Friday, January 29, 2021

State of the lab 7 & 8 - The last years at EMBL

This is usually part of a yearly series of posts where I note down thoughts related to managing a research group in academia over the years. This post covers years 7 and 8 and it brings me now to the start of year 9, my last at EMBL. While I usually do one of these posts every year, with all of the craziness of 2020 I ended up skipping one. 

Year 7, group turnover 

2019 was the year where the group fully turned over all lab members that were with us since the earlier years with 2 postdocs (Haruna Imamura and David Ochoa) and 3 PhD students (David Bradley, Claudia Hernandez-Armenta and Marta Strumillo) leaving. Haruna is now a Research Scientist at the Systems Biology Institute in Japan, David O is a the platform coordinator at Open Targets and Claudia and David B are now doing postdocs. Marta is finding her way through consulting. We were joined by 2 postdocs (David Burke and Miguel Correa) and 2 PhD students (Eirini Petsalaki and Rosana Garrido). This constant turnover of group members is quite difficult to manage both personally and professionally. Year 7 was really the year with largest amount of changes in the group and there is something to be considered about trying to make sure that changes remain gradual. However, it is not always possible to plan for this to happen. While I think that this change in academia is generally positive for science, I do wonder what could be achieved if this was not a requirement (see earlier post).   

Managing research focus over the years

Over the last few years, the research in the group had some dispersion in terms of the group research topics. At the start, the group was named "Evolution of cellular interactions" with a primary focus on the evolution and functional relevance of protein phosphorylation. While this remained the central focus there were other areas we worked on including cancer genomics and genetics of human disease and microbial trait diversity. We also have work that is not yet visible on drug mode-of action predictions. This led me to change the group name to "Cellular consequences of genetic variation" which could better serve as umbrella to the different topics. This is, at least in part, a simple reflection of funding opportunities but also a reflection of true movement in my research interests and the environment I have been working in (Genome Campus). On one hand I feel this dispersion is detrimental in that we could do more with a single minded focus, but on the other hand these extensions have not really been the majority of our work and also act as way for the group to explore new directions. My visual reference for this is a cell sending out protrusions in some directions to feel out the environment around. On some of these new areas (e.g. microbial trait diversity) I feel we have done enough, even with a small total investment, to make the work stand on its own. 

I have to say that the without explicitly planning for it, the dispersion worked to my advantage when applying for position last year as it allowed me to present the group through slightly different lenses depending on where I was interviewing in. Of course, this is only beneficial if there is sufficient research progress made by the group not to appear superficial or unfocused. I suspect that this movement in research topics is normal but I haven't had many deep conversations with others about how this has happened to them in their research groups. In some cases, the changes in topics for some groups seem more abrupt from the outside but it could be just a perception. I will soon have an opportunity to rethink where we put most of our research efforts and likely cut back on some of these extensions. 

Year 8 - A new group, the pandemic and the job market

At the start of last year, I was finally getting comfortable with the idea that the group had changed so much and I was truly excited about the new beginning. Just as the year was starting and I was enjoying this excitement the pandemic hit. As I had described before, we ended up devoting some effort in the group to work on SARS-CoV-2 projects which I think was also good for group morale. However, the changes in working conditions, the effort on the SARS projects and my need to go back to the job market made me less capable of keeping up with some of the projects in the group. While most of the work has kept going there are at least 3 projects/manuscripts that have been neglected simply for my own lack of time/effort. We all know these stories of PIs that let work pile up on their desk and I feel it as a failure although I can rationalise why I really didn't have the time to fully keep up. 

Finally, over last year I was fully back on the job market and I am so relieved that this is now over. Since there nothing official that I can announce I will wait to write up in detail what the process was like and compare it to my first attempt to secure a PI position. I can at least say that I will leave EMBL-EBI at the end this year and I will certainly write more about the 9 years of EMBL. I do want to look back to all that has been good (mostly) and bad, make a summary of what I feel were the biggest advances we made, perhaps discuss the finances, and more broadly go over the issues of this lack of tenure for junior PIs now implemented in so many European research institutions.