Respect in the lab

By Ngee Kiat (Jake) Chua

Laboratories are full of scientists who do research on the bench, and at times in front of the computer. They are composed of PhD students and staff like research assistants, post-docs and lab managers. Ideally, working in a lab is like living with other housemates or with other family members. A lab is a well-oiled machine if it operates like a functional household.

If labs are like happy households, who are the main characters?

Parents in households are like lab heads. They set the tone for the laboratory. What are the possible outcomes? You may get stares of awe or glares of an eagle-eyed neighbour, depending on the quality of leadership. Do you really want to be that messy and loud neighbour in a workplace? Siblings is a tough one, they argue and fight, yet they ultimately respect each other. Likewise, laboratory members need to be respectful and mindful of others around them. In a lab, you might have senior post-docs or young PhD students, in which case ranks are a bit like the several age groups or distant relatives in a family. The older sibling may be a great example for the younger one making sure they do not go astray. As an international student, I’m often the “black sheep” of the lab household. I’ve had to adapt, pick up new perspectives and try to fit in. The black sheep often easily feels like an outsider but this diversity is important, because it can bring a different and sometimes eye-opening perspective to the household.

What do laboratory members have to do in their house?

Number one: Chores are shared

Not everyone has a nanny, so do your part. Lab members need to remember to restock that item that is running low or take out the trash, not wait on others. Unfortunately, and fortunately, many laboratories still run on lab fairies who do unnoticed good deeds.

Number two: Respect for one another

Remember to be inclusive and respect others. Ganging up, bullying or secluding others in a household is not good behaviour. In every laboratory event, be inclusive. Ask and invite opinions in an open manner without assuming or making anyone feel dumb. Remember, no one should have to feel excluded or forced to do something they are uncomfortable with. This is a particular problem for many social events in academia, including breach of personal space and disrespectful aggression under the pretence of it being just for laughs and fun. Also, siblings do not have to know everything about each other, some information is not meant to be divulged.

Number three: Nurturing the young

In many good households, the head of the household strives to educate their children and want the best for their future. Lab heads themselves need to be trained on how to best develop the careers of their lab members.  – Lab members will also need to be independent and learn to pick up good quality traits and research skills. Most importantly, lab heads secure funding and grants, like how heads of households fend for their families.

A lab is not a family because it is a team

Last but not least, no matter much you enjoy your life in the lab. There is a life outside the lab.  There needs to be boundaries just like households. Rules and guidelines exist for a reason in the workplace, with some labs even drafting up a handbook for their team. There is also the teamwork aspect of research labs, as they are working very independently yet have a common goal to fulfil the lab goals. And remember, lab heads are not your parents. While they can overlap in some characteristics, they are certainly not there to nag you to clean up your mess or be there for every failure.

About the author:

I am a post-doctoral researcher at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research located in Melbourne, Australia. My research focuses on identifying new druggable targets for treating diseases driven by inflammation. Blogging is an extension of my enthusiasm for the world of communication and career development in science, which are not taught at the research bench.

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