Ask interesting questions
The goal of the lab is to answer questions that we find interesting. While this may sound somewhat obvious, we want to underscore that what drives us is passion for science. Some of the questions we ask may be directly applicable to human disease, especially cancer. Some may not be and may stem from pure curiosity about how biological systems are wired. This is fine, there does not need to be an immediately foreseeable applicability to our research. We do not value immediate applicability over fundamental knowledge, nor do we turn down projects that do have applicability. We value whether the question is interesting (what we find interesting and why is a whole different question that relates more to storytelling; more on that below).
An environment that fosters learning for everyone
As part of answering interesting questions about chromatin, metabolism, differentiation, cell division, tumorigenesis, colon cancer, etc., we aim to foster an inclusive environment where undergraduate students, PhD students, postdocs and technicians feel they can be themselves. All of us should be able to exercise our passion for science with the confidence that mistakes will be learned from and triumphs will be celebrated. The majority of experiments we do are ways of tinkering with biological systems to better understand them. Making unplanned mistakes can be the best experiment of all and our goal is to learn from these situations. Critiques, suggestions, different views and comments are an absolutely essential part of science and building the confidence and understanding to use these comments to advance our research is a key aspect of our work environment.
Creating this environment of inclusivity is something we take very seriously, and we will have scheduled sessions where we will 1) re-examine how to harness our diversity to enrich our science and our lives and 2) improve our ability to make everyone feel part of a collaborative team.
Help you get to the next step, whatever that is
Part of learning in the chroMetab group will lead to professional advancement and our goal is to help each individual get to where they want to get to professionally. Sometimes this will mean a traditional academic route. Other times it will be industry (big pharma or biotech) and even alternative careers (patent law, medicine, engineering, food industry, etc.). We firmly believe that doing science is a thoroughly fulfilling profession but we also acknowledge that scientific training is immediately applicable to excelling in many other disciplines. Our goal is to develop the skills required to drive a scientific project to completion. This requires:
- understanding what is known and what is NOT known about the process we want to study
- focusing on what specific problem(s) we want to study i.e. what is the question?
- thinking of the simplest ways in which we can answer that particular question
- designing, executing and analyzing experiments and using the results to design newer sets of experiments
- communicating our results in multiple settings and to different audiences: lay public, students, broadly to the scientific community, narrowly to our own field, in formal settings and in informal settings and maybe even in different languages!! We want to tell stories about our work, about why we find the questions we work on interesting, about why our findings explain or predict biological phenomena or what our research could mean for medicine or industry
- reporting from the field and making our findings official through well composed and well presented publications (artistic talent is a plus here!!! we like nice figures with clever color schemes!!! #ggplot #cowplot #viridis)
- securing funding through individual, lab and collaborative grants
- collaborating with other labs to synergize expertise
I like to joke that the ‘Ph’ in PhD stands for ‘Ph’igure it out. The expectation for each individual in the chroMetab lab is that you take ownership of your project and that you drive your work forward collaboratively and inquisitively. This is a multi-step process:
- take initiative in reading the primary literature (including papers that may be very old!! – always a way to get Juanma hooked). Many of the questions we think about were being asked many decades ago – the advantage now is that we have much better tools to answer them! Once you’ve submerged yourself in the literature be sure to summarize it and include it in your discussions to frame the question and convince everyone else that your question is an important one
- think of, design and plan experiments to answer your question. At its simplest this will be using techniques that we are familiar with in the lab but many times it will require tinkering or reaching out to other labs for help. Sometimes it may even mean developing new techniques altogether. Be sure to talk to many people about his – chances are someone has done similar experiments and can help you avoid the mistakes they’ve made previously
- keep a neat, organized lab notebook (by date, by experiment, by project) using both a physical lab notebook and your own Notion lab notebook. The lab notebook is a resource both for you but also for others; ensure that other lab members can understand what you’ve written and include enough detail to reproduce the results. Optimize protocols and keep them updated in the Notion Protocols page
- ask for help!!! If you don’t know how to do something or are unsure, ask. Ask your peers, ask the technicians, ask the postdocs and the students. Ask Juanma. Ask other labs. Chances are someone else has had a similar question and asking for help is the number one way of Ph-iguring it out!
- present your work, even negative data. It is your responsibility to present your work in scheduled presentations in lab meeting and to seek out avenues to present your work in other contexts including department seminars, national and international conferences. Prepare these in advance. Practice, practice, practice. Practice on your own in your head, outloud, record your self, present to your peers. No one is innately good at this. Ultimately, it will be time to get the work published and the expectation is that you can write and assemble a first draft that will be the backbone of a journal submission
- for PhD students, stay up to date of your program requirements. Notify Juanma of any committee meetings at least 1 month in advance
- Juanma will have individual work-in-progress meetings every 2 weeks with every member of the lab. The format is generic but make sure you prepare for these. Bring a list of what you’ve done, what you’ve struggled with, what you’re doing next and where things are not going well and where you may need help. You can also bring up any other non-science issues that you want to discuss in a confidential manner
- prepare in advance for your 6 month career development meetings. Make sure you read and fill out the template; these meetings are there to help you maximize your training to get where you want to get to; so use them!!
chroMetab is a community. A well-functioning community requires mutual individual respect and allowing the voicing of concerns in an appropriate way. This can happen either during the lab-business discussion at lab-meeting or in private with Juanma.
Respect your work environment; don’t move things if you don’t know who they belong to or without notifying the person they belong to; clean up your own bench as well as any common areas; and participate in the common lab jobs that are assigned to you (these will be re-distributed every 4 months).
Documentation is a fundamental part of doing science reproducibly. You will be given a laboratory notebook when you begin and where you are expected to date and document all experiments done by yourself or with others. In addition or if preferred, we use Notion as a digital lab notebook. Make sure to keep this up to date and with each entry annotated for person, experiment and project. Notion is a great way to safeguard information and you should feel free to paste results, gels, photos, images, pdfs, excel tables, etc. into it.
For protocols that you are improving or developing, make sure to keep up to date protocol pages in Notion for others to follow. These should be generic enough that a basic understanding of molecular biology is sufficient to replicate the process.
Many experiments will generate troves of data in the form of images, sequencing reads, tables, etc. Be sure to keep all files stored in the lab server in addition to any other personal storage devices (pen drives, your own computer, etc). The server is backed-up regularly and currently holds 16 Tb of data. If necessary we will expand it accordingly.
The above article is a fantastic account of scientific misconduct and its implications. Our approach to this issue is to establish multiple preventative checks and balances to call small errors and misinterpretations to attention (voluntary or not). These center on the constant examination of raw data in the laboratory and having multiple sets of eyes looking at the same data (show your raw data to your fellow lab members, to Juanma – door is always open for this) and to your peers. In addition, we will participate in joint lab discussions with other labs doing orthogonal work where unpublished data will be presented and critically (and rationally) examined.
The flip side of this is that if you suspect any type of wrongdoing, first remember the umbrella man, and then come talk to me. We will approach every issue individually and with respect for both parties and will seek outside help if needed.
We are primarily a goal-oriented lab – the goal being to answer scientific questions. I want everyone to be passionate about the question(s) they are asking and for this passion to drive their work. However, different trainees and members of the lab will have different life-styles and obligations. There is no defined number of hours that I ask PhD students or Postdocs to be in the lab nor is there a specific time I expect you to be in lab. I do want to create a cohesive and integrated group and this requires:
a) that there is a period of time during which all members are present; and
b) that the majority of the work is conducted on site
I expect all members of the lab to be present on non-holiday weekdays from 11am-5pm. This is the time during which there can be overlap and interaction between all members, including myself. Outside of these times people will divide into those that come in early and those that stay late and I leave that entirely up to you. There will be times as a PhD student or a Postdoc that experiments or deadlines will require you to work weekends or late evenings and ultimately this should be driven by that passion for science. I do not expect or require that this be a regular occurrence. During our fortnightly meetings we will assess progress and optimize time management.
I also expect everyone to be present at lab meeting and 1:1 meetings or to tell me in advance if they can’t make it.
If you are writing a grant or manuscript there is some flexibility in terms of working off-site, since you may prefer to read/write from off-site and that’s fine as long as you let me know what you’re up to.
I will send messages by email or slack during the day and often outside of working hours. I don’t expect you to answer outside of normal working hours. Having kids means I sometimes have to break up my day and work asynchronously. I may also send very short messages out of a habit of efficiency; please know that I am not being abrupt or angry when I do this.
Everyone will have emergencies and my door is always open to talk about conflicts that are happening at or outside work. I also want to respect everyone’s privacy so if you need some time because of a health issue, a personal matter or to help your loved ones, all I need to hear is: “I need some time”. Columbia has many resources through HR and I am happy to navigate these with you. I do ask that you let me know if any emergency arises that requires you to take time off – you don’t have to give me any details but I do want to know that you are ok and to have a sense of how long you need, how all of us can cover for your time away, help with experiments, etc.
Vacation and Time Off
The university establishes the minimum number of vacation days, holidays and personal days you can take. My own view is that vacations are a fantastic way to recharge and get new ideas. I encourage 2 or more vacations a year for a total of 28 days. I do ask that you not take more than 14 days in a row to help with the continuity of experiments. Please also let me know as soon as you know when you will be taking these days so we can organize and cover for each other, especially when deadlines are approaching.
Maximizing Your Well-Being
Columbia University Human Resources has an extensive repertoire of programs and services to maximize your well-being. Please take the time to look at what they offer and if there is something you think you need and isn’t offered, come talk to me about it and I will try to help.
I’ve lived in New York a long time and have know what it’s like to look for apartments, find a daycare, a school, get your first credit card, driver’s license, etc. I can help; at least point you in the right direction. Just ask me.
Team Work and Team Well-Being
When teams work well they can help achieve a sense of personal and group fulfillment that is amazing. If you’ve played a group sport or in a band/orchestra you will no doubt have experienced this. You feel completely supported by your piers and you feel that your contribution helps everyone around. I would like to create an environment that achieves that feeling.
But that is not easy and there WILL be bumps in the road. If you feel that you are not being valued, come talk to me, If you feel that someone else is competing with you or making your job more difficult, come talk to me. If you have ideas on how to make the group work better, come talk to me.
In an attempt to increase the sense of inclusivity in the group we will have 4 organized events/outings throughout the year. The format will be decided at lab meeting. Some of these may be in conjunction with another lab, others will be just us. I welcome any ideas that you think help us become more comfortable working with each other.
Mentorship and Career Development
I will work together with each member of the group to develop a mentoring style that adapts to your needs as those needs change. Nonetheless, there are a few core principles that I tend to focus on:
- I want all members of the lab to spend time alone, discussing with others and discussing with me what the big picture question they want to ask is
- Once you know what that big project question is, let’s try to answer it in the simplest model system we have available to us
- Come up with hypotheses that follow from that big picture question and propose experiments that challenge them; come up with alternative hypotheses that could also explain your results and challenge those; yes, this goes in circles. Science is iterative with many feedback and feedforward loops
- Some experiments will be yes/no questions but try hard to come up with experiments where any result gives you an answer that tests your hypothesis
- Keep clear notes both in lab notebooks and in Notion – these can be complementary and not necessarily redundant. For example, make overall outlines and write down the results in Notion and keep a detailed account of each step in the protocol in your lab notebook as you perform it in the lab. Make sure to put all results (negative, inconclusive and positive) in Notion and put all data files in the lab server in a well labelled manner
- Change one variable at a time; changing more than one gets confusing and you never know what caused what
- Make sure you understand the protocol. Every step. If there are buffers to be made know what each component does. This is critical for troubleshooting and for improving protocols
- See one, do one, teach one. Science is hard and the best way to learn is by doing. I’ve made almost every mistake you can make (agarose gels with water? Check. Wrong secondary antibody? Check. Forgot formaldehyde in the fixative? Check. Lost the pellet? Double-check. You get the point. But if it’s expensive make sure you’ve practiced it before!
- A lot of data analysis these days is computational. I’ve taught myself some but not nearly enough. You will probably know more than me. Come teach me.
My final points have to do with communication. Lab meeting should be a conversation. If you have a question, no matter how stupid it may sound, ask it. Ask it now, in the middle of the presentation. Don’t wait until the end. If something wasn’t well explained ask for it to be explained again. Ask to go back two (or ten or twenty) slides.
When it comes time to prepare more formal presentations or manuscripts we will practice and work together. It’ll take time and practice but you will get there and my goal is to make everyone in the lab present their work in the most exciting way possible.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
In the chroMetab lab we believe diversity in cultural background, gender-identify, sexual-orientation, ethnicity and training is one of the pillars of innovative, transformational science. Academic training has traditionally been full of barriers that limit that diversity, especially at the higher rungs of the ladder. Limited diversity of role models in leadership positions; lack of support services for relocating, for raising a family on a trainee salary; a veneration for elite institutions; ethnic, cultural, gender-identity, sexual orientation and language barriers in doctor/patient and mentor/trainee relationships; these are all roadblocks to achieving a feeling of social belonging that majorities take for granted and minorities aspire to. My hope in building the chroMetab group is that we can foster an environment that maximizes diversity by:
- empowering trainees to embrace their identities in a supportive group, mitigating the feeling of not-belonging that can stymie academic progress; and
- creating outreach programs locally and internationally that show the thrill and rewards of doing science in an inclusive environment.
If you have ideas about how to maximize the sense of belonging, increasing our diversity, and contributing to increase diversity in science and medicine through outreach programs, bring it up at lab-meeting!