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When we think of scientists, we often think of the lone researcher plodding away at the bench late into the night. We imagine Alexander Fleming scrutinizing his penicillium molds or Einstein pondering the latest equation he’s written on the chalk board.
We go a step further when training new scientists: we ask them to complete an ‘independent research project.’ We tacitly perpetuate this notion of the solitary scientist, making her own success or failure.
The side effects of this lone-wolf approach to research are painfully manifest: projects that stall on a single experiment, money wasted teaching everyone the same techniques, and students who burn out due to frustration, lack of direction, or just plain loneliness.
In Part 3 of our goal to modernize the PhD process, we propose a radical 180º turn from the independent project.
Let’s turn science into a team sport.
Though ‘group work’ was a dreaded sentence in your undergrad classroom, teams themselves are essential in most modern industries. Can you imagine a manufacturer who expected one person to think up a product, design the machines, assemble the widget, box it up, and launch an ad campaign?
Yet that’s our vision of an ‘independent scientist.’ A scientist needs to identify the important questions in his field of study, design experiments, execute them, publish the results, and score grants from various funding agencies.
If we draw parallels to the lab, a new way of doing academic research arises. We see a cohort of students, postdocs, technicians and PIs who team up to solve the same problem. They map out the figures for a paper, and then divide up the work.
Instead of laboring away alone at the bench, experiments become an intricate dance. An undergrad prepares the media while the PI (who has good ‘luck’) makes the clone. A tech transforms the bacteria, inoculates the flasks, and teaches the undergrad to do a miniprep.
A grad student, who has flawless aseptic technique, is responsible for transfecting the mammalian cells without contamination. She hands off analysis to the postdoc who has had ten years of experience at the microscope and prefers that quiet, methodical work.
They gather at lab meeting to assess the results of their team effort, and to chart a path through the next week.
Experiment by experiment, figure by figure, they divide and conquer the paper and publish faster than their competitors. Everyone works to her strengths. No one is left to flounder when an experiment fails.
In fact, it’s in every person’s interest to help the others. Never again does a student sit stymied by the transfection that just won’t work; the whole lab needs that step to succeed, and everyone pitches in to diagnose the problem and break the bottleneck.
Of course, this system has its pros and cons. While it’s possible to move more quickly from idea to paper, it requires a level of coordination that won’t happen by accident. And PhD programs would require a tweak to graduation criteria. First-author papers would no longer be common, or meaningful, in such a team-based approach.
Tell us what you think – would you be willing to team up with others in your lab? Have you ever worked in a setting where teamwork was the standard? Leave a comment below, or tell us about your experience via email.