Starting Your Own Lab

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In this episode of Expert Insights for the Research Training Community, Dr. Prachee Avasthi, an associate professor from Dartmouth College, and Dr. Olivia Rissland, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, reveal strategies for searching for a faculty position, best practices for getting a research program up and running, and the joys and challenges of managing a lab. You’ll also hear them discuss applying for funding as an early career investigator.

The original recording of this episode took place as a webinar on June 18, 2020, with NIGMS host and director Dr. Jon Lorsch. A Q&A session with webinar attendees followed Dr. Avasthi and Dr. Rissland’s talk.

Recorded on June 18, 2020

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Podcast Transcript: Starting Your Own Lab


Welcome to Expert Insights for the Research Training Community—A podcast from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Adapted from our webinar series, this is where the biomedical research community can connect with fellow scientists to gain valuable insights.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

I’m Jon Lorsch, Director of NIGMS. I’m extremely happy to have all of you joining us for this webinar. This is our second series of these webinars that are targeted mainly at trainees but for anyone in the biomedical research or other communities interested in the topics.

We’re very pleased today to have Olivia Rissland and Prachee Avasthi talking to us about starting up your own lab as an early career investigator.

I wanted to address a couple of things just up front, off the bat, before we get started

with Olivia and Prachee. The first is we certainly recognize that starting your own lab is always something that is a challenging endeavor—hopefully also an exciting endeavor—but in these uncertain times where we have COVID-19 going on, we have difficulties with anti-black racism and racism in general, and many other challenges—the economy that’s suffering due to the COVID-19 crisis—we recognize that the academic job market may be more than a little unstable at the moment and for the next little while.

So we’ll try to address that during the course of this discussion, but I think, do recognize that NIH and certainly the academic community are acutely aware of this problem, and from NIGMS’s point of view, in the post-COVID recovery period, one of our primary focuses is going to be on postdocs and trying to help them weather the storm and bridge the gap to getting their next positions, whatever those may be.

So things like extensions of F32s and K99s will be considered. Right now, if you were thinking about applying for a K99 or you’re an early-stage investigator getting ready to apply for your first grant, eligibility can be extended for those things, ESI eligibility, K99 eligibility. Just ask. Talk to your program director and you can request that.

I also want to address up front the anguish and outrage that much of the country feels related to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor—and many, many others over the decades and the centuries really, and the long history of anti-black racism in this country. It’s something that we wrote about. I posted a post on the Feedback Loop last week. I would encourage all of you to go look at that if you haven’t already. It has some resources that you can look at—particularly those of us in the majority and/or in positions of power/authority to move forward positive change in real ways in the coming weeks, months, and years.

We also have a new program I want to make all of you aware of called “MOSAIC,” which is a program designed to help bridge the gap from the postdoc years into the early career investigator years with a really targeted focus on improving the diversity of the faculty within research-intensive institutions. So there’s a K99/R00 phase and then there also will be grants given to professional societies to help provide skills building and career mentoring for the K99 and R00 fellows. So look at that yourself, spread the word: MOSAIC. We should be giving the first awards in that soon and continuing the program and hopefully growing it.

Then, without any further ado, I would like to not introduce our two panelists—Olivia Rissland and Prachee Avasthi. They are going to introduce themselves as part of what they’re going to tell you about.

So take it away. I think we’re going to hear from Prachee first, right?

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

Thank you so much, Jon. I really appreciate this opportunity, and I’m really glad that all of you are here with us today.

My name is Prachee Avasthi. I’m a cell biologist. I’m about two weeks from officially being an associate professor, and I’m moving my lab this summer from University of Kansas to Dartmouth. And my lab studies how regulation of both microtubule and actin cytoskeleton controls assembly of this sensory organelle called the cilium.

But when I’m not nerding out about the cytoskeleton, I’m involved in a lot of different initiatives that tackle what I think can be improved for me and others in science. So I’m on the board of directors of the preprint advocacy organization ASAPbio, the board of directors of the open-access journal eLife, and the steering committee of Rescuing Biomedical Research, which is concerned with the overall sustainability of the biomedical research enterprise.

I also started a peer networking community called New PI Slack, which I’ll describe briefly in a moment and is very pertinent to our discussion here. So I just wanted to start off with just a few initial remarks before I kick it to Olivia.

I want to start off by saying there are probably about as many ways to run a lab as there are people doing it. The best thing about this job, in my opinion, is that you get to choose. You can cherry-pick the best lessons from your previous mentors or rebel against them. You will get a ton of advice. But you get to decide what kind of scientist, mentor, and leader you want to be. And through this discussion I will argue for bringing your unique talents to your science and your practice of it.

And it’s not just people like Jon that are in a position to set the course. Each and every one of us has the power, and I would argue the responsibility, to, with our individual decisions, to sort of improve our corner of science. So it’s your job to find your voice, find your scientific voice, how you want to do science, how you interact with others in science.

There’s always going to be an army telling you to follow the rules until you’re safe or that you have permission to abandon your principles or your vision because you’re vulnerable or inexperienced. And I would say that the spoiler is that we’re always learning and that the day may never come that you really feel truly safe, and so while you’re always going to be taking a risk whenever you deviate from the status quo, it is your individual strengths for which you will be hired and rewarded so I encourage you not to dilute those things.

So in that vein, I will just plug something that I mentioned earlier that takes advantage of the individual strengths of PIs and uses it to collectively help the group, which is New PI Slack. It’s an online network now consisting of more than 2,000 PIs from almost every continent. So I started this network in 2016, when I realized that everyone starting a lab had faced the same challenges, and we didn’t need to exhaust ourselves reinventing the wheel for every mundane decision, but we could also use the ingenuity of each person to spark better ways of doing things.

So my first advice is to join that group as you start your lab so you don’t have an N of one or two from your senior mentors, but you can benefit from the thousands of peers in addition to the best advice from their own senior mentors. So you can ultimately use the wealth of that information and pertinent experience to make the best individual decision for you.

You can probably take all sort of highly specific advice with a heavy grain of salt, but what I’m advocating for more generally is to find your own voice in science, both to advance your career and bring your unique strengths to the table. So I think I’ll leave it there and hand it over to Olivia.

Dr. Olivia Rissland:

Great. I just want to start by thanking Jon for the invitation to take part in this and thanking you all for joining us. I’m really excited for this conversation, partly because I’m really excited to hear more about what Prachee thinks because she’s really been a source of inspiration for me since I first came across her on Twitter in 2016.

So a little bit about me. I am an assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. My lab studies RNA, and specifically what happens to RNA in the cytoplasm. So we really want to understand how messenger RNA is degraded, how translation is controlled, and really how those two processes talk to each other. And I have to say that understanding post-transcriptional regulation has really been a love affair for me that started when I was a first-year graduate student. So I can also talk about RNA for a very, very long time, but I will hold off, briefly at least, on that topic.

I also want to tell you a little bit about my academic history, just so you all understand where I’m coming from and also maybe appreciate that there is no trajectory that you have to take. I grew up in the Boston area. I went to Brown for undergrad, and then I went over to the UK for graduate school. And I have to say even there that I really didn’t know what I was getting into if I’m being fully honest, and so I think I sort of made it through that system by quite a lot of dumb luck.

I then started my postdoc at the Whitehead with Dave Bartel, where I worked on microRNA. Then I started my lab at the Hospital for Sick Children, University of Toronto, up in Toronto, Canada. And then I moved three years after starting my lab to the University of Colorado. And I bring this up because I think one aspect that I did not appreciate is when you start your lab is that you can move.

If things aren’t the way you want, or there’s a better opportunity, you don’t have to stay at that first faculty position forever. And I wanted to mention this now because I think I had a real misconception when I started my lab about how frequent this was. And one thing I’ve learned from the New PI Slack community is that people move a lot and that’s fine.

The other thing I want to say in this introduction is that there are challenges for running a lab. Running a lab is not easy. It’s hard writing grants. It’s a challenge managing people. There are a lot of things that you’re learning on the fly—especially right now during COVID-19.

But I also think it’s a pretty amazing job. Essentially, every day I get paid to think about science, and to be curious, and to read papers, and to figure out how we’re going to discover something. And that is amazing. That feels amazing to me.

And I just hope for all of you that as you move forward in your careers you can hold on to that excitement. Because if you can stay close to the science, if you can still feel your curiosity, feel that excitement of discovery, I think that makes a lot of the other bits of it a lot more palatable. Because you get this huge reward of what we all love about science, which is discovering something that no one has seen before.

And you now don’t just get to have that for yourself, but you also get to see your trainees also experience that. And that is hugely rewarding, and to be honest, I just think this is an amazing job. So I will stop gushing there. I think we can start with the questions at this point.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Awesome. Thanks so much to both of you. What advice do you have for people who are just starting out in their searches for an independent faculty. So let’s even go before you’ve got your job. There are a lot of postdocs, grad students. What advice will you give them about searching for a faculty position? Let’s start with Prachee and then go to Olivia.

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

Sure. Obviously, we want to take current events into account and just acknowledge what Jon said at the top of this session, that obviously people are concerned about the academic job market, and I completely understand that.

And one thing that my feeling generally has been is that we don’t really take into account the full spectrum of academic jobs. We are familiar with our little corner of science, and even when we tell trainees when they’re trying to decide on their career path to do sort of informational interviews to decide on different career paths, I think the same thing should apply to looking at different types of academic jobs, at different types of institutions, in geographically diverse places—whether it’s a medical school or an undergraduate institution, or whatever it may be—to really understand what all those different jobs are and how the balance between research and teaching and all of those things are at all of those places.

So I really encourage people to do a little bit more digging to really understand what all of those different types of academic jobs are, and that will allow you to both broaden your horizons but also narrow your focus into things that you are actually more interested in. So it lets you refocus your targets for where you will apply.

And then I think people have a lot of different methods of going about this, but I think once you have that broadening and then narrowing, you can cast a wide net and keep in mind that you are looking for that place that’s a right fit. And I will say that I have been wrong at every point in my career of where I thought that right fit would be, just ahead of time when you go on interviews.

Whether it’s for postdoc interviews or faculty interviews, you have this conception in your mind of what you think is going to be the right place for you, and then you actually go there. And then there are places that completely win you over and places that you think, oh no, this is really not for me.

And often we don’t know…we’re not in the heads of the search committee members necessarily, so we don’t know what it is that they’re necessarily looking for. And I have often found that the places that I just applied on a whim, you go there, and interview and you think, oh, I am a really good fit for this position based on what they’re looking for. But you would have never have known that from the job ad. So I think that not overly restricting yourself in that way is always useful.

So I think that’s my two cents is to really attack the initial problem in a systematic way by doing informational interviews and learning about different types of academic jobs, so you know what you want, and then casting a wide net.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Great. Olivia, what do you think?

Dr. Olivia Rissland:

I think I agree completely with everything that Prachee just said, and I would maybe add a couple other points, more specifically. The first thing to think about in any job transition—any transition—you really have to look within yourself first and really understand the things that make you tick, things that you need in an environment, things that you don’t need in an environment.

Because at the end of the day, you are the one who is going to be living with your decision, and if you have not been honest with yourself up front, if you have taken the shoulds of everyone else and used those to guide your decision, those people aren’t going to be living in your life, you are. And I think that can be a challenge sometimes to really be fully honest with yourself.

And I think this is really important, because if you know what you need, then you know how to evaluate a place that you’re going to. And at the end of the day, you don’t just want any job; you want a job where you’re going to thrive. And that you are going to find by being honest at the outset.

The other thing that I would say is that I think sometimes, building off of what Prachee said, we read job advertisements and we think, no, I’m not a good enough fit. I don’t have enough publications to apply to that department. I’m not whatever, whatever, whatever, and you opt yourself out of these opportunities. And I’ll be fully honest; I did this when I went on my job search the first time.

There were departments and searches where I was like, oh, I don’t have enough papers. I can’t apply to that—and I didn’t apply. And now looking back I’m like, Why didn’t I apply? What’s the worst that would have happened? I wouldn’t have been invited for another interview. That’s fine. So if something looks appealing to you, just apply, and let someone else say no or say that you’re not the right fit.

The final thing, this again is touching on the scenario that we’re in right now is COVID-19 is hard because there is a lot of information that you’re not going to be able to get now. And this decision, part of the stress of it comes from the fact that we have incomplete information, and the information that we do have is not entirely predictive of what life is eventually going to be.

But I would say that how search committees, how potential colleagues are dealing with the situation, the types of ways that they’re reaching out, the types of ways that they are treating those interviews, that’s all information that you should be taking into account. Departments, I really firmly believe, are showing through their true selves right now what it’s really going to be like to be a member of that department going forward. And that is important information that you should use, because at the end of the day it’s not just that you want a job; you want a job that you’re really excited about.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Yeah, that’s great. I think a great theme is remember the people giving you advice aren’t going to be living your life. That’s a really good point. So we’ve got tons of questions, so let’s get to some more of them.

So now you’ve got your job. We have a number of questions from people who say they are going to be starting their lab within the next six months. What advice do you have for them in terms of preparing, just in general, to start your lab when you’re not yet there? And then, more specifically to the point about COVID-19, in this particular environment. So perhaps we can address those things. Olivia, you want to start this time and then we’ll go to Prachee?

Dr. Olivia Rissland:

Sounds great. I think one thing that is important to remember, and I think all new PIs when they start, you feel this pressure to get things going as quickly as possible. You sort of feel like, I’ve got tenure coming up in X years. I’ve got to apply for my first grant. I’ve got to keep up with the field. I have these competitors.

And you are coming out of this scenario where you were really productive as a postdoc and there’s this pressure to get something on the board. And certainly I felt this my first year. For me at least, when I started, I felt like every single setback was this huge blow that was going to ruin my career.

Oh, I can’t get my TC incubators for a month? That’s a month! But at the end of the day, it’s only a month, and science works over longer time scales, and the time scales for success in running a lab are also longer. So I think my first piece of advice would be to just be kind to yourself right now.

It’s OK. It’s going to take a while. That’s part of it. And everyone who starts their lab, and everyone who’s starting their lab especially right now is going to face that. So I think the first thing I would say is just kind of breathe a little bit and take the time you need to get your feet underneath you.

I think there are some real practical challenges, right, like how do you hire people so that you can start doing experiments if there’s a hiring freeze at your university? How can you even start ordering things if perhaps you need lab renovations? To be honest, those are really tough things to deal with, and there’s no easy solution that Prachee, Jon, or I can give you that are going to solve them. I think my suggestion would be to focus on what you can do. Focus on the things that you can do right now and just move those things forward. And sort of trust the fact that the rest of it will eventually catch up.

So maybe you can’t officially hire people, but you could start interviewing people. Or maybe you can think about, do I need to become a member of a graduate program to be able to get graduate students? How does that process work? Are there things that I want to learn about to help me be able to hire somebody or to be able to go in this new direction? Essentially, do what you can do now, and I think just try to be…try to understand that this is a really difficult time, and it will be OK.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Great. Prachee.

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

I agree with everything Olivia said. There is no time at which your first year will feel like it is going fast enough for you. I guarantee it. It will be frustrating, and nothing will move as fast as you want it to. And you probably won’t even know how to make it go faster because you’re just learning how administration works and learning even who you need to talk to. You’re probably in a totally new institution, and you don’t even know who to talk to, to get something done.

Everything feels like it’s 10 steps just to get to the thing you want to do. So it will be frustrating, and it will be slow, and that’s why one of the things…Someone had asked on Twitter about how are we going to navigate starting a lab during COVID-19, and the point that I wanted to make was that in many ways, yes, there are challenges that you may not be able to get into the lab and may not be able to do certain things, but that is often the case anyway.

You sometimes don’t have access to your lab space. You sometimes have that piece of equipment that’s on backorder for six months all of a sudden that you were not planning on that in your schedule. So these sorts of setback are very, very common, so even though COVID-19 is new to all of us and new to everyone, it is…these types of unexpected delays are not uncommon in the first year.

So I agree with Olivia that you can move forward on these different things. One thing I would say is—it’s going to sound like a broken record, but I do think one of the benefits of New PI Slack is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel for everything. So you can get things like lists of interview questions from dozens of people all within minutes.

So there are certain things that you just don’t need to spend a lot of time doing, and that allows you to focus your time on things you do need to spend your time doing. And so that’s one thing.

Another thing that my former program officer actually suggested: reach out to your program officer at NIH, someone you think is aligned with your research interests, and you can get feedback on some of your ideas or float some specific aims pages to see if it’s a right fit for their portfolio.

So these are things that you can do. Reaching out to people is always something that you can do, whether it’s reaching out to people at your institution to understand how these administrative structures work. Reaching out to your program officers, reaching out to prospective candidates for different positions you have openings for, advertising those things.

Setting up your lab website, making your presence known. And the presence of your lab, as many of you will know, it’s difficult as a brand-new PI and you’re trying to recruit amongst many more senior people at your institution, so that’s always a challenge that early-career people face. So you really want to make a name for yourself so that you can attract people to your lab. So getting that presence out there is also something you can spend time doing. There’s no shortage.

It may feel like you’re slowed down during COVID-19, but the truth is there’s actually 100 things you need to do, all of them yesterday, so there’s no shortage of things that you can make progress on. And it may be a little bit difficult to be able to move forward on some of those things, given the circumstances, but it will move forward.

And then I echo everything Olivia said about it’s going to be frustrating, but you’ll do great.

Dr. Olivia Rissland:

Maybe if I can just add one other thing that occurred to me while Prachee was talking is that certainly when I started my lab, and actually then even when I moved it, for both of those first setup years I felt like I had very little time to do any type of real scientific thinking.

You’re just trying, as Prachee said, to do these 100 things—all of which you wish you had done yesterday because nothing is moving at the pace that you want it to move. And so you can come to the end of a week and be like, what have I done? What science have I done? I’ve done nothing. I’ve just been sending emails.

And so one thing I would suggest is you probably wrote a research proposal when you went on the job market, these were the things that you were planning to do. Some time has passed. Do you still think those are the best experiments? Are those still the best projects? Do you have new ideas? What would those ideas look like? What do you need to put into place to make those ideas happen?

And almost give yourself a little bit of freedom to evaluate the science you’re going to start off doing. Because why not start off doing science that you are most excited about? Why wait for that? And this can be a really good opportunity where you have this enforced time where you have to take a little bit of a step back.

And I would also suggest thinking about science in the midst of all this other stuff is actually a really great way to keep yourself feeling connected to the science and still feel somewhat excited about this new position.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Great. Lots of questions about hiring. So let’s go to the hiring phase. The first one is, in general, are there rules? Should you start with a technician? A postdoc? Recruiting a grad student? What’s your thinking? Prachee.

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

There are no rules, and don’t listen to anyone that tells you that there are.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Amen. Amen.

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

I mean, this is one of those things that everyone has a very strong opinion about, and if you talk to 10 people, they will tell you 10 different answers. So I would not fall in the trap of thinking that your research program is—depending on what your science is, you may have a research program that requires a mouse technician. Depending on what you’re doing, it might be very, very specific. And also one thing about graduate students is that they always tell you, “Oh yeah, you’re a new person. You’ll have no problem attracting graduate students.”

Depends on your circumstance, depends on your department and who else is in your department. So you don’t always get a choice in whether or not…when your flood of grad students is going to come, whether it’s going to be in that first year, or maybe it’s in year three. So some of these things are not necessarily up to you.

And often, I think that the most common thing that I see from new PIs is their immediate rush to hire another one of them. So the first instinct is, I want to hire a postdoc. I want to hire a former me. I know me. If I had just another one of me in the lab, I could just knock it out of the park. And so it’s very tempting to try and recruit a postdoc early on, and I will say that as a new PI, it is often very challenging, as you can imagine, because postdocs have the choice of brand-new, untested PIs and very senior mentors. And so it is always a challenge for new faculty to recruit new postdocs.

So A, I would say there are no rules. B, it’s not always up to you because you have to recruit these people. It’s not just about who you’re hiring. You have to recruit them, which is work, and actually things that you should be thinking about: how to best position yourself for recruitment.

And then beyond that, it’s a really programmatic decision, based on your research program. So I guess that’s the only thing I can say that’s not wrong.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:


Dr. Olivia Rissland:

I think maybe another way to put it is, just as there’s no right way to make your first hire, make your first couple of hires, I would actually say there’s probably really no wrong way to do it either.

There are many, many ways to get from where you are to having a really vibrant lab. And so I think this kind of goes back to what I said earlier. Sorry, I now have a cat who is trying to push my computer off. I think one thing that’s really important is, again, recognizing what you need and the types of people that you’re going to be able to work with.

One thing that I realized after I made a couple of hires that I wasn’t totally thrilled with is that I don’t want to work with people who are jerks. I felt like it took me too long to get here, and I want to like everyone that I work with. And so that means that for me, when I’m making hiring decisions, it’s really important that I have a process to try to assess whether or not they’re going to be a jerk.

And I don’t really care how brilliant or how hard-working they are. If they are selfish and not giving to the team, then that’s not somebody I want in my lab. And so I think this is where thinking about what you need from a personality perspective is also really important. And then once you know that, then you have to figure out questions that you can apply in a fair way to get at the heart of that.

Because I think there’s also something else you want to be really conscious of, even in your first hire, is that however you’re making your hiring decisions, that you’re doing it equitably, you’re doing it fairly, and you’re not using proxies to make those hiring decisions, proxies that aren’t really getting at what the core of the issue is.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Those are really important points.

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

Can I just say one other thing that Olivia reminded me of, which was that I think that one thing that cannot be divorced from the hiring decision is that it is also a mentoring decision. So we are training all of these people, and we have a responsibility to do that. So I think it is often a common mistake where people say, “Well, I want someone with skills A, B, C that can hit the ground running on whatever thing.”

But the truth is, you’re going to be training all of these people, and you have a responsibility to get them to their next career stage. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a technician or whether they’re a student or a postdoc or whatever position that they hold, you are going to be training these people, and you are going to be fulfilling a mentorship role, and so that hiring decision cannot be divorced from that responsibility and making a decision on the basis of how you are going to train.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Yeah, that led into the question I was going to ask you exactly right. Someone was asking, how do you pick the best graduate student? You basically answered it, but any elaboration on that?

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

Yeah, I would just say that I think, again, that is not…this is a two-way decision, and it’s always important to remember that when you are interviewing people, they are interviewing you. And so it’s really important that you put yourself… you wear everything on your sleeve.

Make sure that everybody knows what they are getting when it comes to your mentorship style. And so this is something that pretty much the first conversation I have with literally anybody who’s considering coming to the lab is giving them an idea of who I am and who the lab is, so they have a really, really good sense of what they’re getting into. Because one thing I want is I want people who want to be…who hear what the lab is about and are excited about that. That it’s a mutually good fit. That they see what we are about and how we do things, how we do science, the things we care about, the way we operate. And then they think, that is for me.

Because no one wants to have people in the lab who are unhappy. And so it’s really important that you don’t do this bait-and-switch thing. You make sure that everyone knows what they’re getting. And then I look for mutual excitement on that front, that they sort of buy into us or my schtick.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Anything to add about grad students, Olivia?

Dr. Olivia Rissland:

Yeah, again I totally agree with what Prachee said. I think another way to think about it is that creating great science, at the heart of being a PI, this is now a collaboration, and it’s no longer you at the bench. You are collaborating with another scientist to hopefully do really exciting science together. And really at the core of any collaboration, then, is making sure that the two scientists get along together, and that can be many different ways.

Maybe you have complementary strengths that build off of each other. Maybe you really push each other, or maybe you build on each other. There are many different ways to do that. But at the core of it, this is now a collaboration, and so that personality aspect becomes really important. I will say for me what has worked really well and was actually very useful when I started my lab is thinking not about where someone necessarily is the moment that they’re rotating, or the moment they’re applying to the lab, but where could they be in a year or in two years? Because that’s the type of investment that you’re making in that person.

And for me, I felt like if someone’s coming in and they’re motivated, they’re willing to work hard, they are willing to learn and listen with me, and excited about RNA, those are all things that I could work with. Those are traits that I know I can work with. I can teach somebody how to do western blot. That’s sort of the easy side of things. It’s this other personality aspect that’s a lot harder.

And if I had, for me, these key raw ingredients, like I know that we will fly together. And every time I’ve sort of followed those traits, I’ve been really happy with our relationship at the end. And it’s the times where I haven’t listened to myself about this that I’ve ended up with someone that I’m not so excited about, and where it hasn’t been as productive a relationship.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Elaborating on that slightly. Prachee made the point about people tending to look for another one of themselves, and I think you were talking before about putting aside things that are proxies because they can lead to biases. When you’re selecting people, though, that fit is incredibly important, but how do you also mitigate against bringing biases to the table that may be increasing the systemic biases that are in the system? Any thoughts on that? This is a hard one for sure.

Dr. Olivia Rissland:

Maybe I’ll start. And I’m sure Prachee will have more words of wisdom.

I will be honest: I think it’s really, really hard. It’s really hard to see your own biases. I actually think the first place to start is to recognize that you have biases and to understand that that’s never going to be something that’s going to be finished.

This is always an ongoing process where you always have to look back and self-evaluate. And I think to also recognize that any individual hiring decision is going to be really, really difficult for you to know whether a bias came into that hiring decision.

You really, with these types of things, are going to see it when you can look over many hiring decisions, because that’s where you can go from, well, this person in particular made sense because of whatever post hoc rationalization. But if you see over a period of time, hey, I seem to only hire white women with brown hair who are runners who like cats, that might be telling you something.

I think also going into it with some awareness that you’re probably going to feel an affinity to people who have had similar histories to you or who have similar outlooks to you. And I think you can actually argue that at the interview stage originally. So you get your applications, you’re deciding who to interview, and the first thing you can do is look through that interview pile.

Does everyone seem to come from a university that I’ve heard of? Are there other people who have had non-traditional backgrounds? I think having these checks along the way is going to be the first step. And also exposing yourself to scientists who look different and who have had different backgrounds from you. The more exposure you have, the more you can break down this image that you have in your mind of what a scientist looks like.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Prachee, do you have anything further?

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

And I would just add that I think one really good way to circumvent this is to stick to the script and stick to a rubric, is having dimensions along which you are going to evaluate. And it’s very easy to get into a situation where you’re interviewing someone and you have a fantastic conversation and you think, God, that person was great, and then they leave your office and you think, I know nothing about them.

And I did a lot of talking, first of all, and then I heard less from them. And I also sort of don’t know the answers to many of these important questions just because you’re having this informal conversation with someone you get along with. And so I think that it’s really important to have that formalization. These are just good interview practices.

Ask the same question of every person so that you can compare across those. And have that ahead of time, before you ever meet a person and have a chance to make biases that…to overweight certain questions because you want it to fit that person that you like. So I think having some sort of formalization of your process can take away some of these biases. And put reminders.

There are studies that show that just asking people to consider, like Olivia said, consider your biases when you are making these decisions will get you to reevaluate through that lens, which is always a good check on top of that.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

There is a great example of a professional skill that should be taught to everyone in grad school but isn’t, right? How to do an interview in a systematic and effective way. But we’re just thrown into it when we start our lab with no one ever telling us what to do. I think that’s a great point.

Dr. Olivia Rissland:

And if I can just build on one final thing. The other thing to think about, especially if you haven’t done hiring before, is you don’t actually have to do it all by yourself. You can ask colleagues to help with the interview or to talk with them one on one.

First of all, that’s a really great way of making sure that you haven’t done the, oh, I really like this person, so I’m going to hire them without having done some of these checks. But also think about are they talking to a diverse group of people when they’re coming and interviewing? Because that diversity will bring a diversity of perspectives on a candidate.

And it doesn’t mean that you have to listen to what everyone says. And we all know academics. All of us have our own different opinions and we all want to be heard. It’s okay to disagree with some of your senior colleagues. But hearing those opinions and those different perspectives is a really good way of providing some checks against your own bias.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Lots of questions about scientific priorities. How did you guys decide what you were going to work on? What you were going to propose to work on, then what you were actually working on in your labs? Can you talk about that a little bit?

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

When you asked that question, I immediately thought, this is a really big challenge, because when you are a postdoc, you probably have notebooks and notebooks full of ideas that your two hands just did not have enough time to tackle.

And so you have these millions of ideas, but you don’t have infinite resources and infinite hands to really do them all at once. But I have always been of the opinion that we sort of cast a wide net and try different things and see what takes off. This is how I do science in general is to go with my very best guess for a good idea and do some tests, try out as many things as possible, and almost always something will win out, or you’ll get excited about a result, or something else will take over and then you will be able to do that.

And yes, you have to think strategically about, in my opinion, when you apply for funding, your history of training is very much emphasized. What are you sort of an expert on and are you qualified to be working on? So that sometimes is hard.

For example, there are things that I’m extraordinarily excited about that we work on that I was never really formally trained to do, and it’s harder to get funding for those things because you’re not a recognized expert from your training in those aspects. So that requires collaborations and things like that.

But I would say you’re going to need that preliminary data, so trying a lot of different things that you’re excited about, something will almost always take off that you can really pursue and refine as you go along.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Olivia, what are your thoughts?

Dr. Olivia Rissland:

Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, I completely agree with Prachee. I think certainly my tendency as a scientist has been to be interested in a lot of scientific questions. In fact, I think my real challenge is prioritizing, not going like this. To be honest, when I was a postdoc I had those notebooks of projects I was going to do, and I thought, when I have my lab, I’ll finally be able to do all the projects that I want to do.

And it turns out now I just have more project ideas at this point. The ratio of what we’re doing to what I want to do appears to be sort of a constant of the universe. But I think something that people often do, especially when you’re feeling really nervous—and I think this happens also at the beginning of postdocs.

People say, “I’m really nervous. I want to look productive, so I’m going to do a safe project. I’m going to do a project that gets me an easy paper.” Well, the fact of the matter is safe projects, easy papers, that doesn’t really exist. They’re all hard projects. They’re all hard papers. They all require revisions.

And so I have this feeling of if I’m going to do science, I’d rather do the science that I feel like is really exciting because for me, that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. That’s why I am a scientist is because I want to discover something.

And the safe projects often don’t motivate me or get me excited the same way. That is not to say that a safe project can’t lead you somewhere exciting. It’s just that that’s sort of a serendipitous moment that’s really hard to foresee.

So I would say when you’re starting, figure out the things that you can do, things that you can do with the things that you have up and running, and just explore and be willing to change your mind, be willing to change your priorities, and be willing to accept that your original ideas also might be wrong.

If you get that result that does not match—I mean, well know this—that anomaly, don’t push it under the rug because it doesn’t fit with what you want your R01 to look like. There might be something really exciting there that’s worth your time to dig in a little bit more deeply.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Absolutely. And there’s a perfect segue into the next series of questions, which are about grants, of course. When should you apply for grants? What grants should you apply for? Talk about your experiences there and what you were just talking about, about safe versus ambitious fits into that. Prachee.

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

I think there is no substitute for writing a lot of grants. There are a lot of different schools of thought on this, so if you were to ask this question in New PI Slack, you would get a range of answers from people who think you don’t want to put out a half-baked grant and you want to make sure you get that first…

This is actually the advice I got, the sort of conventional wisdom that I had heard from the universe when I started was, oh, you want to get that first paper out because you’re going to need that paper in order to get the grant, so focus on getting that paper. And I actually ultimately don’t agree with this sort of thinking.

I think it’s really important to be open with your science and get a lot of feedback, and that includes on grants too. And so you’re not necessarily going to land your first grant—that’s an understatement—but my feeling is that there’s going to be a lot of opportunities, especially when you’re early.

There’s a specific, unique set of early career grants that you can take advantage of. So obviously many of you are familiar with early stage investigators at NIH, but many other types of foundation grants have mechanisms that are specific to early stage investigators. And that clock is ticking.

So you’re going to have a couple of shots on goal for that period, so it’s really important to take advantage of that. What you don’t want to do is just get your papers and things and then have your first shot on goal be your last chance at one of these grants. So you want a chance to get feedback and to revise your grants. You’re going to need feedback to revise your ideas, and you should do that widely no matter what—internally, externally, however you can get it.

Whoever you can get to read something you’ve written, you should take advantage of that because that’s really your best path towards not getting shot down by your one submission. My personal philosophy is to apply to lots and lots of grants, as many as you can. I know a lot of people think that’s not always time well spent. I’ve always found it to be extremely useful, and I learn something every time I submit a grant and every time I get feedback.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:


Dr. Olivia Rissland:

Yeah, I think one thing that you need to remember is that the grant landscape now is very different than it was 10 years ago. It’s very different than it was 20 years ago. And I think that it’s important to remember when you’re getting advice from senior faculty that what they experienced might not be what you are experiencing.

And I will say that I think this is one of the benefits of a community like New PI Slack, where you hear a lot of experiences from people who are at a very similar career stage as you. I am also of the opinion of just applying a lot because at the end of the day that will help. I mean, odds are odds. The more shots on goal that you take, the more likely you are to get a goal.

And when we’re talking about grants, we’re not talking like you need 10 grants. You just kind of need a couple wins, and then you’re off to the races. And so then you’re really operating in the range of noise where increasing grant submissions is really going to help you there.

One piece of advice that I would say is that it’s really great if you don’t need to write each grant from scratch. If you can recycle grants that you’ve written or change them in some way or use the same preliminary data, that will make this idea of applying to a lot of grants a lot easier.

Because writing 10 new grants from scratch in a year, I know that there are people out there who can do that. I am not one of those people certainly. And so certainly the way that I have really helped was I had a grant that I submitted, got feedback, didn’t get funded. I was like, OK, now incorporate that feedback.

We have some new results. I can change things around a little bit, and then we can send it off somewhere else. The other thing that I would say is I think the process of writing grants is a great way of refining your ideas. One of my favorite books on writing is called On Writing Well by Zinsser.

And he talks a lot about how if you are not thinking clearly, you will not be able to write clearly. And I think the act of putting your ideas onto paper, of trying to find the logic, of trying to order them, of trying to think about the rationale—what is the significance—that’s actually a really great exercise.

And so I don’t think it’s grant versus trying to move your lab forward. It’s writing your grant and moving your lab forward. These two activities are synergistic. The final thing that I will say is that we worry a lot about money because money is obviously really important, but I don’t think that writing grants can be all that you’re doing.

I like to think about the activities of your PIs, like you have this stock portfolio and you have many different places where you’re trying to move things forward. On the one hand, this is really stressful because it feels like you have about 10 number-one priorities. To get the lab up and going. You have to hire people, write grants, get papers. But I think maybe another way to think about it is you want to be moving everything in all of those areas forward a little bit. And if you are finding that you are spending 100 percent of your time writing grants, my suspicion is that that’s probably too much of your time. I don’t know what the right percentage is. I know that 100 percent is too much.

And then the final thing I was going to say. One thing that I think has really changed in the grant landscape is bioRxiv. And I cannot, I cannot recommend enough preprinting your papers. In the old days, it used to be you had a paper, you submitted it, and who knows when it was actually going to come out? Well, I now know it will be 48 hours after I submit it to bioRxiv it will be online and readable. And for new PIs trying to show productivity, this is a really, really great way.

You want to get feedback on your work? Preprinting is a really great way. You want to move things forward, help attract postdocs and graduate students? Preprinting is a really great way. You want to learn more about your field? Read preprints.

This has really transformed the way that science can be done. And so I think this is something I think all young investigators should embrace.

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

And they can be cited anywhere where other research projects are cited in your NIH grants.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

There you go. Thank you. Sounds good. Full disclosure, though: Both Olivia and Prachee are funded by NIGMS ESI MIRA grants. So just please remember that when you’re applying for grants. Lots and lots of questions. We’re not going to be able to get to everything, so we’re going to eventually have to move to a lightning round pretty fast.

But I want to take a little bit more time about this one because I thought it was really interesting and true. So here we have two outstanding future leaders of science—I’m saying that, not you, but this questioner also said it. How do you feel and how do you navigate being in the faculty meeting room as the early career investigator, maybe also female, how do you deal with the politics of that and the dynamics of that? What are your thoughts? Since you’re going to be in charge one day, say wait until I’m in charge and then you’re finished? How are you thinking about that?

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

I would say practice. I think almost anything in science and related to doing science can be practiced—whether it’s putting yourself out there or speaking up in faculty meeting or doing anything that you think is hard and maybe some part of some intrinsic property. You may feel like, oh, I’m not like that. This is hard for me and it’s easier for other people. I would say any of those things that you would put into that bin is something that you can get better at with practice.

And so this is something that is 100 percent true for speaking up on different things. So I am often the most junior person in the room for a lot of different things, and it took me a while to train myself to think, I’m here for a reason. I’m here because they want my opinion—and that’s true for you in your faculty position too.

You’ve been hired for a reason. So they want your opinion, and it is your opportunity and your responsibility to speak up in those situations. And I understand people feel vulnerable, and I guarantee you will get the advice to keep quiet until tenure, which I understand, but I disagree with.

And I often find that when you train yourself your entire career to wait until you’re forty-something years old to speak up that it’s not so easy to turn that on like a light switch. You probably are not going to magically transform into a vocal person. So I would say you can also exercise that muscle earlier on, cautiously so, but you can definitely make your voice heard. And you’re there for a reason and practice speaking up. It will get easier.

I think that when you do that, I’ve found that making myself do that in those situations, when I get into other situations where I’m not the most junior person in the room, I worry that I’m a little overbearing and over-talkative because I’ve flexed that muscle so often that it can come across differently in different circumstances. But I would say that you can do it, and you can get better at it, and I would take advantage of your voice in that situation.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:


Dr. Olivia Rissland:

I completely agree with Prachee. I think anybody who knows me probably professionally or personally knows that I am not good at staying quiet when I see things, large and small, that bother me. And I think anyone who knows me would also know I have a really hard time not wearing my heart on my sleeve.

And I will be honest. Sometimes it can feel like I wish I could be more politically astute, like somehow that would be better, but I’ve actually sort of come around. I don’t think that’s true. I think one of the things that I bring to the table is that I am really passionate about this, and I do care about not just doing science but having science as a field being a just field. That really, really matters to me.

And to be honest, at the end of the day, if, I may publish all these papers, but I have done nothing to make science better, that’s not what I want for myself. And I don’t want to be, to be fully honest, I don’t want to be a person for whom that would be OK. So at the end of the day, I feel like I just have to stay true to myself and the part of me that’s like burn it all down. Well, if people don’t appreciate me, then maybe they’re not people whose opinion matters that much to me.

Because I think that this is how we make science more just is by speaking up, is by having people sit at the table and use their voice. And one thing that I think about a lot, Manny Ares, who’s an RNA biologist at UCSC, he once said that when you speak, it doesn’t have to be perfect, but if you don’t speak, you’re not going to be part of the conversation. And if we don’t use our voice, then our voices aren’t going to be heard.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

That is so true. Please, all of you listening, don’t listen to the advice about not speaking up until you get tenure, because we need you to speak up. I need you to speak up. The community needs you to speak up. They just don’t want to hear the truth, so please do speak up. We’re going to go lightning round fast now. Problems with personnel. What’s your advice? You’ve got two people who don’t get along, someone’s not meeting expectations, what do you do? Prachee.

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

That’s an impossible question. There’s no easy answer to this because it’s definitely a case-by-case basis, but I think transparency is really important, communication is really important.

Make sure that you understand; it’s very easy to make assumptions in these sorts of circumstances, to not play favorites, things like that. It’s really important to have transparency and open communication. That’s it.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:


Dr. Olivia Rissland:

I also would say try to tackle it earlier. It’s a lot easier to make a small change in trajectory than it is once you’ve gotten really off course. Being fair, being transparent, being really transparent with your expectations and giving feedback, both positive and negative.

Coming from a place of we’re trying to be better together rather than, I think you’re wrong, do it my way. I think all of these things will help make the problems, when they come up, smaller. And then sometimes it won’t work out and you may have to fire somebody, and that’s OK. If you have gone through this and that’s where you end up, then I think don’t be afraid to do that either.

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

Last really quick thing is that it’s very common for people to be conflict averse, but it is absolutely your job to resolve these types of issues. So even though we all want to just think about the science and not deal with personality issues and things like that, it is 100 percent your job as the PI to make sure that you resolve these issues. So you can’t sit it out.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Another thing we should be teaching in grad school, right? Boy do I wish I’d learned that before I started my own lab. Took me 20 years. So lots and lots of other questions.

I think, one more lightning question and then we’ll have time for your big thoughts. What’s the one thing that you wish you had learned or done before you started your lab? Or that somebody had told you? Olivia?

Dr. Olivia Rissland:

Oh man, it’s tough because there are so many things. I think one thing that I wish I had internalized more was to believe in myself and my capabilities a lot more. I look back and I wish that I had not been so worried about failure, or about rejection, or about looking stupid, and that stopped me from taking opportunities. I think I’m still learning that lesson. We are not finished. But I wish I had started that journey a little bit earlier.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

That was a good one. Prachee.

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

I would say that we spend our entire training trying to figure out the right way to do something, as if there is only one right way, and I think that there are many, many paths to success. And I said it up front that we can decide what that path is for us, and no one knows us the way we do. And no one knows our potential the way we do and our unique talents the way we do, and so we are best positioned to find that path forward.

And so to have that faith in yourself that you can find that path, and even if it doesn’t look like the way that you’re being advised to do it, that again you are often rewarded for taking those initiatives to decide those things for yourself, rather than punished for it.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Great. All right. I want to give you each…We’re going to run a couple of minutes over, but I’m in charge so I can let that happen. Occasionally there’s a use to being in charge.

I’d like each of you to just give a final thought, a minute maybe on big picture. What should people be thinking? Who wants to start? Prachee, how about you?

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

Sure, I’ll just say that just to conclude here, I know many of you still have open questions, so I know both Olivia and I are on Twitter. For me, that’s a really great way to get a hold of me. I promise I can answer any question that way or reconnect with you again. So anyone can feel free. I’m @PracheeAC on Twitter.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Somebody asked PI Slack, how do you…

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

So there’s a website. It’s You can just go to the website. It will tell you how to sign up and things like that. I think I’ve given a lot of my big picture ideas right there. And I would say just don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone. This is something that we, I think probably all of you, are familiar with putting your toe in the water there, but every single day as my favorite thing about this job is that every single day is a new learning experience.

It’s always different. It’s always new. We’re always learning something different. And so it’s…to take this job as yet another learning experience. So we feel almost at every stage that, oh, I should already know how to do this. I’ve been trained to be in this professional situation.

But the truth is that no matter where you are in this career, no matter how far advanced you get, you are always doing that part for the first time and learning something new, so just to give yourself that break and to say, “I’m still learning.” That will keep you open to learning new things and learning new things from people who are younger than you that have a lot to offer and learning from a lot of different experiences that you’re going to come across.

And like I said, every single one of those things is going to be unique to you. There are going to be experiences that literally no one else has experienced that you’re going to come across. So there is no user manual for any of those things. No one can help you with those things. So you’re just going to have to learn by trial and error to just, like Olivia said, have faith in yourself, and you’ll all do great. Best of luck to you all.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

Thank you. Olivia?

Dr. Olivia Rissland:

Yeah, I think actually Prachee and I came up with very similar concluding remarks. So what I would say is I think becoming a PI and starting a lab involves a lot of skills that you haven’t been trained on, that are new aspects of the job. So now you’re being a manager. Now you’re having to think about how to be a mentor, not just to one person potentially, but to many people. How to think about budgets. There are all these different aspects to it.

And I think if you approach this job as you are a student of it, you are learning, and you are curious about how to do it better, and you are not satisfied with where you are currently, I think these are all going to really set you up for success. And what I always say to students, especially about writing, is that where you are today doesn’t have to be where you’re going to be tomorrow.

And in fact, I really hope that where we are tomorrow is better than where we are today, because I don’t want this version of me to be my peak. I like to imagine that my peak has yet to come, and in fact, I can’t even see where I’m going to be because I’m so far away from it. To reach that, you have to keep on learning.

You have to evaluate yourself. You have to be honest. And something that has been really, really helpful for me is following people that you respect on Twitter, hearing more about their scientific philosophies, reading papers really, really broadly. You’re just trying to be greedy for all the information you can get to become better versions of yourself.

And also read a lot of books. The business world has a lot of books about how to be a manager. It turns out being a manager is sort of being a manager. It doesn’t really matter what discipline you’re in, but why not read those books. Some of them are sort of ridiculous, but they might have a few pearls of wisdom that will make you a better manager. So be greedy for those.

And I think also I would say at the end be kind to yourself. It’s OK not to be perfect every day. It’s OK to make mistakes. That’s how you know you’re learning. If you’re uncomfortable, that probably means that you’re pushing yourself. Where there’s friction, there’s movement. I can come up with a lot of sayings about this, but part of learning is making mistakes.

And I think the most important thing is that any time you feel like you didn’t do a good job, or any time you make a mistake, you use that as a way to become better. And it’s always this sort of growth mindset.

I guess the final thing I’ll say is yes, as Prachee said, I’m also on Twitter. I am @beascientist, which I clearly chose when I was feeling very excited about science. But if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter. I’m also happy to make more book suggestions on Twitter, probably more than we have time for right now. But good luck, and it’s really been a pleasure and a privilege to have this conversation with you today.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:

And I’ll say both their blogs are fantastic. I do urge you to look at them. Listening to the two of you, I know things seem dark to all of us right now with everything going on, but listening to the two of you, reading all the great questions, I feel like the future is actually going to be OK.

So thanks for everything you do, and thanks for doing this. And thanks all of you for participating. I really appreciate it. And we’re going to try to capture everything in the chat, and we will find something to do with all these great questions.

Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

Thanks so much everyone.

Dr. Olivia Rissland:

Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

Dr. Jon Lorsch:


Dr. Prachee Avasthi:

Bye, everyone.