.

Good night.

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