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The Black Hole

What type of research assistant do you need to help with your lab startup?


There are, of course, nuances to formulating a budget, and it’s highly advisable to consult with someone who is experienced and understands the politics of the department you are applying to before committing. To help, I’ve asked my friend Damien Wilpitz of Experimental Design Consulting to contribute a number of articles on the details of negotiating a start-up package, keeping track of one’s expenses, and hiring. This is the third of his posts:

“Where are you going?” beckons a new junior P.I., to his tech as she’s walking out the door.


With not even a thought to why he was asking, she replies, “It’s 4:30! It’s quitting time. I’m done.”


A puzzled looked overcame him. “Ummm…You’re just going to leave the experiment running on this bench?! It’s not even close to complete!”


To which she replies, while throwing on her backpack, “that’s not my problem.” Then casually walks out the door.

She’s right. Technically it’s not her fault. Most human resources managers would agree with the research assistant. Her day should’ve included carefully outlined tasks, along with clear objectives. However, who’s ever heard of a carefully planned startup lab?!

Predictable experiments are not the hallmark of lab science, let alone in a startup lab. Most often in the early days of a new lab, experiments and projects need critical and intuitive thinkers. They need people who can think on their feet, and create or troubleshoot these early pilot projects.

A research assistant that could have benefited this early career investigator would have outlined and planned her own tasks and objectives. She would have been able to take ownership of the experiments, and ensure their completion, before “quitting time”.

Now, before we get into the ideas and philosophies behind labor laws, and work-life balance, let us remind ourselves, we are talking about a startup culture. These are not fully established functional teams with already-established protocols and standard operating procedures, like those within big pharma or biotech. Therefore, flexibility is important when considering working conditions.

Now with that in mind, assuming some basic legal human resources rules and policies (I must make note to please be sure to check with your institute’s policies), like 40 hours a week, eight hours a day, and two to four weeks vacation plus sick days, plus benefits. There is flexibility in being able to find a technical assistant that inherently knows these limitations and is willing to work within those constraints. They work productively, and are focused on making the team successful.

You’re probably saying to yourself, “Sounds great! Where do I find this magical technical assistant?!” Unfortunately, it takes some time to find, and to recruit these types of talent.

Aside from the technical skill sets seasoned or novice research assistants can possess, they have four traits which can contribute to their work behaviours:

  1. Motivation
  2. Mindset
  3. Perspective
  4. Feelings

These dynamic traits can determine the productivity of your lab’s early success.

Research assistants can make your lab an intense and wonderful learning experience for you and the team, or they can make it an intense and horribly agonizing experience. They can greatly influence your focus on the science. Great technical or research assistants understand that they are there to help you focus on two things; designing the experiments, and promoting the science.

When technical assistants know this, they understand that they’re part of a team and that they are connected to the success. They can become independent enough to know how they can influence and to help speed up that process, and to help you focus on grants, designs, or any other higher level P.I. responsibilities.

In order to work with these type of individuals, it first starts at the hiring stage. It’s a process to identify the type of technical candidates suited for a young startup lab. We search for the traits that determine the desired behaviors that leads to successful science teams.

Here we’ve found that four primary traits can contribute to this star research assistant:

  1. Motivation: Intrinsic, opposed to Extrinsic.

They are intrinsically motivated to better themselves. Non-profits and startups often can’t afford experienced techs. Therefore, to be able to leverage other values, like personal development and skills, are important. Most often, those who are wanting and opportunity to develop their own unique skill set toward their own career goals are the perfect candidate to take on these challenges.

  1. Mindset: Growth, opposed to Fixed.

They have a growth mindset about difficult work. Growth mindset individuals love and expect challenges. They inherently expect these types of difficult tasks as an opportunity to practice and to develop their skills. It’s part of their intrinsic motivation.

  1. Perspective: Objective, opposed to Subjective.

They are objective and non-judgmental toward the success and failures of work. They have a non-judgemental viewpoint of any of these challenges. They have a way of staying objective about situations, whether difficult or easy. This gives them the ability to not get paralyzed or persuaded by outside opinions or internal dialogues. They understand subjective behaviors and look things as causality vs causations. They don’t let their emotions cloud those judgements.

  1. Emotion: Selflessness, opposed to selfishness.

They feel the sacrifice for the betterment of the team’s success. When it does come to emotions, they recognize that negative emotions can hinder productive team dynamics and further exacerbate problems. Therefore, they make a conscious effort to consider other person’s feeling before acting, and focus their emotions toward the care and concern for those around them. They love to make positive decisions and choices that ultimately helps others, rather than greedy feelings for themselves.

For any startup, uncertainty and problems are part of the natural seeding growth and development. Therefore, being able to find a team that will not only work in that environment, but to also thrive, is critical. These candidates are the types of research assistant that one should be screening for. Using behavioral based interviewing processes can help facilitate that search.

It takes a balance of skills and emotional fortitude to be able successfully work in a new lab. So be sure to select a team that has that balance.

Do you have a story of a star technical research assistant that has helped the success of your science? Share with us.

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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