In the following, I present two of the four interviews that I have conducted with members of the molecular biology laboratory. As in the previous chapter, this presentation is intended to provide a selective overview of my interview data—and to convey, exemplarily, the individual perspectives that different group members have developed on group collaboration.
Johan: 'I'm the memory'
Johan has been group leader for many years, a period during which he has accomplished significant scientific success and during which his lab has significantly grown in terms of lab members, research volume and in terms of the breadth of experimental techniques that lab members apply in their research. Given this development, Johan describes himselfas retaining his “own sort of deep expert knowledge" within crystallography, a set of experimental techniques that has remained at the center of the lab’s research activity over the years; yet he acknowledges that the members of his lab “[...] do a lot that I’m sort of less expert knowledgeable about, but where for example the technicians, and most of the post-docs also, are very knowledgeable."
When asked about his leadership and the kind of work relations he entertains with group members, he describes his role as group leader in terms of “mentorship," trying “to convince them of the good ideas" and “discourage them from what you see as a bad idea." When I want to know more about “bad" ideas, he explains:
Yeah, [a bad idea] could be something where cost-benefit is really not good, where you end up spending a lot of time and effort on something that in the end doesn’t answer the question you want. Or starting a project that isn’t sort of ripe, I mean in the sense that we end up spending a lot of time on things we are not experts on. [...] These are the kind of discussions as a group leader one needs to take. Also, in terms of for example which kind of equipment we use, and will invest in, which kind of new methods we use. I think it’s important from time to time that we try and do new things.
[...] but we can’t change our lab too much all the time. It has to have a balance, like, between conservative stability and innovation.
To strategically balance conservative against innovative research decisions is what Johan sees as a crucial challenge, an element of his leadership that he elaborates upon at length:
[.] so once a new idea or opportunity pops up, yeah well then one would think well who can actually incorporate that. Either as a new project or into [an existing] project, and then talk to these, go down the hallway, or set up a small meeting with three people. Should we do this [...] and normally they are interested. Other times, if no one really takes the ball and says well that’s not really—sometimes, one needs to be a little more insisting. Because I mean everyone wants to sort of get along and produce something but sometimes you need to invest also in trying something new, that's an important role where sometimes one needs to be a bit more sort of an authority, saying: we gotta do this, right. So, that, finding that balance is important I think. At the same time being an authority, at the same time allowing the independence.
In weighing the authority that comes with seniority against individual independence, Johan seeks to create a participatory “lab culture” that acknowledges the collaborative efforts that the lab undertakes as a group—it is good for group members to have “individual goals,” but, he underlines, “[...] the important thing is to let them understand that they can reach even higher goals by working as a team.”
A recurring motif in the interview with Johan is his emphasis on caring for the students in his lab: “[...] younger researchers have, often have bright new ideas, but they can also actually be quite conservative in the sense that they, they want to be sure that things work.” Therefore, Johan sees it as his task to help particularly junior group members manage risks of experimental failure. High-risk projects are important, but “[...] if it doesn’t work, you get absolutely nothing, [.] then we have some back-up projects and we make sure that people in the end leave with something” and acquire an acceptable record of publication despite all experimental odds. Group members should not “[...] feel that they worked all this way, and then they are just being screwed in the end.” Throughout the interview, Johan is eager to convey that he regards his laboratory as an “educational institution":
I see it as a very important thing that what I do is to set out people for careers in the future. Not only should I publish good papers, but we should also publish really—no, no, sorry [laughing] produce or send out really good people. And you get to realize also among the more senior scientists, they actually also rate each other like that: are they good people, those people coming from those labs?
Since many people pass through the laboratory, coming from and moving on to other research institutions, Johan tells me, “[...] you need as a group leader to really have a good eye on to be sure that procedures and the science is really maintaining its high level." If done right, “[...] you have this fluent mass of people with a lot of expertise that all the time maintains in the lab." Given the constant arrival of new and the departure of old group members, Johan is, apart from lab technicians and administrative staff, “[...] the only one really continuing all the time — I’m the memory, so to say, of the laboratory." Yet overseeing the group’s research has become challenging because ofits growth, a development that forces Johan to delegate to others his day-to-day supervision and hands- on laboratory work. In order to manage a laboratory of this size, Johan has “[...] set it up more formally, that we have groups and these individual project groups meet with me and others, and I really encourage them to meet of course anyways, whether I’m there or not."