Thursday, April 5, 2012

PI Notes - Hiring, Virtual Seminars, and Lab Meetings

I'm at home for Easter, which means copious free time, and a limited science network. So here's a soft-science post.

In sports, as in science, you progress from performance to management. Smart, forward-looking players often write journals during their career, noting what their coaches do that's effective (or counterproductive), and gradually develop a model for how they will run things. Since grad school, I've kept a notebook (rather, a Google Doc) with observations of how labs function. Whenever I meet a successful, thoughtful PI, I ask them how they run their lab (two of the most thoughtful are Hillel Chiel and Rick Huganir). None of this is revelatory, but here are some notes:


I've never hired anyone, so like all battle plans, these guidelines will probably change once I actually do hire someone. And, of course, if I had special insight into hiring, I'd be a millionaire business speaker rather than a junior post-doc. One book I'd recommend is, How Would You Move Mount Fuji, which gives a concise overview of hiring generally, and the puzzle interview specifically.

1. The goal of hiring is to avoid bad hires
I  learned this from ... Mount Fuji. Science productivity follows the Pareto principle. If you're a starting PI, you probably can't attract outstanding grad students and post-docs, but you can try to avoid bad hires. And if you hire someone who is unproductive? Firing them is the fastest way to improve efficiency.

2. Hire hackers (or makers)
I've already written two posts that state neuroscience is computer science, so I won't elaborate here. Besides wanting people who can code proficiently, I want people who, in their spare time, can't help but make things (machines, programs, blogs, whatever). Running experiments and analyzing data is straightforward - but you need to set things up first. You can teach people neurobiology, but you can't train people to hack.

3. Actively recruit
Nobody does this, and I don't know why. You're much more likely to get outstanding people if you look for them, rather than hope they find you. The two best opportunities for recruitment are conferences and invited seminars. At conferences, grad students and junior post-docs present posters, which is a perfect opportunity for a five minute, informal interview. You can figure out if the presenter is productive, thinks critically, and has adequate social skill. For invited seminars, the opportunity here is the student lunch, where you can micro-interview a dozen people at once (how to be the PI at a student lunch is another post). As a bonus, if a student stands out, you can easily ask their PI about them later.

4. Recruiting trips
This is my craziest idea, but I love crazy ideas. There are over two billion people in India and China who want to get out, and thousands of them apply to grad schools. Grad schools, however, are unfamiliar with the market, and have a hard time identifying the best applicants. So you, as a PI, spend a few thousand dollars to go to India, and give seminars at various IITs. They would probably be happy to cover room, board, and intra-India travel. But what you're really doing is recruiting: going to lunches with students, interviewing PIs about their students, talking to people about their coworkers. Then you hire the best people you've identified. Two weeks, and a few thousand dollars is a bargain to identify talent. Plus, in between seminars/interviews, you get a cool vacation.

Virtual Seminars

Famous PIs are invited to more seminars than they can schedule. Usually they filter by prestige, so they go to the schools that will appreciate them the least. But this is the 21st century, and we have the internet, so PIs can present virtual seminars to "lesser" schools.

The seminar is the centerpiece of visits, but is usually the same presentation every time. The speaker is often tired from travel during these presentations, reducing quality. So rather than fly a person around the country/world to give the same presentation, I suggest PIs simply record their presentation once (or annually). This would let the presenter polish their talk, and record it when they're well rested, in a familiar environment. Then when the PI receives a seminar invitation from a remote place like Johannesburg, they could send the video, and then make themselves available for questions via Skype afterwards.

This misses some of the ancillary benefits of university visits - meeting other PIs, talking to students - but keeps the core. PIs with bad presentation skills might want to avoid this. Since the presentation is the product, you would want to avoid already published results that could just as easily be read, and highlight the most recent, unpublished findings.

Some places do this in a roundabout way, recording invited seminars and posting them on the web. The Broad Foundation sponsored a series of seminars at Duke, many of which are online. The speakers include Tonegawa, Koch, MacKinnon and Deisseroth.

Services like Khan Academy and Udacity may revolutionize teaching via video, I don't see why academia can't follow.

Lab Meetings

Lab meetings are easy to screw up. The PI, who (hopefully) knows the field best, can dominate the discussion. Presenters can mail in their presentations. Non-presenting members can come to lab meeting unprepared, or otherwise not contribute due to shyness or lack of seniority. And lab meetings can last forever. Given that, here are my keys to a good lab meeting.

1. Call on people
Participation has two goals. First, it keeps people engaged in the meeting, and hopefully the lab. Second, given that everyone in the lab is sharp and diligent enough to contribute, I, as a PI ,want to hear their opinions.

It may seem school-marmy, but one way to encourage participation is to simply ask people by name what they think. If people know they might be publicly called on, they may preempt it by participating. Second, many junior people, and non-Americans, aren't comfortable speaking up, but often have something to say.

2. Record them
In science, people are judged by their writing, speaking, and experimenting, and I cannot abide presentations with poor fundamentals (too much text, unclear aims, etc.). Lab meeting is a perfect place to hone presentation skills in a low pressure situation. After every lab meeting, I would take five minutes to review presenters' slide stacks. For each member, once a year, I suggest recording lab meeting on video, and rewatching it. If I knew I would have to go through the excruciating experience of watching myself for 30-60 min with my PI, I would certainly want to put some work into it.

3. Take notes
You gather together ten people. You present your data. People ask, "Did you think of this or that?" No, you haven't. You (and your PI) don't write anything down, and have just wasted ten hours of time (a mythical man-day!).

The presenter should be taking notes about potential experiments, controls, discussion points. That's their remuneration for their presentation. The PI does not necessarily need to take notes, depending on whether they have private meetings with the presenter. But lab meetings provide a great opportunity for anyone, as a proto-PI, to practice project management. Whenever someone else in my lab presents, I take notes, and compare them to the notes I had for their previous presentation. This lets me ask more probing questions, about followups to previous experiments, or about the general direction of the project.

4. Journal clubs
In the worst journal clubs, no one has read the article, and no one participates. My simple solution to this is to ditch the powerpoint format for journal clubs. Everyone prints out the article for themselves. You wouldn't even need a "presenter," someone could just pick the paper, then the lab as a group could go through it. If someone was not engaged, it would be obvious.

5. Technician attendance is optional
Technicians are often obligated to attend lab meeting, but often don't contribute. While seeing data presentations may help them understand what's going on in the lab, that ain't necessarily so. If they're not getting something out of lab meeting, let them do something productive.

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