Hiring, Firing, and Beyond: How to be an Effective Supervisor

At the Biophysical Society 60th Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, the Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women (CPOW) hosted a panel discussion called Hiring, Firing, and Beyond: How to be an Effective Supervisor.

The panel included Dorothy Beckett (University of Maryland), Kelly Knee (Pfizer), Prithwish Pal (Illumina), Rohit Pappu (Washington University in St. Louis), Rajini Rao (Johns Hopkins University), and Joanna Swain (Bristol-Myers Squibb). Session organizers Sudha Chakrapani (Case Western Reserve University), Gabriela Popescu (University at Buffalo), and Marina Ramirez-Alvarado (Mayo Clinic), facilitated the discussion, which is summarized below.

Panel members stressed that populating the lab with talented, creative, and hard-working trainees is critical to any PI’s success. Whether looking to hire students or postdocs, it is essential to start with a detailed and accurate description of the position. This helps you as the PI to focus on the most important characteristics of the person you are looking for; it also helps applicants to self-select. For a graduate student, highlight techniques the advanced techniques to be used; for a postdoctoral position, highlight opportunities for additional training and career development. Once you are satisfied with the description, send it to colleagues who may know good candidates, and add it to your website. Placing ads in magazines like Science and Nature generate many responses, but many will be irrelevant.

Once you have identified a few interested applicants, you are faced with the challenge of determining who will best fit in with your lab environment and culture. If you have a rotation system for students at your university, use your rotations wisely. Spend time in the first two weeks with the student talking about what question he/she should be looking to answer, rather than the everyday minutiae of the position. Let them know your working style and that of your lab members. Watch, assess, and monitor how the student fits in and adds to the lab.

If you do not have the luxury of time with a potential trainee, ask behavioral questions in your interviews. One prompt to give applicants is, “Tell me about a time you had to deliver something by a certain time and it did not go well.” Let them tell the story and keep asking questions as they talk.

Plan for candidates to spend time with both senior and junior members of the lab so that you can evaluate how they will interact with both; ask your team members for their evaluation of the candidate.

Another challenge you will face as the lab director, is to set boundaries around work schedules. It is helpful to keep in mind that productivity does not always correlate with a magic number of hours spent working in the lab, even if that’s where data are collected and knowledge discovered! Some students can be very productive with a 9-to-5 schedule; whereas others may hang in the lab constantly without accomplishing much. Put more weight on the results of their work than the number of hours they are working.

You may find that a dedicated student has difficulty with a particular task. Hopefully you can help them to overcome the difficulty. Remember that they do not have the necessary experience and may lack perspective; be patient and curious. Start by giving the student small tasks and evaluate how proficient and efficient they are in accomplishing them; this will give you an idea of the roadblock they are facing. Some students have “experiment-phobia” and talk themselves out of taking action; give them license to have things not work out right away. Others feel that they need to be perfect and spend too much time on inconsequential aspects of the work, or proceed at an exceedingly slow pace to avoid mistakes. Emphasize to them that it is okay to fail by telling stories of your own mistakes. This will help them realize that their mistakes can be fixed and are not the end of the world. Give the students a checklist of things that could have gone wrong so that they can try to figure issues out on their own before bringing you in. This will give them a greater sense of ownership over their experiments.

It is of paramount importance to make your expectations clear from the beginning and to hold people accountable to these. If a trainee becomes toxic to the environment in the lab, seek a second opinion before taking irreversible actions. Talk to a senior colleague about your concerns; make sure your expectations are reasonable and have been communicated clearly. Once you are clear that the trainee is simply a poor fit, do not wait too long to ask them to leave. Yes, it is never pleasant or easy to let people go; however, keep in mind that the price your lab pays may be a steep one.

Once you made the decision to let someone go, talk to them in private. Be pragmatic rather than placing blame, and always be civil. Give them enough time to find a new position. If you are asking a postdoc to move on before his/her contract is up, make sure that you have documentation about their behavior.

In keeping a productive and positive lab environment be mindful not to transfer your stressors onto your lab members. Instead find a peer or a senior colleague to talk these over; your stress can negatively affect both your home and your lab activities. Do not put undue pressure on lab members and avoid blaming them for all that goes wrong; such a highly demanding environment may inadvertently encourage someone to fabricate data, which is every PI’s nightmare! However, also stay away from micromanaging; this is rarely well-received and often takes away from a trainee’s time at the bench.

Whether you are hiring, firing, or managing people keep in mind that trainees join your team to learn from you, to further their skills, and to discover knowledge, while like every other person they have their own challenges to overcome, and that both their aspirations and difficulties are just as important as your own. Treat your team members as co-discoverers rather than employees and inspire them with your good will, patience, and enthusiasm.

Members of the panel and the audience alike agreed that being an effective supervisor requires skills that cannot be gained overnight. One must be patient, willing to learn from mistakes and seek council from a diverse network of colleagues, and aspire to move from managing trainees to truly leading a team.


The Science Behind the Image Contest Winners: Light Trails of Receptor Tyrosine Kinase EphA2

The BPS Art of Science Image Contest took place again this year, during the 60th Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. The image that won second place was submitted by Thomas Newport, a PhD student at the University of Oxford. His image shows simulated dynamics of the ectodomain of the receptor tyrosine kinase EphA2 (shown as glowing lines) as well as different conformations that highlight the possible movement of this receptor relative to the membrane surface. Newport writes here about the image and the science it represents, as well as his experience as a first-time BPS Annual Meeting attendee.

Newport Thomas-57-84474

The Biophysical Society’s 2016 meeting was unlike any other conference I have attended in my admittedly fairly short academic career. Thousands of posters, talks, and exhibits clamour for attention over a packed six day schedule. Distinguished professors haggle over conclusions with terrified grad students, while suited salespeople draw in new customers with the promise of free bags, USB drives, and flat-pack microscopes.

Probably the highlight of this, my first Biophysical Society meeting, was winning second prize in the Art of Science image competition, or as my supervisor helpfully emailed me a few minutes later, “congratulations, you’ve won second prize in a beauty contest, collect $10.” The competition: ten gorgeous images, some computer generated, some from microscopes, telling a selection of stories from across the vast field of biophysics.

My image was developed in collaboration with Matthieu Chavent, and shows simulated motions of a key signalling protein as it interacts with the cell membrane. His paper explains more of the scientific background and is well worth a read. Matthieu had already visualised the protein using VMD, a popular open source visualisation tool for molecular dynamics simulations, and traced the paths followed by several atoms as the protein moved between two states. By this point my enthusiasm for digital art and 3D visualisation was fairly well known so we met up to discuss turning this data into art.

Blender3D has been my tool of choice for 3D digital art since I was in high school. It’s open source, has great developer and user communities, and can be used for anything from game development to movie production. Working on the data in Blender gave me complete control of the scene, letting me get the composition, lighting and materials just right. I drew inspiration from long-exposure “light painting” photography, where movement can be captured using trails of light. The light trails were probably the most difficult part to get right – transparent and glowing enough to look ethereal but clear enough to be easy to follow.

It seems to have been a hit – the image has been used as the cover of Structure journal and even appeared on the 2015 Biochemistry Department Christmas card (Matthieu even photoshopped some festive hats onto the proteins, although sadly they didn’t make it to the final card). I’ve run a couple of courses teaching Blender to structural biologists, and it definitely seems like a few people were put off by easily fixable data compatibility issues. Once I’ve got a moment free I’d really like to improve the way Blender handles structural biology data to take some of the data wrangling out of developing scientific art. If you’d like to help, you can find me on GitHub or Twitter (@tnewport).

Concepts in biophysics and structural biology are often most effectively communicated through images, from the iconic double helix of DNA to Jane Richardson’s now ubiquitous protein ribbon diagrams. New technologies are creating new ways for us to tell scientific stories in visual media, as still images, videos, and interactivities. This year’s BPS Art of Science competition showcased some amazing works of art that have come out of these advances, and I’m looking forward to an even tougher competition next year.

The Science Behind the Image Contest Winners: Bacterial Networking

The BPS Art of Science Image Contest took place again this year, during the 60th Annual Meeting in Los Angeles. The winning image was submitted by Zeinab Jahed, a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley. Jahed took some time to provide information about the image and the science it represents.

BPS_image contest_HR

The image was taken using a field emission scanning electron microscope (SEM). It shows three colonies of Staphylococcus aureus bacterial cells (false-colored in purple) each with a diameter of ~500nm.  These colonies are “networking” and connected via nano-scale strings of bacterial cells embedded within a self-produced matrix of extracellular polymeric substance (EPS). The only visual effect we added was false-coloring the bacterial cells to make them stand out from the micropost in the background.

When my colleagues and I first observed these samples under the SEM, we were quite amazed, as we had seen nothing like it before. SEM images generally look appealing as they provide a familiar and interpretable 3D reconstruction of the sample surface morphology. However, we thought the organized and symmetric arrangement of these bacterial cells at such a small scale is what made this image particularly unique. We supposed the biophysical community might appreciate it as well, and I guess we were right!

When people view this image, we hope to draw their attention to the sophisticated but highly organized world of bacterial cells at the nano and submicron scale. Bacterial cells survive surprisingly harsh conditions through networking and cross talk.

Staphylococcus aureus cells are found all around us: they colonize our nasal cavities, attach to our skin, and adhere to organic and metallic surfaces around us. Although not always infectious, this bacterium can cause nosocomial infections, and is a common cause of food borne illnesses. Most of us have heard of staph infections; you’re more likely to get a staph infection if you come into contact with a surface that has staph attached to it. With the rise of antibiotic resistant strains of these bacteria, it is becoming more important to understand the mechanisms of attachment of these strains to surfaces. Having this knowledge, we can ultimately develop new “drug-free” methods for fighting infectious diseases by inhibiting the first step of infection – that is, bacterial attachment.

Our research program is aimed at understanding the mechanisms of cell-cell and cell-surface interactions at the nano and submicron scales. One derivative of this research is designing chemical-free antibacterial surfaces that inhibit or reduce bacterial adhesion. We study the interaction of cells with surfaces containing nano and micro-topographic features.  In previous studies we showed that bacterial attachment rates are sensitive to the nanotopographic features of metallic surfaces. In the work associated with this image, we are looking at the attachment characteristics of Staphylococcus aureus on hydrophobic poly-dimethyl-siloxane (PDMS) micro-posts. The research article associated with this image is in preparation and soon to be published.

This image resulted from a collaboration between the Molecular Cell Biomechanics Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Nanomechanics Research Institute, the Laboratory of Biopolymers and Nanomedicine, and the Surface Science and Bio-nanomaterials Laboratory at the University of Waterloo in Canada.   Other than myself, the students involved were Hamed Shahsavan, Mohit Verma, Jacob Rogowski, and Brandon Seo. The PIs involved were Mohammad Mofrad, Frank Gu, Ting Tsui and Boxin Zhao.


Wrapping up Biophysical

Agila Somasundaram photoMusings as the meeting comes to an end.

I presented my poster on Tuesday. I was happy that it was received well. I obtained good feedback, and suggestions for interesting experiments and unique approaches to data analysis. I didn’t have much time to stop by all the posters that I wanted to look at. I guess there’s only so much one can do at a conference!

I ventured out with a few fellow BPS attendees the other day. We were talking about Los Angeles. I didn’t get a chance to explore much, but my long bus rides to and fro the convention center gave me a good glimpse of the city. Here are some things that stood out: diversity in culture and socioeconomic status; the weather – can’t beat the sunny skies, and a cool 60 – 70 F; Mexican food – yummy guacamole; and lyrical Spanish – I could live here and master my Espańol! The appearance and culture of LA reminded me of certain Indian cities, only it is not as populated. One of the attendees, having grown up in LA, said that he loves the city for all it has to offer. It’s a growing and open city, he remarked, with a developing Metro that he thinks will be as good as Chicago’s EL someday! It’s a city for creative people, he says, that provides great opportunities for exploration and growth. Most cities are Gaussian curves, with clear central peaks (Yay to us nerds!!), but LA is more of a rugged landscape, and efforts are underway to develop the central hub. He says LA may not be a great for tourism, but it’s great for living – you need to live in and fall in love with LA! I can’t attest to the factual accuracy of his statements – he says he is biased – but his love for the city was quite obvious!

As for the highlight of the conference, the Science of Hollywood session certainly takes the cake! But I also had a bit of an awakening. I ran into an old friend of mine from undergrad who I haven’t seen in a decade. Catching up and reminiscing about the past took me back to my roots, and I felt like I reconnected with a big part of my identity.

I’m back in DC now. It’s 40 F. It will take some readjusting. But life goes on!


The Science of Hollywood


Agila Somasundaram photo As scientists, especially biologists, many of us were impressed with how the movie Contagion accurately depicted the scientific process of developing a vaccine to a deadly virus, and the response to a public health crisis. The vaccine was developed in an incredibly short time – hopefully we’ll get there soon! On Monday, I attended the session I was looking forward to the most at the BPS Annual Meeting this year – The Science of Hollywood! The session was moderated by Rick Loverd, Program Director of Science and Entertainment Exchange (SciEntEx). SciEntEx is sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, and its goal is to connect entertainment professionals developing science-based entertainment content with top scientists and engineers whose expertise can improve the storyline. Started in 2008, SciEntEx has many success stories including Contagion, The Big Bang Theory, Prometheus, and Eureka! The panelists comprised of scientists, and professionals from the entertainment industry.

While discussing the role of science in the creative process, Amy Berg, Film/TV Writer and Executive Producer, said that science should improve story telling, but it should not inform it. The goal of story telling is to give the audience what they can relate to. While story trumps science, science improves story. Dr. Jessica Cail, Professor of Psychopharmacology, Pepperdine University, and a consultant for many sci-fi movies and TV shows including the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., said that she tries to make the science as accurate as possible, and hopes that it makes it through the ladder of movie production before it hits the screens. Dr. Clifford Johnson, Professor at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Southern California, indicated how nature and science offer innumerable creative opportunities for exciting stories. He cited the example of Dr. Kip Thorne, who conceived of the scientific idea that became the movie Interstellar. He said, “Science is not just a decoration, but the core of the story.” Mike Ireland, Senior Vice President, Production, 20th Century Fox, said that entertainment influences science too. Transparent Aluminium, of Star Trek fame, is a ‘new state of matter’!

When our favorite characters say or do something, we absorb it. How science, scientists and the scientific process are pictured in media can significantly affect public perception of scientific issues. So, does Hollywood have a role in informing society? Dr. Cail said that while the entertainment industry can do it, it is not their job. Mike Ireland remarked that Hollywood can provide sound science, but it would be hard to change deep-rooted public opinions on issues such as evolution and climate change. Depicting good science in children’s shows might be a way to educate the public. But the consensus was that it is essential that movies and TV shows accurately portray not just science, but also scientists. Dr. Johnson emphasized the importance of depicting the diversity (gender, racial, etc.) in science, so that people start thinking of scientists as ‘all kinds of people’, instead of stereotyping them. Dr. Suzanna Scarlatta, President-elect of the Biophysical Society, requested that the entertainment industry help the scientific community more by portraying the challenges involved in obtaining funding to do exciting science. There was a lot of excitement to the suggestion that entertainment professionals spend time in a real lab, to see how real science happens, including the failures. Reality show, anyone?!

Brainstorming in a multi-disciplinary environment is a big part of their careers, and all the panelists thoroughly enjoy it. Amy Berg remarked on how she looks forward to attending weekend retreats where scientists and writers come together to discuss ways in which they can help each other. Dr. Cail loves the various projects that she consults for, her roles as a mentor (for Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World Ultimate Mentor Adventure) and other roles (sometimes a villain!) that she gets to play in shows. Mike Ireland recounted with delight his experience with brainstorming how to build the futuristic motorcycle from Akira (one that you can actually ride without dying!). Dr. Johnson applauded The Martian for depicting the collaborative nature of science, where many different approaches are needed to solve a problem. The lone scientist stereotypes are long gone!

And as you many have already guessed, the panelists had their own inspirational characters and shows too while growing up! Dr. Cail’s favorite is Twister, Amy Berg loves Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Dr. Johnson fondly remembers the books he read as a child that constantly remind him of why he does what he does. I felt very proud about all the hours I’ve spent binge-watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Star Trek, and a ton of science-fiction movies – I was certainly a very well informed and inspired audience at the session!


Electron Microscopy at BPS 2016.

I did my PhD on TRPV1. Before there was a TRPV1 structure. In fact, I defended my thesis about a week before I saw the first talk on the high resolution EM structure of TRPV1 by Yifan Cheng at the NIH in November 2013. After the talk, we were huddled around a bench in the lab, lively discussing what it all meant for us and our thought on TRPV1 when a PI from a neighboring lab came over and said, “Welcome to the beginning of the end of membrane protein crystallography.” It seemed extravagant at the time, but now, a little over two years later in Los Angeles, he wasn’t too far off. Electron Microscopy is increasingly a high resolution method, and watching its progress over the last couple years and its consequent presence at Biophysics has been staggering.

Saturday night at the ‘Cryo-EM Subgroup’ session Doreen Matthies showed a figure that elegantly showed this transformation (which she graciously shared with me for the purpose of this blog).


In Feb 2015, just a year after the beginning of the ‘Resolution Revolution‘ there were 56 EM structures with resolution below 4 Angstroms. In Feb 2016, at the time of this meeting, there were already 182 EM structures with resolution below 4 Angstroms. While, this is still small compared to the number of high resolution x-ray crystallography structures deposited in the same amount of time, the scientific impact and size of each of these structures is astounding to think of. The revolution has arrived!


“It will get better…”

It is one of those rare, once in a blue moon, extraordinary moments, where a scientist strolling past your poster ends up becoming your mentor. But it does happen as it did with me yesterday afternoon whilst presenting our work on light-activated inteins. There was me, stumbling through my presentation, flustered and incomprehensible. And there was her calm, composed and keenly listening and nodding. She had a reassuring air in her voice, an energy oozing from within and a deep passion for biophysics in her eyes. She was patiently listening and asking those encouraging, motivational, “feel-good” questions.

Afterwards, we started chatting and in her words, I found great wisdom. Such wisdom that I asked her to be my mentor right on the spot and nagged her to give me her autograph. I found in her all the things that I wanted to be; things which went beyond just being an accomplished scientist. As we spoke, I fought the urge to take out my notebook and start scribbling, not wanting to come off as rude. So with the weak memory I possess, I tried to absorb as much of her words as I could.

Here is what I learned from the few minutes we were in touch:

  • Passion. Great research is driven by passion, by that flame that once ignited remains eternal and lights many others.
  • Persistence. At times, it will get bad, then it will get worse and then maybe even unbearable, but as she said, “It will get better…” And in the hopes of that better, we struggle onwards.
  • Resilience. Picking yourself up again and moving ahead headstrong will define how far you reach. After spraining her ankle, she is still attending the meeting. With a clutch in one hand, she is still making an impact.
  • Self worth. It is easy to start comparing yourself to your colleagues and lose yourself in publications, presentations and grants. But, know that your academic record does not define your self worth.
  • Connections. It is important to make meaningful connections with others – not just to initiate the hasty networking hello but genuinely make the effort to get to know people who share your passion.

In my first post, I emphasized our UofT community but now I feel a part of a greater, in many ways a richer, community. And if this sense of community is all I take back home with me this year, it will be more than enough!

You can meet this great personality today at the New Member Welcome Coffee in Rm. 404AB from 10:15 – 11:15 AM.

To learn more about her research exploring membrane domain dynamics, be sure to drop by the poster Investigating membrane domain dynamics using multimodal optical microscopy (B183) on Wednesday morning.

But more importantly, take a moment and let her words sink in and become your mantra: “It will get better…”image.jpeg