Saturday, December 20, 2014

State of the lab, year 2 – reaching steady state

CC BY ,Jason Paul Smith
At the end of last year I wrote up a short description of what it was like to start a group at the EMBL-EBI. I though it would be interesting to try to make it an yearly event so here is the second installment. It is always scary how fast a year passes by and it is interesting to note how my perspective of managing a research group is changing.

During this year we said our first goodbyes as Vicky Kostiou (linkedin) finished her internship. We also welcomed several new members including Rahuman Sheriff (postodoc, linkedin) Haruna Imamura (postdoc, pubmed), Marta Strumillo (intern, linkedin) and Juan A Cordero Varela (master student, linkedin). Sheriff is working on a collaboration with Silvia Santos' group at the MRC-CSC in London to study cell-cycle regulation. Haruna came initially on a 1 postdoc fellowship in collaboration with Yasushi Ishihama's lab (Kyoto University, Japan) and she has recently been awarded an EIPOD postdoc fellowship to study post-translational regulation of Salmonella in collaboration with Nassos Typas and Jeroen Krijgsveld at the EMBL-Heidelberg. Marta is studying the functional role of PTMs in the context of protein structural information and Juan is participating in a project lead by Marco Galardini (postdoc, @mgalactus, webpage) to model and predict bacterial phenotypes from sequence. These new members join the group of people that I already mentioned last year: David Ochoa (postdoc, @d0choa, webpage), Romain Studer (postdoc, @RomainStuderblog), Brandon Invergo (postdoc, webpage) and Omar Wagih (PhD student, @omarwagih).

Shaking off that postdoc feeling

In the first year my concerns were dominated by the stress of facing an empty room that I needed to fill. It was a mistake to take 6 months to find the first person since I felt like I was wasting time. This year I had to come to terms with the fact that I no longer have time to do my own research projects. After over 10 years of measuring my own productivity by the progress in my research projects it is strange to try to let it go. I am certainly doing work that I enjoy. The progress in the group has been fantastic this year but it took me time to accept that the management activities I am doing is something I should count internally as productive work.

Reaching steady-state

Any new group, specially one that starts in a place like EMBL with very generous core funding, will grow to occupy a space in research. Any movement from this position will then only happen with a slower turnover of projects and people. That seems to be one of the trade-offs from managing a research as group versus an individual. Changing directions for a whole group has to be slower than for an individual. However, as as group it is still possible to explore opportunities while maintaining a common theme of research underway. This year I think we have reached this steady-state. Although we got significant new funding starting next year I don't expect the group to grow much larger. I am curios to see how the research theme of the group will change with time.

The bad and the good of 2014

So I will start off by summarizing some of the aspects I wish had been different this year. Above all I had hoped to publish the first article(s) from the group in 2014. I am happy with the progress of the projects so far (see below) but I am still amazed on how long it takes to get a group up-and-running. Most of the group joined towards the end of last year so it has not been that much time objectively. The second aspect I think we could have done better was to communicate more online on what we have been up to. This has been one of the years with fewest blog posts since I started blogging about 11 years ago. We should do better than this, both because we are publicly funded and because the people (and projects) in the group deserve better exposure. So I will try to change this next year.

On a more positive note this has been great a great scientific year for me and the group even if not very visible to the outside. The two last papers that started still at UCSF are finally under revision and should come out next year. One is about studying the function and evolution of X. laevis phosphosites (biorxiv) and the second about conditional genetic interactions in S. cerevisiae. We also have 3 projects that are getting close to being finished from Omar, David and Romain that I hope we will submit early next year. If possible we will put them up on biorxiv as well before submission. It is obviously a great privilege to see this work take shape and I hope some of you will also be excited about it when we make it public.

Regarding funding, I had mentioned already that Haruna got an EIPOD fellowship. In addition we got a 5 year ERC starting grant awarded. I am very excited about the starting grant since this will allow us to start doing yeast genetics work to complement the proteomics and genome analysis we have been doing. This will feed in and complement almost every project in the group so I really have to thank the committee for this opportunity. For this purpose we will be hiring 2 positions (postdoc and/or technician) early next year. Since the EBI does not have lab space, the work will be done at the Genome Biology unit in Heildeberg. This means I will be traveling (even) more to Heidelberg next year. Those hired to these positions will have the interact with the Typas lab that conduct similar genetics studies in bacterial species. If you know anyone looking for jobs with PhD and/or postdoc experience in yeast genetics please do let them know about these positions.