How to survive & excel in lab meetings

Whether it’s your first time or you are a seasoned pro – lab meetings always bring those slight feelings of fear and anxiety! Whether you don’t want to present your recent data because people are going to tear it apart or whether you don’t want to look like Jon Snow and appear that you know nothing, I think there is always something that makes you feel a little apprehensive and that you’re worried about.

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Every research group does lab meetings differently. Whether that’s meeting weekly, fortnightly or monthly and whether you sit and discuss your results, or listen to one group member present or there is more of a journal club feeling to them, they all vary in format! These bring with it their own daunting challenges but with today’s post I want to share some tried and tested words of wisdom that I’ve learnt from lab meetings to not just survive your next lab meeting, but excel at them! And hopefully there is something useful no matter what format your lab meeting is in!

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‘What about Doctor Know It All and their inevitable questions?’

There is usually that one person in every lab group who will always ask a question – and that question sometimes isn’t necessarily completely related to what you’re talking about! But you have to embrace this! They are going to push you to the extremes of your knowledge and while this might sound terrifying, it is going to show you what more you could do some research on and learn about! That person is going to make sure you know why you did each step in your newest protocol and make you justify your future work! While it’s not something you are going to enjoy, it will be forever useful! Especially if you’re a PhD student as you are going to need to know all of these things for your viva! And I don’t know about you – but I’d rather know that I didn’t know how to explain something in a lab meeting than in my viva or PhD defense!

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‘What if someone interrupts me?’

You might be one of the lucky ones and spot a hand rising into the air during your talk, rather than the PIs just starting to talk over you and interrupting your flow! But rather than panicking when you see that dreaded hand or the verbal interruption, see it as a chance to clarify things and explain something you already know! Most of the time, interruptions are just to clarify minor points that the listener has missed and so they can continue to follow your talk. But remember, you are getting these interruptions because the listener is a) actually listening to you and b) they are interested and they want to hear more! It is a good thing!

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‘What if I forget what I’m talking about?’

We are all human! We all stumble over our words, lose our trail of thought or forget why we walked into a room! This happens in lab meetings too! And it’s absolutely fine! Lab meetings are a discussion – so the likelihood is that someone can remind you of what you were talking about so you can pick up from where you left off! But if you end up having a complete mind blank – that is absolutely fine too! These things happen! If you cant remember the answer to a question you’ve got asked then you can just look it up later and let people know! Your lab group is there to help you! They are not going to judge you for not knowing something – because if it’s your research area chances are most of them won’t know the answer either and they just wanted to learn!

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‘What if I mess up the timing of my presentation?’

Lab meetings are a perfect opportunity to practice that upcoming conference talk where you have a strict 15 minute time limit! But running through it in lab meeting, you get it done in 9 minutes, or the timer goes off and your only half way through! There’s no need to worry! That’s why you’re practicing it after all! Nerves are going to make you want to race through your slides but if you finish after 9 minutes then you know you have plenty of time to walk the audience through your results at a much more relaxed pace. If you’ve run out of time, it’s a good opportunity to analyse which parts can be taken out or simplified to fit the time limit better without losing your message. Remember slow and steady wins the race and less really is more! Cut down the amount of words on the slide, make the pictures bigger and re-emphasise your key messages! Better to get the advice from your lab group now than standing on the stage like a bit of a lemon when your timing is all wrong at the conference!

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‘What if I have no positive results to share?’

Get rid of the this idea of positive and negative results from your head right now! One of the first things I try and teach my students is that every result is a positive result. What about if an experiment didn’t work? Well – you know that those conditions don’t work so you can rule them out and try the next lot! What about if your results show that nothing changes in your experiment? Then that’s a positive result too! You now know that those changes don’t affect that protein for example so you can rule that one out and try the next one! What about if your results are the opposite to what you expected? Then that’s a positive result too! It might be frustrating because it doesn’t fit your hypothesis, but it is a theory at the end of the day and you need to piece the puzzle together! So, no matter what results you have got from your experiments this week – bring them to lab meeting and share them! Someone might have had the same technical issue previously so might be able to share some advice, or if that result disproves your hypothesis then discussing other options with your peers may inspire some alternatives!

You are not expected to discover something ground-breaking every week! You just need to chip away at the stone that little bit more! My supervisor often tells me the story of a previous PhD student whose PhD research showed nothing novel! Everything they tried showed no difference –Β which in itself is novel knowledge I must remind you! – but they still got their PhD! Just keep chipping away at that piece of stone and overtime the bigger picture will appear!

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‘What if everyone disagrees with what I’m saying?’

We all interpret data differently! Sometimes we come to the same conclusions, and sometimes we don’t! But someone disagreeing with your conclusions, does not mean you are wrong! I have had many discussions in a lab meeting where I have differed in interpretation to the next person! But it has just opened my eyes every time! Sometimes we jump to certain conclusions because that is what we want to see as it fits our hypothesis! But sharing this with your lab group lets a fresh unbiased pair of eyes look at the results and see if they agree with you! If they don’t, then it can help you to devise more experiments to prove or disprove your conclusions and make your research stronger for it! So a disagreement is never a bad thing!

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‘What if noone knows what I’m talking about?’

It is very easy to get tunnel vision in lab meetings and assume that everyone around you knows what you’re talking about! Sometimes you just need to remind people of the basics of your research area so they can follow what updates you have! You might even have to remind them a few times in one lab meeting! Everyone in the lab group will have slightly different specialities! So although you will all share the same common knowledge of your lab group, you all have different specialist knowledge too and it is tough enough to keep on top of your own area let alone the areas of everyone in your lab group! The likelihood is they just need reminding and just take the time to do that! Because once everyone follows what you’re saying, they will understand your point and then be able to give you any advice or helpful tips!

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‘Any questions?’

The time at the end of your presentation or explanation when you try not to wince and pray that noone says anything! As I mentioned earlier with the interruptions, questions at the end are a good thing! It means you have engaged and interested listeners. They are not trying to trip you up, but just trying to understand your methodology or your interpretation of your results better! Or it might just be a clarification or a general question about your subject area! And there is no shame in saying that you don’t know something! I have done it my fair share of times believe me! They are not expecting you to be the all knowing power of whatever your subject is – but if you don’t know try and apply some knowledge that you do have and hazard an educated guess. After all, we are scientists and are always searching for answers and we do that by making hypotheses! This point is also a great opportunity to ask for your listeners input! So, if you want to know how you would investigate something – ask for help and ideas from your peers! They are there to support and help you too!

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But if all else fails..

Just bring cake!

Image result for dna cupcakes

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Lab meetings – especially your first few – can seem terrifying, but noone is out to get you! Everything you fear or are anxious about happening probably will happen, but it will be for the benefit of you as a researcher and your research! It’s a chance to troubleshoot, share and discuss ideas and focus the direction of your work! So start thinking of your lab meetings as a brainstorming session and not an interrogation. That way you won’t just survive them, but you will excel as a result of them!

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What format are your lab meetings in and what about them makes you feel uneasy? Do you have any other advice for helping that lab meeting anxiety?

Science love.

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