It has been officially six months since I have opened my laboratory at the University of Cincinnati. There is no better time than the start of the New Year to write my first scientific blog entry. I think it is safe to say that the beginning of the journey was not
easy. Despite several warnings about the difficulties of starting your own laboratory from others, nothing could have prepared me for this. I remember on a Friday I was still working under my postdoctoral mentor seeking his advice on a number of different projects and then on the following Monday, I suddenly became the mentor. It truly was an out of body experience. I had to fight hard to resist the temptation to run down the hallway and ask for his advice, now I have to trust my decisions. Gone are the days when I can do experiment after experiment on someone else’s dime. Now I have to ask myself do I really need to do this experiment. The fun of science just became the business of science.
My passion has always been to understand how stress impacts our mental and physical health. Being a behavioral neuroscientist afforded me the opportunity to look at the underlying mechanisms by which stress induces pathology. All I ever wanted to do was to spend time in the laboratory and observe behavior. The one thing that I didn't quite grasp was when you leave the role of a postdoctoral fellow and enter the new role of a Principal Investigator, the thing that you love most about science becomes the thing that you have the least amount of time to do. I lived for designing and running experiments. You began with a hypothesis, you tested the hypothesis, and then you determined whether or not the data supported your hypothesis. The crowning glory came in the form of graphs because they are the culmination of your idea from start to finish. No matter how many experiments that I have done, and believe me there are too many to count, there is still such a joy that comes from graphing your data.
Now that I am a Principal Investigator, I have the opportunity to see that joy in the eyes of my trainees. When I walked into my laboratory for the first time, the feeling that came over me was truly indescribable. I do not take this task that has been placed before me lightly. Having your own laboratory is a gift and an honor. I wish that more people shared the same sentiment. As scientists, we have the ability to transform young minds. The quality of our interaction with the people who choose to work with us can either turn them "really on" or "really off" to science. When people enter my laboratory there is a sign above my door that says "Friends and Family Gather Here." I chose that sign and others for my laboratory for a reason, words have power. I believe that my laboratory is my company. With that being said, every company has to have a mission statement. As such, I developed a Laboratory Creed that is placed on the center wall to set the foundation for how the laboratory will run.
Creating a nurturing and positive work environment is everything. I subscribe to the philosophy that great scientists are made, not born. Now certainly there are some individuals who come out of the womb with minds that are deserving of the title "Genius," but those individuals are rare. Being a great scientist comes from hard work and from being exposed to great mentors. Again, there are serendipitous findings all the time, but that is, well... serendepity. If you establish an environment that is conducive for learning, then good ideas will flow and your students will not only learn, but they will want to learn. Many times we focus solely on securing money and building up our name that we fail to establish the foundation of our laboratory. Don't get me wrong, I understand that securing money is critical for our success. After all, if you don't secure funding you can't run your lab. However, we need to care about the culture of our laboratory and the well-being of the people who work with us on a daily basis.
As scientists we are not necessarily trained to work with others, we live in our world of petri dishes and incubators. The canonical view of the mad scientist who lives inside his mind in isolation from the world trying to come up with the next big idea is not sustainable. We must realize that what pushes the field forward is our interaction with others. The others are our mentors, our graduate students and postdocs, and even the undergraduate who enters our laboratory with such eagerness to learn because they have not yet been battered and bruised by the rigors of academic life, which can leave all of us feeling creatively disenfranchised. The point is that as owners of our company, (Principal Investigators) we must spend more time in our laboratory with our people. Yes, we have meetings, grants to write, talks to give, and classes to teach. However, it is important not to forget what made you want to become a scientist in the first place. I have been fortunate to have mentors at every stage of my career who have poured their time and energy into making sure that I get to the next level and I am happy to pay it forward. I am excited to be starting this new chapter in my career and I am even more excited about having the opportunity to share the journey with others.