So you want to start a lab?

Many scientists pursue novel and exciting ideas in their research, but what does it take to lead a research group?
01 May 2021
By Karen Thomas
Researcher in lab

The first step for those hoping to lead a group's investigative efforts is to find an institution, often a university, that believes in their ideas and ability to lead. An aspiring researcher should be on the lookout for faculty openings that are good fit for their research, and negotiate with the university for start-up funds that support graduate students, perhaps a post-doc, equipment, materials—and perhaps most importantly—a dedicated lab space.

Acquire funding

Most labs start with the F word—funding. Brian Pogue, MacLean Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth, says that the process of starting a group "is a bootstrapping exercise." You have to start with an idea, but someone needs to show you the money. "The research ideas of the principal investigator (PI) are critical: it is their plans for research, discovery, and invention that drive the agenda and the attractiveness of it to attain further funding," he says. In other words, research ideas expand current knowledge, but research funding is needed to expand those ideas and generate new ones.

Kristen Maitland, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Texas A&M University, notes that writing proposals for funding to support the people and materials necessary to fuel your research program is a "critical and continual pursuit."

Those sources of funding are myriad, including federal and state agencies, nonprofit organizations, and companies, all with different application processes, award expectations, and funding amounts.

Collaborations with others can also help to expand a new PI's research portfolio. "Even if you have the greatest idea, funding agencies and reviewers want to know that you are the best person to achieve the objectives of the project," says Maitland.

Sam Mabbott, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Texas A&M University, notes that he was "pretty green" when it came to funding, so he met with mentors to develop a funding strategy, reviewed successful funding proposals of colleagues, and attended university-run seminars dedicated to helping faculty acquire funds. "I also worked with the Grant Writers' Seminars & Workshops who are experts in grant preparation," says Mabbott.

"The best advice I received was to breakdown the different types of equipment I wanted into categories based on daily versus monthly usage—that allowed me to prioritize equipment spending," he adds. "Often, suppliers will offer a discount to new PIs, so it's worth shopping around to find out the best price. Don't be afraid to haggle—I approached many vendors in the same way that I did when purchasing my car."

Building a team

Along with a research plan and funding, you need the right people to put that plan into action. A good place to start is your network of colleagues, those you can trust to make good recommendations for potential team members.

"There is no singular activity that is more important than selecting the right people, because it is the motivations, successes, and ideas of those people that drive the success of the collective group," says Pogue. "Every startup company knows this: the high-tech world has made selection of the right people into a science."

Managing a research group is much the same as running a small business, adds Pogue, and group members must have the desire to proactively learn on a continual basis. Successful scientists must be intrinsically motivated and have an innate desire to work on the problem. "This is a very delicate balance—the only way that it can work is if exceptionally good ideas are at the core, and exceptionally good people are hired as students, postdocs, and laboratory support."

Mabbott advocates recruiting new team members at conferences. He meets most prospective students at poster sessions, a setting that gives context to their current focus and future aspirations. "Ultimately, I want to know that the candidate is the right person for my lab," he says. "At the same time, I want to ensure that I'm the right person to help guide their development."

"While drawing from the recommendations of colleagues and meeting prospective students at conferences are possible avenues for talent recruitment, it does not stop here for me. There are many other factors that play into my selection process," says Muyinatu Bell, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Johns Hopkins University and director of the Photoacoustic and Ultrasonic Systems Engineering (PULSE) Lab. "Additional factors include a student's interests, passion, academic records, and evaluation letters, as well as the kind of inquiries students make when interviewing me as I interview them."

There are multiple responsibilities for the PI, including administrative tasks. For Bell, this is coupled with the responsibilities associated with being a tenure-track professor, which include teaching, mentoring, and service to the professional community and university. "Ultimately, I cannot do everything I desire," she says.

Making it work

Now that you have the idea, the people, the money, and the space, you need to make it all work. One plan is to have more than one plan.

"The best situation is to have two or three focused areas of investigation so there is room for one or more of them to not work out," says Pogue. Research is often an educated guess or a bet on which directions will work, because sometimes they don't. Research should always have a slight migration to it, Pogue adds, and the PI must be willing to adapt, explore, and always look for the most impactful and successful angles.

Bell notes the need to leave room for growth on the team, as well as the importance of blending her own ideas with her students' interests. About starting a new lab, she says, "There is no ‘one size fits all.'"

Successful groups strike a balance between discovery and translation of their work. Discovery and invention drive science, but translation to the clinic or application, and impact on society, are what illustrate the value of a discovery. Successful research groups have a healthy dose of both of these.

Pogue understands that the key to a successful research group is completion of research studies that lead to publications that show the research is new and innovative. "It is the ideas and the excitement around us that drives the potential for a research expansion," he says, "and if the ideas are not exciting, then the group will not grow.

Karen Thomas is the Bandwidth section editor for Photonics Focus.

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