How to run a successful lab meeting?

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By Andrew Brown

I’ve been to more than my fair share of lab meetings, and I’m still asking this question.  Laura recently surveyed our current members and I’ll pepper this piece with some of their insightful responses.

Why? The first two labs I was in didn’t have lab meetings at all and were all the poorer for it.  Lab meetings are a great opportunity to come together, share information, learn what everybody’s doing and what research is all about, solicit feedback, and hopefully even to bond as a group.

When? I’ve attended lab meetings on various days (Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays).  I’ve even heard of some diehard labs having Saturday meetings, but dare I say “work-life balance”? 

We’ve settled for Monday 10 am for our weekly lab meetings.  It’s not a bad way to start the week, before people get too busy with their experiments.

“Our lab meetings go reallllllyyyyyyyy longggggg” Anon

Ideally, lab meetings should probably go for an hour or 90 minutes max. If you need a toilet break, it’s probably too long. Ours were routinely going for ~2 h, but we are now trying to reign them in, by having a timer which goes off after 1 h and again at 90 minutes to wrap things up.

Let them eat cake.  I’ve attended lab meetings without any food, and others where the food is so lavish that every week feels like a party, even with alcohol thrown in for good measure.  But that doesn’t seem like such a good idea for a 10 am Monday start.  And “Lab Party” came with its own problems, with people rostered on feeling pressure to outdo others.  We’ve settled for occasional cake or biscuits, which is less pressure all around and seems to work, at least for me… a little like intermittent reinforcement.

What do we talk about?  We mix up the format/content of our lab meetings depending on what’s happening.  So we might get an Honours student to present their practice thesis a couple of weeks before it’s due. Or a PhD student might practice a presentation for an upcoming conference, or give a conference wrap up when they return.  We might present a grant application about to be submitted, or the comments we receive (kind and brutal comments alike), and our attempted rebuttal. We might review a recent journal article in our field, learning from others while sharpening our critical skills, and realising that there’s no such thing as a perfect piece of research.

We’re still experimenting with formats.  Isabelle suggested a “Pie-in-the-Sky” session where people proposed the experiment that they would most like to do, regardless of resources.  And out of this, came a few fantastic ideas, a couple of which we’re now actively pursuing. We’ve previously had a Career Advice session which was popular, and are due for another one soon.

However, our most common format for lab meetings is presenting manuscripts at different stages of preparation.  At one time, these were always highly polished pieces, just about to be submitted.  But I realised that this gives students a distorted impression of research, because it conceals how much work and decisions have gone into getting the manuscript to that advanced stage.  So now we present more work-in-progress, warts and all.  From Laura’s recent survey, this turns out to be the most popular format.

The least popular format from the survey was what we call a Roundtable, meaning that everyone has a couple of slides of very recent work they present in turn.  I’m not quite sure why the Roundtable is less well liked, but maybe it’s because some feel it can be more competitive than collegial. 

We also have a weekly lab report (each lab member emails me a summary of their week’s work) which serves a similar purpose as does our Around-The-Table, which is how we end each meeting.   Though, this is different from the Roundtable in that it’s prospective, with everybody briefly listing what they plan to do in the coming week.  This exercise helps to keep everyone informed. 

We combine this with a “Practicalities” callout, where we discuss all the things that can stymy productivity: reagents running out, overflowing waste traps, equipment malfunctions, and how to better organise ourselves to enhance the smooth operation of the lab.

Let the people speak. As lab head, I do a lot of the talking, which may not always be conducive to encouraging the quieter members of the group to contribute.

“Everyone should talk more (except Andrew…) Anon

So how do you encourage more contributions from everyone in the lab?   I must admit that this is still a work-in-progress for us.  Of course, you can ask questions, but even then members may be reticent to give more than a monosyllabic response.  One of our best teachers swears by the “7 Seconds Rule”.  To encourage student participation in small groups, you count 7 seconds before you speak again, giving others the opportunity to fill the silence.

Certainly, when newbies join the group I try to warn them not to worry if they don’t understand much of what’s being said.  It will come in time.  With newbies, we do try to make an extra effort to explain things more, but then we probably revert far too quickly to arcane ‘Labspeak’.

Speaking of which, I feel like I’ve been doing all the talking… What do other people think?

1 Mississippi 2 Mississippi 3 Mississippi 4 Mississippi 5 Mississippi …

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