Starting a new lab can be a challenging endeavor: there is research to plan, people to manage, and resources to organize. The process from getting a PI position to actually having everything up and running is a long one, and often changes from institution to institution. To offer some insight on the path to setting up a new lab, including reviewing some of the challenges that new groups face and resources to help, I interviewed three PIs of different institutions, countries, and career stages. Their testimonies offer an inside perspective on it is like to start a new lab from scratch.
Kelsey J.R.P. Byers Ute Armbruster Chih-Hang Wu
Dr. Kelsey Byers (any pronouns welcome) is originally from the USA where she grew up in a family of scientists and was encouraged to wander in the woods from an early age. Kelsey completed her undergraduate education at MIT in 2007 in molecular biology and genetics before doing a PhD in plant evolutionary genetics and chemical ecology at the University of Washington from 2008-2014 in the labs of H.D. “Toby” Bradshaw Jr. and Jeffrey Riffell. She then was a PLANT FELLOWS postdoctoral fellow at the University of Zürich, Switzerland, in the labs of Florian Schiestl and Philipp Schlüter. After a second postdoctoral position at the University of Cambridge with Chris Jiggins, Kelsey began her own group at the John Innes Centre in Norwich in 2020. Kelsey’s research focuses on the role of floral scent and other floral traits in attracting pollinators and the resulting impact this has on plant diversity, speciation processes, and crop production. As a multiply-disabled and multiply-queer individual, Kelsey is a tireless – though often very tired! – advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM, particularly the inclusion of disabled people in biology, and has served on multiple committees and panels and given multiple seminars in this area. In her spare time she enjoys reading, cooking, baking, birdwatching, and collecting insects, especially hoverflies.
Ute Armbruster has been having fun doing science for the past 20 years. Her research focus is on thylakoid biogenesis and photosynthesis in natural dynamic light environments. This piece mainly reflects her insight on setting up her lab as a junior group leader at the MPI of Molecular Plant Physiology nearly 8 years ago. She is currently setting up a new lab at the University of Düsseldorf, where she will be heading the Institute of Molecular Photosynthesis. Besides work, Ute is also having fun being a mother of two high-energy kids with lots of ideas and fantasy.
Chih-Hang Wu is an Assistant Research Fellow at the Institute of Plant and Microbial Biology (IPMB), Academia Sinica, Taiwan. He did his PhD at The Sainsbury Laboratory in the lab of Sophien Kamoun, where he worked on how immune receptors detect pathogen effectors to confer resistance. His current work focuses on the evolution and molecular mechanisms of plant immune receptors. Outside the lab, he enjoys baking delicious and beautiful cakes, to the delight of his lab members.
How did you decide to start your own lab?
Kelsey Byers: I grew up in a position of academic privilege: my stepfather was a research professor, and my mum also became a research professor, so I always knew that being a lab head was an option, which is obviously something that not a lot of people know.
When I looked at my parents, they had a lot of freedom to do what they wanted and they were happy most of the time. I knew I wanted to be happy with work. And the other thing is, people who are familiar with me probably know that I’m disabled. My mom had cancer for 10 years when I was a child, and I saw that she was able to keep working in an academic environment. And so I thought, maybe I could also succeed in this environment. So I went into my PhD knowing that I wanted to be a group leader from the start.
In my PhD, I was co-advised by somebody very senior and somebody who was just starting his group. So I got to see both what a very established lab looked like, as well as one where everything needed to be set up.
And when I was in the final years of my PhD, I started having ideas – ideas that a future lab that I lead could do. I wrote down a list of questions that I wanted to know the answer to, which is something I would encourage anyone to do. This was the time when I started feeling really ready.
Ute Armbruster: Good question! For me it was always very important to be able to think independently and creatively and I was given the opportunity during my postdoc to really design my own research question and then work on that research question and that was so much fun for me. There was no way back.
After my postdoc time, I knew I wanted to continue to do independent research and the most obvious path forward was to apply for group leader positions. Here, I was quite lucky, because my first application got me a job as a junior group leader at the MPI of Molecular Plant Physiology.
Chih-Hang Wu: From my undergraduate years, I’ve always aspired to be a scientist and have my own research lab. After finishing my master’s degree in Taiwan, I was fortunate to join Sophien Kamoun’s group as a PhD student and later completed a short postdoc with him. Sophien has been incredibly supportive and encouraged me to start applying for positions one year into my postdoc. The timeline for becoming a group leader varies for different individuals, depending on their CV and experience. Some may feel ready to take on leadership roles early on, while others may prefer to gain more experience first. In my case, I received several interview invitations since I started applying, and I personally also like to start my own lab as soon as possible instead of gaining more postdoc experience. So, I kept applying until I found a position that was ideal for me.
What is the topic of your research? What considerations did you have when choosing this topic?
KB: I work on the role of floral scent in attracting pollinators and how that leads to both increased biodiversity in terms of speciation processes as well as how it might lead to things like crop improvement by recruitment of pollinators.
I started out actually looking at color, because color is a very tractable trait to study speciation. I was doing behavioral experiments with hawk moths to look at different color morphs. I discovered, through a complete accident, that the flowers I was studying had a scent, which insects can detect, even though we can’t. Serendipitously, the person who became my secondary supervisor had worked on floral scent and hawk moth pollination, so he analyzed our samples and yes, there was scent involved. It was very cool.
The only downside, which actually is an upside from the point of view of starting a lab, is that there wasn’t a lot of research in this area. So I thought: this is a growing field. This meant that there was a niche for me.
UA: During my PhD I had mainly worked on the biogenesis of thylakoid membrane, but I was strongly interested in the regulation of photosynthesis. Particularly, because the understanding of photosynthesis in natural light was still in its infancy, I saw a large gap in knowledge and thus great potential for ground-breaking discoveries.
When you start your lab, it is important that you look for a question where the field is still at its infancy and where you can make groundbreaking discoveries, because if you jump in into a field that is already heavily occupied, I think that will make it more difficult to compete. And of course, you should also be very excited!
CHW: Currently, my research focus is on the evolutionary and functional dynamics of immune receptors, which builds upon my previous work in Sophien’s group. My research goal is always to conduct fundamental research that holds the potential for translational applications, which is why I find this topic very intriguing as it aligns with my long-term research objectives. While plant immunity is a highly competitive field, I believe that I have identified my niche in uncovering new knowledge of plant immune receptors. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I will solely stick to this topic throughout my entire career. As I progress, I may explore different areas within plant immunity and gradually shift my research interests accordingly.
How did you choose the place/institution in which to start your lab?
KB: I looked at three places: one was in rural Virginia in the US, one was in a smaller city near Los Angeles in California, and then the third was at the John Innes Centre.
When I went to John Innes, I think it struck me as a really welcoming place. I had the opportunity during my interview to talk with faculty, give my seminar, and talk to other people, which is really important to me. So I got to meet with graduate students, postdocs, and research and support staff, which is really important because they’re also an important part of the institution. They introduced me to some of the diversity groups they had. I learned that there’s a Stonewall representative. So for LGBTQ rights, I knew I would be welcomed here. It also means the institution cares about these things, which is also good. I liked Norwich when I visited, I thought it was a really good city. It was just the size I was looking for. Mostly it was the institution, I think everybody seemed genuinely happy working here.
UA: I think this is generally more difficult to say. For me, I applied to the MPG [Max Plank Society] and in turn was offered a job at the MPI of Molecular Plant Physiology, because they were interested in my work. Thus, in this case, I was chosen. I applied to the MPI because they are known for excellent research conditions with core funding and great infrastructure. My hope was that the better the institution is equipped, the easier it will be to do excellent science.
It was a bit more difficult the second time around when I was looking for a professor position in my home country Germany. Here, I applied for nearly every possible position that I was a fit for (altogether nine applications) and I would have taken any of these positions. In Germany professor positions come with core funding, which facilitates scientific research. Fortunately, I got a professor position as part of the center of excellence on plant sciences (CEPLAS) at the University of Düsseldorf, which also comes with strong core funding and excellent infrastructure in addition to a strong drive by CEPLAS to do research in a highly collaborative fashion.
CHW: I decided to join IPMB, Academia Sinica, because it is an institute that prioritizes research-oriented work without extensive teaching. Additionally, the availability of core funding offers flexibility in terms of its usage, such as hiring, equipment and consumable purchases. Furthermore, the campus of Academia Sinica provides an exceptionally good environment as it is populated with individual labs and institutes with diverse areas of expertise, making it an ideal place for interdisciplinary research.
Could you walk me through the steps from obtaining a group leader position to having everything up and running in the lab?
KB: When I was negotiating my startup package, which is the amount of money you get to start your lab that is separate from your salary, they asked me for a list of all the equipment I would need. So that meant I already had a shopping list, which was essentially an Excel spreadsheet and I was able to color the different cells when I purchased each item.
In the beginning, I didn’t have anyone in my lab yet. And so one of the first things I had to do was hire people. My position came with two years of a postdoc and a permanent research assistant or postdoc. This meant that I had to make hiring decisions, and I had to work with human resources, and I had never done any of those things. So it was very much a learning experience.
UA: This was fairly easy at the MPI. Most of the equipment was already available and all infrastructure was in place. I started beginning of September and had my first group members starting the following January and at that point, science was running.
Phase 1) Working out the main research topics to start with (1 to 3 months), and start writing grants. Getting trained on leadership skills.
Phase 2) Equip the lab. Do the first experiments yourself to figure out whether things work. In this phase, you are still in the lab quite a bit. Prepare for the hiring of staff.
Phase 3) Have the first people start to work on your projects.
Currently, I’m setting up a lab in Düsseldorf. Here, the labs are not equipped and everything takes much longer. However, I can continue with the line of research that I started during my junior group phase.
CHW: I started the application for the group leader position in early 2018. When I see a group leader opportunity that potentially fits my career plan, I modify my application package and send it to them. I applied to 11 research institutes or universities in 2018, and I got interview invitations from 7 of them, with IPMB as one of the last ones. I accepted the offer in early 2019 and stayed in Sophien’s group until late 2019. Upon my arrival at IPMB in early 2020, there was a lot of empty space because several PIs had retired recently. I got the chance to renovate the laboratory and reconfigure the layout to suit my research needs. Following the lab refurbishment, I proceeded to recruit personnel and conduct preliminary experiments to establish our experimental system. Subsequently, I started the process of writing grant proposals to secure funding for my research and expand my team with additional hires.
What did you find the most challenging during this process?
KB: I think the most challenging, actually, has been managing. Managing people and managing projects. I had a really good leadership course when I first came here, which was really helpful. But I feel like we are not trained to be managers, right? We are all trained to be very good bench scientists. If you are lucky, you may get some training in grant writing. But we are not really trained on how to manage people, how to manage large projects, or how to manage grant funding. I think trying to figure out how to manage has been one of the biggest challenges, like how to give really positive feedback, but also figuring out how you give negative feedback without being a jerk. Or how do you give someone constructive criticism to try to improve things but also tell them that they’re doing a good job. That is, I think, a really hard thing.
UA: To deal with my fear of failure. It’s the first time you’re setting something up and and of course I had the fear that it’s all going to fail because you don’t have the experience. There’s always this little person inside of yourself who is telling you maybe you’re not equipped to do that.
When you are a postdoc, you are just responsible for yourself, right? Suddenly, [when you are a PI] you have tons of responsibilities and you’re responsible for other people, for other people’s careers, and how they are going to be successful in science! And it’s a lot of responsibility. Once you have finished one task, there are 10 more waiting for you.
CHW: I’d say it was the grant writing. In the system here, grants can either be rejected, funded for just one year, or funded for multiple years. Initially, I faced challenges with grant writing, particularly in securing multi-year funding. While we were hoping for more stable funding over a longer duration, in the first two years, I only received funding for one year at a time. Therefore, I was writing grant proposals all the time, and it can be frustrating reading the comments from the reviewers. I decided to remain humble, accept criticisms, and carefully think of how to craft proposals that look innovative and challenging but still feasible. Last year, I finally succeeded in securing two multi-year grants, including one from National Science and Technology as an “Emerging Young Scholar,” and the other one from the “Grand Challenge Program” of Academia Sinica through collaboration with my colleagues in IPMB. Both of these are very prestigious grants in Taiwan.
And the most fun?
KB: So I had this grant deadline on Tuesday. It was already written, I just had to make some edits. But on Monday, I was not motivated to work on the grant, and instead I spent the whole day doing data analysis. And it was beautiful. So I think my favorite thing is to get my hands dirty and do the research, but I have to remember to carve out time for it so I don’t mis-prioritize tasks.
UA: I would say that the most fun lies with having motivated students and postdocs who love science as much as I do and surpass your expectation and knowledge. If I say “Oh wow, I didn’t know that,” I really love that! This makes me happy because then I gave them the right guidance.
And, if they show me exciting new results, that can make me really excited and really happy for the rest of the day!
CHW: It was the refurbishing! You don’t get many chances to do things like that. It was enjoyable to brainstorm various ways to optimize the space allocated for research. Lab design involves numerous details that require careful attention. I invested significant time thinking of how I would prefer the bench space to be if I were conducting experiments – considering factors such as comfort and convenience. Additionally, I reflected on the lab designs I found appealing (and those I did not) during my time as a student or postdoc, and incorporated the ideas into my lab space.
Initiating a new project is also really fun. As a student or postdoc, there may be some degree of flexibility, but ultimately you work on tasks assigned by your supervisor. However, as a PI, you have the autonomy to generate and develop your own research projects based on your own ideas.
Could you share with us an exciting, surprising or fun moment of running your lab?
KB: I remember we got some seeds from collaborators across the US. And some of them were experimental plant lines that I had worked with in my PhD. We hoped and we hoped, and we hoped that they would grow because we didn’t know, since the conditions are different. Literally, we went every single day to the glass house in the morning to check and see if anything had germinated. And the day that I saw the first seed leaves that I recognized, I was so excited. To see the little shoots just coming up and making their first little seed leaves, I was so incredibly happy.
UA: The most stressful thing was dealing with the COVID situation. Working in shifts with kids at home was positively surprising how well everyone worked with it.
CHW: I make an effort to plan social events for my lab every few months, like dinners, day trips, or escape rooms, to give everyone a chance to relax and have fun. I also occasionally bring homemade cake to the lab for a cozy afternoon tea with my colleagues. I post pictures of these events on my lab website from time to time.
Starting a new lab is a challenging endeavor, where do you find support?
KB: The colleagues are a really big one. At the John Innes every new group leader gets a more senior colleague who is your formal mentor. But there are also other people I go to for mentoring.
Going to junior colleagues who are facing the same stresses, going to senior colleagues for advice, going to friends, having a support network outside of work, going to your partner if you have a partner, doing therapy, if that works for you. I think all of these things together, I think you have to have multiple sources of support. You can’t just lean on one person, but it is important to realize what support you need and to not be ashamed of asking for it.
I think not being afraid to ask people for support and help is really important. I think academia tells you you have to be so independent and that is really not how research works. I also get support from slack groups, fellow members of the diversity committee for one of the societies I’m in. We’re all tenure track people, so we have a little mini rant session every once in a while.
Online Peer Support Groups for New and Aspiring PIs
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/NewPI_Slack and https://twitter.com/FuturePI_Slack
- Also on WordPress: https://newpislack.wordpress.com/ https://futurepislack.wordpress.com/
UA: In my family, my husband and my two kids. My husband is also a scientist so I can bounce a lot of things off him. And then my kids, they just take what they need, right? And in the end, I’m not a scientist, I’m just a mother and they need me right now.
Also with my peers, people my own age, who are just starting their own labs. We have the same problems. Just hearing that it’s not just me who is struggling sometimes, to have people in the same situation, it’s just good to feel that. It’s very important to work on your network. So you meet these people through going to conferences or other people you know.
Last, I am a very curious person, so meeting new people or making new experiences satisfies my curiosity and thus makes me happy.
CHW: The institute provides great support, with a helpful team of administrative staff who assist with various tasks. I also frequently seek advice from my colleagues, whether they are more senior or at a similar career stage, regarding research, hiring, or any other challenges I am facing. They have provided me with invaluable suggestions, and I find our discussions to be incredibly helpful in navigating various situations.
Do you have a particular philosophy of the “lab culture” you want to build? What is your approach to managing your team?
KB: My philosophy of lab management is always to be the lab manager or the lab head that I wanted to have had at various points. I also want to have a lab that is very collegial and very friendly, just because those have always been the labs where I have thrived the most.
So I tried, for example, with my health issues, to be very open about that. And in response, I have had people be open with me, which has really helped their managing relationship. But obviously that’s a trusting thing, and not everyone is going to be open. And so I also try to give people enough space.
In summary, try to respect people’s space, but also be friendly and collegial.
UA: I do. Communication is the key to a happy and successful lab. I have done courses on communication and there I have learned that it is important to bring the conversation back to the common goal.
I try to foster communication between everyone in the lab. The lab should be inclusive and everyone should feel welcome and respected. There should be low hierarchies. Everyone has the same rights, but also responsibilities.
I also want the people that join my lab to know that I will help them with their careers. When they leave my lab at some point, I want to have given them the tools that I can supply or connected them with people that can help them so that they know exactly what their career trajectory will be and have a clear idea of what they want to do in the future.
Resources for Improving Communication
- “Communication Skills for Workplace Success” By Alison Doyle
- Active Listening on The Mind Tools
- Effectively Communicating With Your Staff by Sara Goudarzi
CHW: I recalled having a conversation with Sophien years ago while I was having some issues with working together with another colleague on a project. We had a conversation about “lab culture,” and he told me that creating a comfortable and motivating environment is key to improving productivity within a team. That somehow affected my philosophy in running my lab these days. I believe that when everyone feels supported, they are more motivated to pursue their research. Drawing from my previous experiences in different labs, I try to incorporate the positive aspects of each environment to create an ideal setting for people to thrive.
How does organizing a research project as a group leader compare to doing it as a postdoc/PhD student?
KB: This is something I actually struggle with a little bit. I have ADHD, and it turns out that that does not intersect well with project management. We are working on it, but it’s still a work in progress.
During my second postdoc, I was responsible for my particular work package, but I wasn’t responsible for the entire grant. When you’re a group leader, you have to manage the whole project. You have to manage not just the people, but also the research, as well as the administrative side of things.
On the other hand, a position, like a postdoc, is often two or three years at most. So you don’t get to see the whole lifespan of the project, whereas as the group leader, you see the entire lifespan of the project. That is really cool, but it can be really challenging if you have problems with project management. And that is another thing that they don’t really teach you.
UA: While planning for yourself, you know the person and their capabilities fairly well and can easily adjust. If you plan together with other people there is much more uncertainty, but also much more room for positive surprises, if the person exceeds expectations. Thus, my suggestions. Don’t start with too high expectations, rather keep them at a lower level, your job will be much more rewarding. It is important to communicate; what can create problems within your lab is a lack of good communication.
CHW: As a group leader, your perspective shifts significantly. You need to focus on the broader scope of the group’s goals and the biological questions. Your considerations extend beyond individual experiments, you care more about what the lab wants to achieve in a few years, and what’s the novelty and impact of your research.
With the experience that you have now, what would be a piece of advice that you would give to someone aspiring to start their own lab?
KB: Focus on the stuff that you’re really good at and the stuff that you’re really known for and don’t try to do everything at the same time. You are a very junior lab, maybe you have one or two people in your lab. Don’t try to do five things at once. Don’t only do one thing either. Always have something else that you can pick up when you have a dead period for the first thing, but don’t hare off in every single direction and try to do all your research ideas at once. Save some of them for later, because you will need them for later anyway. Try to build up a strategy about when you are going to address different questions. New questions will come up. Also, make space for questions you didn’t expect, too.
UA: Pace yourself, make sure to have me-time as well or generally enjoy life. Science is not everything.
CHW: Setting up a lab is really fun. I do really enjoy the process and now I have a lab of 11 people including me. However, I want to give advice on faculty job applications because it is something you have to do before starting to establish a laboratory.
It’s better to start thinking about and preparing for job applications early on, including having the application package ready. You really won’t want to miss a potentially good opportunity for your career just because the application package isn’t polished enough.
I also recommend applying for as many positions as possible once you see a potential fit. However, it is very critical to tailor the applications to each place you apply; not just changing the title and address, but stating how your research topic can benefit the department. Having the interview is not just about securing a job, but also building personal connections. I’ve had multiple interviews in various places, and each time I engaged in discussions with the people there, which helped me establish valuable connections.
If you have a dream job in mind, it is better not to let it be your first interview. The first interview is often nerve-wracking as you don’t know what to expect. By having some faculty job interview experiences, you’ll be more mentally prepared and the application package and seminar will be more polished, and the chance of getting an offer is higher.
Is there any other aspect of running a lab that we haven’t mentioned that you would like to comment on?
KB: I think one piece of advice I would also have is make friends with the administrators at your institution. I mean, everyone knows this in theory, but not everyone does it. But it is not just being polite over email. It’s actually making friends with people because they will help you out. Make friends with them, have coffee with them. Don’t just have coffee with your colleagues, have coffee with your grant administrator or your purchasing person or the facilities manager.
UA: The most important thing about science is to have fun while doing it.
CHW: Not really. The questions were very comprehensive.
About the Author
Ángel Vergara Cruces is a PhD student at the John Innes Centre in the UK, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. He has joined the Webster lab to work on gene expression in chloroplasts using structural biology. He is also part of the team organizing the Spanish Juvenile Science Olympiad, an interdisciplinary scientific competition aimed at 15-years-old pupils. You can find him on Twitter at @@ngelVerCru.