Confessions of a Postdoc (20): Teamwork in Lab Work

(August 11th, 2014) Since 2010, Anjana Nityanandam has shared her inner thoughts, experiences and feelings that come with being a postdoc. Here are her latest insights into the world of a research scientist that many are probably all too familiar with.

Irresponsibility in the lab is a universal phenomenon; a characteristic that truly transcends country, language, religion, race, ethnicity and gender. And I have noticed, time and again, almost no one gets penalised for it. Most culprits simply brush off the accusations and ignore the fingers pointed at them. I have rarely seen an inconsiderate colleague make a deliberate effort to change, to make life easier for others. Three things brought this issue to my attention recently - industry job interviews, the football world cup, and a spike in complaints against some of my colleagues at work.

Who, amongst us, has never stood staring at an empty box of aliquots of something, wondering who used up the last one and failed to order a new stock? This would be inadvertently followed by annoyed emails requesting fellow lab-mates to be more considerate in future – emails that are conveniently ignored. For some strange reason, we seem to have supreme confidence in others’ willingness to and promptness in placing orders for things we just used up. Not me, though. I don’t have that kind of faith in people. So I maintain my own ‘emergency’ stock of everything. I am constantly ridiculed for it, but hey, my lab-mates and I have been thankful for it more often than I can remember. I also find especially annoying the breed of people, who use core facilities, change all the settings and never leave it the way they found it, so that if someone who is less of an expert was to follow, they would be clueless as to why things are not working the way they used to. And possibly have to run around looking for someone to fix it. Really, how long does it take to leave things the way they were?

And then there are those who steal unabashedly others’ stock solutions and buffers and reagents because they are too lazy to make their own. Some former colleagues faced with this problem repeatedly got so frustrated that they started locking up their consumables and reagents inside shelves. Some started coding their tubes, so only they could know what was inside a tube or a bottle. In fact, some have gone a step further, and intentionally mislabelled their tubes so someone stealing an aliquot would end up ruining their experiment. A bit extreme, if you ask me, but a very effective deterrent for the perpetrator. Working in a lab also means sharing data and protocols and information about what works and, perhaps more importantly, what does not. It also means trusting that you will be given credit where it is due, and that the person you are sharing information with is not going to use it to step on your own toes. If co-workers in a lab fail to work as a coalition, there will be no harmony. And harmony at work, above all else, is paramount to a happy life.

When I started preparing for job interviews, I learned that one criterion employers in the biotech/pharma industry look for in potential candidates they interview, is a ‘demonstrated ability to work in a team’. It’s important to them. They are looking for someone who would fit in a TEAM of goal-oriented researchers in a fast-paced, highly competitive environment with little job security. Companies conduct mandatory team-building exercises to forge that kind of an attitude. I wondered: “How could any postdoc ever prove that to an interviewer?” Showing that you have collaborated with other scientists or labs on projects and publications is probably an obvious thing to do. But doesn’t everyone collaborate these days? Pick any paper from a decent to high impact journal on pubmed, and I bet there are at least two labs sharing credit for the work. My point is that demonstrating collaboration through publications is not necessarily proof of teamwork. The ultimate proof of your ability to be a productive team player is testimonials from people, who have worked alongside you. People, who have shared resources and reagents and protocols with you, maybe even data. They might be the best to judge: if you are the person, who is willing to sacrifice their likes and preferences and the desire to outshine others, so the entire team could do well in the end; if you could put aside your ideas and willingly compromise for the greater good of the company; if you could put the company before yourself.

I have talked about my absolute and abiding love of sports in my earlier posts. One of the most obvious things that sports could teach someone, is teamwork. Any researcher needing a lesson on how to think and care beyond themselves in their professional life, should plop themselves in front of the television and watch a football match. Sports are riddled with inspiring examples of teamwork. Which also got me thinking, why do some people become inconsiderate and self-centred in the lab, to begin with? Most are surprisingly different individuals at home. The attitude that ‘someone else will take care of it if you don’t’, where does that come from? Is it some sort of retribution, for not having been reciprocated for past acts of benevolence and kindness? Is it because research is so cut-throat and competitive that at the end of the day, it’s each man for himself? How well the lab publishes is not as critical as how well you do in your postdoc or PhD? When your entire career hinges upon your ability to publish, something that’s getting tougher by the day, you are bound to get self-centred. Or, is it just basic human nature? The tendency to shun responsibility when your interests are not directly on the line? After all, human beings are very selfish creatures.

Doing mundane lab duties, making sure lab stocks are full, is admittedly, uninteresting. Not what you did or are doing a PhD for, right? But it still is something that has to be done, because others are counting on you just as you are counting on them, to make the otherwise challenging life in a lab a little easier. It’s like maintaining the flow of traffic at a busy 4-stop intersection. There is the faith and a mutual understanding, amongst a bunch of complete strangers, that everyone on their end will follow the rules of a stop sign, so that traffic will flow smoothly and there won’t be chaos. So, let’s work as a team. Let’s look out for each other. Let’s build character. Or in the least, let’s mean it when we say we are team players.

Anjana Nityanandam

Last Changes: 09.19.2014