When I started my research group, I realized that I had to have lab meetings and that there were many approaches to these gatherings.
One of the first things to arrange is the schedule. Will lab meetings occur every week at the same day, time, and location? Having some regularity to lab meetings can help ensure that people organize their experiments to make sure they can attend. I like holding lab meeting almost every Monday in the early afternoon. This gives people time to plan out the rest of their week based on feedback given at lab meeting.
Besides scheduling, another key aspect of lab meetings is making sure everyone focuses during these assemblies. When I was a postdoc, I was horrified during one lab meeting when I looked around and saw that except for the presenter, everyone was on their cell phone (including the principal investigator [PI]!) This led me to implement what I refer to as the Bowl of Focus:
The Bowl is really a wooden salad bowl filled with stuffed plushies (currently a leukocyte, C57BL/6 mouse, E. coli cell) and Ken (from Ken and Barbie). All lab members, especially me, place their cell phones in the Bowl so that we can give our full attention to lab meeting. The plushies help cushion cell phones and prevent damage as they get tossed into the bowl. Since implementing the Bowl, attention during lab meetings has improved greatly.
The format of lab meeting is an important consideration. I like to start lab meeting with a discussion of any administrative issues (lab supply/equipment needs or problems), announcements of upcoming seminars, and public recognition of lab member accomplishments, such as awards and abstract or paper acceptances. Recently I’ve also begun to announce grant and paper rejections. I think it is important for trainees to understand that although failure is a normal part of science, moral support, perseverance, and feedback from colleagues eventually leads to success.
During training I attended lab meetings organized in very different ways. Some PIs I trained under had informal “round table” discussions, where each lab member would update the group regarding their research projects. Most of these discussions did not include Powerpoint presentations, and rarely featured handouts of data. I think this format works for small labs that have few or no members who are expected to formally present their work at regional/(inter)national conferences. Round table discussions are great for keeping all lab members updated regularly about each other’s work, and they provide opportunities to receive more frequent feedback. With larger groups, and more opinionated lab members, facilitating the discussion requires a little artistry on the part of PI. One doesn’t want lab meeting to get bogged down by focusing on less important details, nor does one want it to degenerate into heated arguments.
I like combining informal round table discussions with a more formal slide presentation by one lab member. These presentations, which rotate through lab members, are an opportunity to receive more in-depth input regarding experiments and data, and also ensure that trainees have opportunities to practice giving talks.
I try to invite guest speakers to the lab anytime a collaborator or scientist working on an interesting area is in town. I think it’s important for lab members to have opportunities to interact with “outside” scientists who have a fresh perspective. This is especially vital for research groups that are small and may not otherwise interact much with other labs.
Some labs integrate a journal club into their meetings, whereas others run journal club at times separate from other gatherings. The traditional journal club format for basic science labs is for one lab member to present a single paper and the group discusses it. This is great for drilling down into details and the nitty gritty of the data, but I would suggest also being open to discussing two or more papers. Some of the best journal clubs I attended as a trainee involved discussion of two papers with opposing views. I have automatic PubMed email notifications when new papers with keywords of interest are published, and I often forward potential papers of interest to lab members so they can consider presenting them at journal club. My lab members choose their own publications to present, but I do ask them to run the proposed papers by me first.
Journal clubs, and lab meetings for that matter, can be run jointly between two or more labs. I think this is a great approach to fostering cross-pollination across groups with mutual interests, but the organization of such gatherings can become more challenging. However you decide to run your lab meetings, keep in mind that they should bolster lab morale, inspire collaboration, and spark new ideas.
Michael Hsieh is the Stirewalt Scientific Director of the Biomedical Research Institute and an Associate Professor at the George Washington University, where he studies host-pathogen interactions in the urinary tract. Michael has published over 90 peer-reviewed scientific papers. His work has been featured on PBS and in the New York Times. ORCID.
You may also be interested in reading this other article by Dr. Hsieh: