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The Black Hole

Building a lab: 6 months of triumphs and trials

As head of a lab, you're the one-man band responsible for everything from marketing to finance to product development.


As someone who stepped into the role of a group leader half a year ago, I have just embarked on an exciting journey to set up a new laboratory at University College London, U.K. My goal, as part of my New Year’s resolution, is to share some updates about the lab’s growth and some of the fun challenges we’ve faced. So, get ready to kick back and enjoy because it’s time for a six-month recap since the lab’s grand opening!

After moving from the West Coast of the U.S. to London, U.K. last June, I quickly found myself in the midst of a whirlwind of activities. From procuring a plethora of equipment to posting jobs and assembling interview panels, it’s been a fun rollercoaster ride. We worked diligently to set up equipment, configure computers, and even started to dive into publicly available data to quell our yearning for experiments while we got everything up to speed. And by “we,” I’m referring to our fantastic, albeit petite, team, which includes yours truly, two master’s students, and a whole bunch of support from fellow labs.

Starting a new lab feels a lot like constructing a building from the ground up – it demands meticulous planning and sheer hard work, yet, more often than not, things tend to veer off course. Here’s a snapshot of the challenges we’ve come across during the past six months:

Purchasing spree

Equipping the lab with state-of-the-art tools and technology is an essential but costly endeavour. Surprisingly, despite its importance, the art of budget management is typically not part of the curriculum taught at the graduate and postdoctoral research level but falls under the “learn as you go” category. Based on my experience, tackling this challenge involves building partnerships with other labs right from the start. Collaborative efforts have proven to be a win-win situation, facilitating resource-sharing and fostering a strong sense of community within the scientific network. In our quest for cost-effective solutions, we also try to repurpose existing components and adapt these for our projects. In addition, exploring open-source equipment solutions has been a game-changer for us. We often turn to open-source equipment designs and our trusty 3D printer to find affordable alternatives, ensuring we can acquire essential tools without breaking the bank.

Job advertising

The heart and soul of any lab are dedicated and talented team members. Attracting the right people to join the group is a process that requires patience and a carefully crafted job advertising strategy. The real challenge lies in defining essential and desirable skills for each job in a way that is not just wishful thinking but grounded in reality. This can be quite the adventure for a fresh group leader like me, stepping into the world of formal job interviews after being accustomed to having a crew of super-smart postdocs around. Based on my experience, the book Making the Right Moves (specifically Chapter 4 – Staffing Our Laboratory) offers a comprehensive overview of important considerations. In addition, I can wholeheartedly attest to the tremendous value experienced panel members bring to the interview process. Their unique viewpoints and expertise have played a key role in making well-informed recruitment decisions right from the start.

Hiring expertise

Building a diverse and skilled team is like waiting for a microwave to beep – it always takes much longer than your rumbling stomach initially thinks! Postdoctoral researchers bring in-depth knowledge and research skills to the team, but finding qualified postdoctoral researchers for new labs can be a test of patience. Leveraging your professional network can be a valuable step in identifying and attracting qualified candidates. To speed up the process, cast a wider net by advertising positions not only across job portals but also at meetings and conferences. This approach allows you to tap into a broader pool of talent, including individuals from outside your field or with diverse expertise.

Graduate students, with their enthusiasm and fresh perspectives, are the lifeblood of any lab. They not only bring energy and creativity to the research, but their work often lays the foundation for future projects. However, recruiting graduate students through PhD programs, especially when rotations are part of the equation, tends to be multi-step and somewhat slow. Thus, it is important to keep a keen eye on the timeline and be mindful of the administrative procedures at the university level that can influence the pace of the recruiting process.

Technicians play a key role in a lab’s daily operations, often acting as unsung heroes behind the scenes. Their expertise in ordering processes, equipment maintenance and troubleshooting is invaluable in keeping experiments running smoothly. When hiring a research technician, finding someone with prior experience working at a similar institution can be an incredible asset. They bring not only their technical expertise but also an understanding of the institutional culture and administrative processes, which can significantly expedite the start-up process for the lab.

Administrative tasks

Setting up lab policies, complying with regulations and managing finances – these tasks all demand a substantial portion of time and attention. While these management tasks may not be as glamorous as conducting groundbreaking experiments, they are the backbone that supports a lab’s research endeavours. They’re like the engine that keeps our research machine running smoothly. So, getting comfortable with these tasks and approaching them diligently is a skill we cannot do without.

In a nutshell, the transition from a postdoc, where my biggest concern was mixing up test conditions, to becoming a group leader juggling research, team management and admin acrobatics has been a whirlwind in the first six months. Launching a new lab feels a bit like diving into the world of startups – challenging, yes, but also incredibly fun. Similar to a startup, our team members wear multiple hats and juggle multiple tasks to get the lab soaring, while as group leader, you’re the one-man band responsible for everything from marketing to finance to product development. It’s a wild and multifaceted journey that keeps me on my toes, much like the exhilarating adventure of building a company from scratch. I deeply value the team members who’ve embarked on this adventure with me in 2023 and eagerly anticipate what 2024 will bring.

Sarah Ruediger is group leader as well as a Wellcome Trust CDA fellow at University College London, U.K.
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