Tips on Lab Meetings

| 17 Comments

As I prepare for another lab meeting, I realize that I have no idea what I am doing.

Any experienced PIs have any tips about putting together successful lab meetings?

Keep in mind that my lab consists of about 7 undergraduates, a grad student, and a postdoc.

17 Comments

Reed, what are your lab meetings about?

How long? Are you having bag lunches? Is it formal or informal? Does everyone have assignments of some sort; i.e., do they have projects of their own or some responsibility for a part of a larger project?

One word: bagels.

Our meetings are informal, but perhaps too much. We have a conference room booked for 2 hours.

In my lab, everyone works on independent projects from the freshmen to the postdocs. I don’t really support the typical “undergrads do all the grunt work of grad students / postdocs” style of labs.

Reed A. Cartwright said:

Our meetings are informal, but perhaps too much. We have a conference room booked for 2 hours.

In my lab, everyone works on independent projects from the freshmen to the postdocs. I don’t really support the typical “undergrads do all the grunt work of grad students / postdocs” style of labs.

The informality should have some structure if it is going to contribute to experience and learning. I have a lot of experience in physics labs, engineering labs, in academic environments, and in industrial labs, and in collaborations with government labs.

There are always lab meetings, some of them with specific agendas that coordinate the work and keep team members apprised of everything that is going on, especially on multidisciplinary research projects with many things going on.

So, in such cases, people are usually scheduled to give informal presentations and updates and check schedules and progress and iron out the inevitable snags.

In the more academic settings where there are mixtures of undergrads, grads, post docs, and the PI, it very much depends on the size of the projects, how many people are working on them, and whether or not the PI can feel the undergrads can take some central responsibility that can get their names on a research paper. I would never recommend just grunt work for undergrads; research is a learning experience. The grunt work falls on everyone; post docs and PI included.

If it is a lab setting that is just getting off the ground with undergrads doing independent research projects, then I would have weekly meetings that would have individuals presenting and articulating their ideas and approaches to their projects and getting feedback from others. This is especially important for undergrads, but for grads also.

Thinking through all the aspects of an experiment, dealing with all the epistemological and data analysis issues is an extremely important habit that should be learned as early as possible. Is your approach to a research problem viable? Will it get at what you are seeking? Do you really know what you are seeking?

Look at it from the perspective of peer review. It doesn’t have to be brutal; but it should encourage the development of the habits of thoughtfulness and thoroughness. These are the kinds of activities that go on informally in nearly all good labs anyway.

In fact, some of the most fun meetings get deeply into philosophical and epistemological issues of research. How do we separate confounding factors in a given experiment? How do we do the statistics? How precisely can we articulate the null hypothesis in an experiment? If there are controls, what confounding factors can ruin the controls? Students need to learn how to tear their own experiment all apart and find all the problems that everyone else might find.

These kinds of meeting allow individuals to look at a number of projects and participate in making them better. It is good for students to become interested in the research of others; that should always be encouraged. These lab meetings should not be intimidating to the undergrads if they are clear in their minds about their purpose and they get the students to stimulate each other’s thinking. Some good ideas can come from some surprising places.

Make sure the students all get a chance to present their ongong progress and grapple with feedback from others. It is practice for scientific conferences and for poster presentations as well.

There is much more.

Reed A. Cartwright said:

Our meetings are informal, but perhaps too much. We have a conference room booked for 2 hours.

In my lab, everyone works on independent projects from the freshmen to the postdocs. I don’t really support the typical “undergrads do all the grunt work of grad students / postdocs” style of labs.

I meet with my group each week – usually a mix of my longer-term grad students (PhD and MS and the occasional MEng) plus undergraduate interns/co-op students/students taking undergraduate research. I have one student (or two depending on the group size) present their research in a standard 20-minute talk, followed by Q&A from the team. I want to make sure that everyone has the experience of going through their data, figuring out what story the data are telling and how to convey that to a group that is technically literate but not necessarily expert in the work they’re presenting. The only time I’ll present is if I’m making a presentation at an external event and need the practice with a live audience.

I also use group meetings as a venue for practice runs for proposal defense practice and thesis/dissertation defense practice. It seems to be a useful experience for all involved.

My dissertation adviser met with the whole group and each of us gave a brief update. That was also about 30 years ago … I should ask him what he’s doing these days.

I should add that the group meetings are not the venue where I manage projects or dig in to the students’ data and experimental design – I have separate subgroup meetings and meetings with individuals to handle those tasks. That seems to be a more efficient use of everyone’s time, and it’s a “safer” place for the students in situations where things have gone south or where I’m trying to lead a confused student to clarity. And maybe safer for me when I come across some weird data set and find myself at a loss for words…

If you want it to be fruitful, take a bag of apples!

I go to lab meetings every week. I work on the test lab of a large independent engineering firm. We have everything from an SEM with EDAX EDS to a general purpose 6 million pound load frame. :)

During graduate school, at any given time, there were four grad students, two to three undergrads and a postdoc in our lab. We also all worked on different projects. We had a rotating style for lab meetings, mainly alternating between individual people giving updates about their research to the group and getting feedback, and then a “journal club” where each person was responsible for 1-2 journals, and would give a highlight of the relevant papers (undergrads just had one journal). Then, on occasion we would give practice talks for meetings or critique poster designs before printing them, and sometimes we just had “lab organization” meetings. I really enjoyed mixing it up like this. This way I knew I would have a couple times a year where I would present, and be questioned about, my research project, but I also got to learn in depth about other projects, and stay up to date with current research articles (well, the ones I followed up on). Good luck!

When you go around the table and ask everyone about their progress, put the longest-winded and least considerate person last. That way they cannot shove others off the end of the lab meeting (“Well, Sam’s gone on a bit longer than we expected … sorry Barbara, George, and Ivan, maybe you can report next time. Meanwhile I have to go to an appointment.”)

Consult Dembski, then do the exact opposite, unless starting your science with a prayer is your thing.

An important objective should be to get undergraduate and graduate students to feel that they can, and should, ask questions at any presentation. I benefited greatly from that when I was a student. I have been distressed at how often, in what are supposed to be informal seminar presentations rather than formal lectures, all the grad students feel intimidated and wait for us faculty to finish arguing with the speaker. And even then they don’t ask questions.

Speakers and faculty questioners should not be allowed to take up all the time – the mentor should if necessary prod the students into getting involved.

That said, I am a loudmouth who does not always practice what he preaches.

Many good bits of advice already. In case it was not mentioned, plan to have one of the lab members present the progress of their research during the lab meeting. Rotate this contribution for each lab meeting. You do the first presentation at the 1st meeting to get the ball rolling. Provide a range of snacks. Students learn to organize their thoughts and to communicate as they think on how to talk about their research. This is especially beneficial for the undergrads.

robert van bakel said:

Consult Dembski, then do the exact opposite, unless starting your science with a prayer is your thing.

I’m curious about what a Dembski “lab” would look like.

On second thought, no I’m not.

Mike Elzinga said:

robert van bakel said:

Consult Dembski, then do the exact opposite, unless starting your science with a prayer is your thing.

I’m curious about what a Dembski “lab” would look like.

On second thought, no I’m not.

Perhaps yet another Disco Tute ‘green screen’ job.

Mike Elzinga said:

robert van bakel said:

Consult Dembski, then do the exact opposite, unless starting your science with a prayer is your thing.

I’m curious about what a Dembski “lab” would look like.

On second thought, no I’m not.

Would it be possible to share information at a lab meeting without violating the Law of Conservation of Complex Specified Information?

Would it be possible to share information at a lab meeting without violating the Law of Conservation of Complex Specified Information?

It probably depends on what agency has jurisdiction when it comes to that kind of law.

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