Friday, October 19, 2012

The delicate balance of a weekly lab meeting

Dan Buckland, an engineer undergoing medical school training, has an interesting look at how physicians, scientists and engineers look at failure . Naturally, the "scientist" section looks familiar:
The Scientist: Most scientific groups have some variation of the “Weekly Lab Meeting.” In these small group sessions, a group member will often present some in-progress project or recent data. Confusing results and unexpected data are presented, with the hope that the group can provide technical support or advice for future experiments. If the results are unexpected, it is common to question if the experiments were performed properly and if all the appropriate controls were conducted in order to establish the validity of the tests. Here, the questions do not assume the competence of the presenter without data to support that the techniques were properly executed. This is one form of “peer-review” and is the basis for the quality control that goes on in science. In fact, the Royal Society’s (The UK’s Academy of Sciences) motto is “Nullius in verba,” which is roughly “Don’t take anyone’s word for it”, including your closest colleagues. These meetings can become very heated, but usually what stops someone from being too cruel is that they know they have to stand in front of the same group at some point in the future and present their own data. However, if you ask most academic scientists, they can usually tell you a story of a lab meeting where someone went too far and a grad student or post-doc was found crying in a cubicle later.
In graduate school, there are a lot of different reasons to have "the weekly lab meeting." Group meeting is a great time to deal with housekeeping issues, to give group announcements and yes, to report on one's progress in the laboratory. Done right, it's a fantastic seminar course with one's graduate advisor -- if you're cooped up in a small room 2 hours once a week, you can't help but learn something from them. Group meetings are also some of the best places to learn scientific skepticism about both your results and others'.

I note Mr. Buckland's last comments about "what stops someone from being too cruel" is much too ideal. Sometimes, personal dynamics of research groups often allows one group member to challenge results without receiving much doubt in return. I think it is incumbent on the research adviser (or the meeting chair) to make sure that everyone's data and conclusions get the same level of healthy skepticism.

6 comments:

  1. Group Meeting - A Fragile Ecosystem; Science Rainforest

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  2. After reading your first sentence, for about ten seconds, I thought about this poor Dan Buckland guy, and why he agreed to have his case of personal failure to be made public. I was thinking, "man, I guess this is supposed to teach us that engineers can't always adopt to new situations even though the thinking goes if you can be an engineer, then you can be a doctor?" Then I figured it out...

    Maybe you should put a coma after the word 'failure'? Otherwise more people might feel bad for that sorry-ass failure Buckland.

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  3. And there's always the one guy who feels the need to ask "Did you get a crude NMR of that?"

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  4. Or the guy who shows his crude NMRs for two hours, philosophizing on the wonderful things that could be inside. And the guy who tries to say smart sounding things that turn into five minute comments that don't actually mean anything. And the guy who tries to explain something that we don't want explained as we already sort of know what he means and we just want the thing to be over, and then he gets a big smile on his face and says "I'll draw it for you!" and runs to the white board skipping happily while we all scream at him that we don't need a drawing!

    Arghhh!!!

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