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Biodiversity of a Lab: A Community Ecology Perspective on Contributing to a Healthy Ecosystem

lab work

Working in a science lab involves hands-on work, like caring for a mite colony (pictured here: John Coffey and Monica Farfan, Ph.D., in the Clemson University Vegetable Entomology Lab), but a successful science lab is also dynamic, carefully balanced environment not unlike the natural ecosystems that many scientists study. Attention to the relationships, individual personalities, and unique stresses of scientific work are all critical to fostering a healthy, balanced lab environment.

By Monica A. Farfan, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: This post is the next installment in the Professional Advancement Career Training (PACT) series on Entomology Today, featuring perspectives and advice on the leadership capacity and “soft skills” sought after in today’s highly collaborative work environments—both within and beyond academia. Learn more about the ESA’s PACT Initiative and read other posts in the PACT series.

Monica A. Farfan, Ph.D.

Monica A. Farfan, Ph.D.

Entomologists and other field scientists often spend a lot of their time studying the dynamics of ecosystems in nature. These skills of observation apply to more than the natural environment and species within it, however.  If you think about it, research labs are a kind of ecological community; they too are dynamic, have agents (in this case people) with different motivations, and can be in or out of equilibrium. In thinking of a lab as an ecosystem, one can draw parallels between the people in the lab as important contributors in the community. Regardless of personality, background, or research, all personalities in a lab are important to each other’s success.

During my entomological career, I have worked in five different labs in every position from undergraduate research assistant to postdoctoral fellow, and, at each stage of my academic career, I have become keenly aware of my functional role and my relationships to everyone I worked with. I observed many patterns of behavior, some good and some that compounded negative interactions into worse circumstances. The following are some tips based on personal experiences that can help you contribute to a healthier lab ecosystem, regardless of your role within it.

Exotic Species Additions Bring Communities to New Equilibria

Full disclosure, my first academic and professional careers were in studio art! I was introduced to entomology through an entomology non-major’s series while pursuing my art major. And I fell in love with arthropods! Insects came in colors and shapes I had not seen before and could look radically different depending on the life stage. When the professor of the course said he was looking for a summer volunteer to work in his lab, I jumped at the chance. They trained me and, over the next three years, this position turned into a paid opportunity on the project. I got to do everything from sorting through samples in the lab to doing field work in a remote part of Southern Ohio. I felt incredibly lucky to be experiencing nature in a way few others I know ever had (and I still feel this way).

I realized much later how lucky I was that this professor trusted me even though I had no experience in entomology, chemistry, or advanced biology. I caught some shade from another student in the lab, who looked down on my lack of experience. This led me to question my ability and how much I deserved to be there. The professor, being a good lab leader, took me aside and said, “This student is caught up in their own ideas of how things should be. But you are good at this! And what makes you good is your artistic eye. You can see subtle differences in specimens that make you a valuable assistant.” Of course, I felt much better after this talk. But what I hadn’t yet accepted was that it was true!

That same year, I discovered a new species of millipede because, even though I was not a millipede taxonomist, I could discern subtle differences. I had the talent to be a scientist and I was given the encouragement to have confidence in my ability, that it was even special. Someone less open minded, with stricter ideas about what a traditional research assistant “should” be, may not have given me the opportunity. I now think about this every time I look for a volunteer or research assistant: Scientific talent can come from many different disciplines, from places you may least expect. So, give that person with the less-than-ideal CV a chance to impress you and make you proud.

Developing Relationships Creates Healthy Ecosystems

I take pride in the fact that, at every lab I became a part of, I took the time to connect with my lab mates, other graduate students, postdocs, technicians, and other faculty. It is part of my personality to reach out, say hi, and get to know someone over a meal or a beverage. For me, this behavior comes from being a graduate student at an art school, inherently a very social structure, but I found this can be applied anywhere a group of people is engaging in a creative endeavor. Although it isn’t everyone’s instinct to take the first step toward a new collegial relationship, try reaching out in a way you are comfortable with and see what response you get. My experience is that getting to know colleagues is a process, but the benefits typically outweigh the discomfort. You may not immediately gain a bestie, but you’ll have opened a line of communication that could lead to a learning opportunity, collaboration, friendship, or a potential source for advice, and then you can reciprocate.

A Species’ Survival in an Ecosystem is Dependent on Its Unique Function

I would guess that everyone’s experience of graduate school includes challenges and criticism in both their area of study and the people around them, be it an advisor or lab mates. In graduate school, I made the mistake of basing my impressions of the quality of my fellow graduate students on my perception of their commitment to their education. It seemed that graduate school for some was a side project based on their comments about how they couldn’t wait for it to be over and to go back to their “real” lives. This perspective shocked me as, in my mind, graduate school was my life. I felt privileged to be able to spend as much time on my research as I wanted, to publish, and to become a professional academic. When I realized that my motivation wasn’t everyone’s motivation, that there wasn’t a “right way” to be a graduate-student scientist, I could better let go of competition and judgement and begin to be a better adviser and empathize as a lab mate.

After graduate school, serving as a pseudo-supervisor reinforced that understanding someone else’s point of view and knowledge helps you be a better manager. Shortly after becoming a postdoctoral researcher, I noticed a technician I worked with closely seemed regularly anxious about conventional pesticide application. One day after watching this person return to the field in visible distress, I decided to take them aside and open a dialog. I told this person that I acknowledged that what they were doing was difficult and I appreciated that they were doing what makes them fearful. I also made sure they knew that when they felt this way, that the PI and I needed them to tell us because they didn’t need to do this alone. After all, we are a team! From then on, this person knew their lab mates and I were listening. I also learned that part of being a good supervisor sometimes means assigning tasks to better match the interests and abilities of my subordinates. The paradigm in scientific funding that considers people as equipment doesn’t encourage healthy interpersonal dynamics. So, take the time to ask for feedback and listen to what you are told. Respect between people in your lab will increase, and your communication with your team will greatly improve.

Thriving May Require Finding Another Ecosystem

There is a lot to be said for perseverance, and some say that the ability to overcome challenges and get your graduate degree is the most important part of graduate school. But this is definitely not easy. The demands of data collection, grant-writing, courses, your committee, your department, your collaborators, and balancing all that with your personal life can be immensely challenging. It’s not uncommon to feel like quitting. I thought about quitting. A lot. But, I chose to stay and, in the end, that was right for me, but it definitely isn’t for everyone.

It is 100 percent, completely OK to re-evaluate your decision to pursue a graduate degree and tell someone that you are struggling. This is not failure. For many, this is a first step toward success and happiness, regardless of their ultimate decision. On the flip side, it is also important to do your part to create a space where asking for help and discussing setbacks and uncertainty are considered not weaknesses but rather opportunities for learning and introspection. Someone thinking “Is graduate school for me?” may be very fearful of bringing that conversation to someone else, especially someone they perceive as being successful in graduate school. Be open to this conversation, whether it is you or someone else who is struggling, and don’t be afraid to do what is right for you.

How to Support a Flourishing Ecosystem

Fostering a healthy lab ecosystem is a complicated effort, and many key strategies are easy to say but, in practice, sometimes much harder to do. Here are some key concepts and questions to guide your thought process when things aren’t going smoothly.

Listen. Do you take the time to read the behavior of others around you and know when to say, “Hey, friend, are you OK?” And then do you listen to what the person has to say, no matter how troubling, painful, or shocking the answer may be? Sometimes, just being there to listen can be the most important thing to someone.

Ask for help. Feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and unsure is very common, especially in academic research. When this happens, do you reach out to a friend, co-worker, fellow graduate student, or supervisor? Developing a support group, even a small one, and reaching out to this group when things don’t seem to be working out does help! Furthermore, do you make yourself available to be a part of someone else’s support system and to be a resource when others need advice? You may find that you have also encountered a similar situation in the past and can help. You may learn something that you didn’t know before. And, in any case, you have created a relationship where reciprocity in support is possible.

Mitigate conflict. When conflict arises, what is your first reaction? Is it to blame some who you perceive to have wronged you? Is it to go to first to your supervisor? Is it to speak calmly about the problem? Are you generous in your first assessment of someone else’s behavior? Is it possible that whatever happened wasn’t really about you? Taking the time to stop and consider the possibilities before reacting can de-escalate a situation that is proceeding in a negative direction.

In closing, listening and reflecting take practice. If you find yourself seriously uncomfortable or, after engaging with someone, you think that it could actually be harmful mentally or physically to either of you, definitely listen to your instincts and let someone else know what’s happening. Hopefully these thoughts can assist in giving you more options as you continue to grow your academic and professional careers and the relationships you build along the way.

Monica A. Farfan, Ph.D., is a mite community ecologist and executive director of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative at Colorado State University’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability in Fort Collins, Colorado. Email: monica.farfan@colostate.edu.  

All photos courtesy of Monica A. Farfan, Ph.D.

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