Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What projects should a new lab be working on?

I was invited to give a talk at a local symposium, and I’m working on my presentation.  In my lab’s short history, we’ve managed to get two papers out.  One of them is so much more appealing to present to a general audience than the other that it makes me wonder whether I should be asking myself, “will I ever want to present this work?,” before starting any new project.

The project I don’t want to present was an esoteric extension of past work that I did.  The question was:  Does this protein related to the one that I study do similar things?  The answer was yes and no, and none of it was really surprising.  This was published in a decent journal and was even highlighted by the journal.  But, I’ll never ever present this anywhere because its importance would only be appreciated by specialists, and it’s boring.  Should we have bothered with this set of experiments at all? 

Well, the reason I did this work was that it was easy and quick given my expertise and tools, and it was a good way to train my technician.  It was also really awesome to get a completely independent publication out the door within six months of arrival at my new university.  And it counts towards tenure.  So yes, it was probably worth it at that point in my career.

On a sidenote, I just mentored a med student who won a fellowship to work in my lab over the summer.  I honestly had a tough time coming up with a two month project that he could actually complete.  So again I fell back on a really obvious question:  Does this homologue from another species of the protein I study do similar things?  Indeed, he got some data, and we’re repeating some experiments so that we can submit it for publication.  But again, it’s totally boring, I envision the paper writing being total drudgery, and it’s not something that would keep a seminar audience’s interest for very long. 

So what am I going to talk about???  The talk-worthy project we published was a completely new set of experiments designed to understand an unexplored aspect of our protein’s trafficking.  One of my students really just ran with this on her own as a side project.  We ended up getting cool data and what is even more awesome is that the results almost magically led us to another totally new discovery. 

So how do I predict in advance which projects will give the exciting talk-worthy results?  At face value it seems that pursuing low hanging fruit rarely gives an exciting result.  But should that exclude us from doing the more obvious work and getting easy (but only mildly interesting) publications?  The conclusion that I’ve come to is that at this critical point in my career, I absolutely need to keep the core of my lab (my grad students and technician) working on the cutting edge stuff, the stuff that I’ll want to include in my tenure talk, and maybe have undergrads or summer students pick up some of the more obvious projects just to boost our total publication output. Ask me in four years if this strategy actually worked. 

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