The big picture lab meeting: ethics, careers, publishing & other questions

elephant in the lab

About once each year or two, I try to schedule what I call a “big picture” lab meeting where my lab and I discuss major issues related to being a scientist. Also, I try to answer their questions about just about anything. In my lab we rotate between various lab meeting formats and also have a journal club, but it’s worth taking up one slot for this big picture meeting where we just talk.elephant in the lab

At the big picture lab meeting, we some times end up going over tough issues and dilemmas that scientists might face in everyday life in the lab. Such topics can include various issues related to publishing (including authorship), grant writing, or just about anything. Often times bioethical topics come up as well. Lab meetings in general can be stressful for trainees (see this survival guide to lab meetings from Abcam), but this big picture lab meeting, despite sometimes addressing tough issues, interestingly seems more relaxed. Being a scientist can be complicated and there are many tough issues that in theory can arise (I’ve tacked some here in my Elephant in the Lab series, trying to put a humorous spin on things as well.)

I also make it clear to them that they can ask questions on whatever is on their mind as scientists at this meeting and I’ll do my best to answer honestly. Although I hope my trainees can ask me such questions any time on any given day “on the fly” and they sometimes do of course, this lab meeting is a unique chance for an open discussion in a safe kind of way about tough issues. Because it is a meeting dedicated just to that, I’ve found as a mentor that more and different questions come up than do spontaneously everyday in the lab or my office.

Over the years this “big picture” lab meeting consistently has been a positive experience.

I’ve been very fortunate to have had great mentors in my career (see this post from 6+ years ago on some of my mentors), with some being more formal mentor-mentee situations and others more ad hoc. There were times in the past that I wished as a trainee that I could feel more comfortable talking with an official mentor about a tough issue and that feeling was in part what motivated me to have this “big picture” lab meeting in my own lab. It’s also interesting for me as the PI to watch as the mentees sometimes answer each other’s questions too or provide useful feedback to each other.

I still seek out mentors even today even though I am a tenured, full professor, and I’m really glad I do. It takes a certain amount of humbleness to realize you can still learn a lot from others and sometimes you need help with dilemmas or other issues. I can frankly say that every step along the way in my career, at least one person was a key mentor for me and made a significant, positive difference. Turning things around, I try to be the best mentor I can be and pay attention when someone might be reaching out or has questions.

If you are a scientist, how do you deal with tough issues and how has that evolved over your career if you’ve been around a while? Do you feel comfortable talking to your mentors about dilemmas? How does your mentor deal with this kind of stuff if you are a trainee?

Are you consciously trying to be a good mentor too yourself for others?

3 Comments


  1. I had a PhD advisor who assumed that I, being a woman, was just in the PhD program so I could get a Masters and, I don’t know, marry a real (male) scientist. I was too excited by my work to notice. I did have a savior- the head of my thesis committee, but the only people I could call on for later recommendations and advice were the postdocs or graduate students I knew from graduate school.

    Knowing what I missed, my goal now is to be the very best mentor I can be to my students, postdocs, and interns. No one should have to go through what I did.

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