First Impressions

It has now been around six weeks since my lab move – about the right time to reflect and form some first impressions. The move of the lab itself went much more smoothly than I was anticipating. This was in large part down to the team spirit and hard work of lab members preparing for the move. It turns out that packing up a lab in a institute that’s closing is great for team building and camaraderie. In addition, the efficiency and professionalism of the moving company meant that each of our boxes was delivered to the right bench in the new building almost without mistake, easing the process of unpacking. We were also fortunate that our move was at the end of the whole transition period. Many of the snags and quirks encountered by labs that had moved earlier than us had been ironed out by the time we moved. As a consequence, we were able to restart lab work within days of the move and now, six weeks in, it feels as if we’re almost back to normal. I hope I haven’t spoken too soon – there’s always the possibility something will go wrong – but so far so good.

midlandroadlab
The lab – up and running in Midland Road

One of the oddities of research is that whether someone moves buildings, organisations, or countries, the research stays the same. We’d be doing the same experiments and asking the same questions wherever we were. This provides a sense of familiarity and security, despite the change in surroundings. We’ve definitely appreciated this since our new environment is very different from what we were used to. In Mill Hill, my lab was split between several relatively small rooms, located on different floors, in a building that had both the charm and flaws of pre-WWII architecture. There was a warmth and sense of history to the building, but, lack of air conditioning meant the summers could be stifling and if the wind blew in the wrong direction when it rained, the windows leaked. These are problems we don’t have in Midland Road. The scale and modernity of the building could hardly be a greater contrast to our old accommodation. Nevertheless, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that it hasn’t felt intimidating or unmanageable. I think the general sense of goodwill amongst our colleagues and the feeling that we’re all going through this together has helped us settle in.

On the other hand, the increased size of the institute – almost double the number of scientists we were used to at Mill Hill – is very noticeable. One result is that there are almost twice the number of seminars, with many more internal talks. As well the developmental biology, immunology, neuroscience we’re used to, we’re being exposed to new topics ranging from cancer genomics to the yeast cell cycle. Adding to this, we’re in the middle of a recruiting new group leaders and so there 2-3 job seminars a week at the moment too. All of this is very stimulating and informative, but the number of hours in the day hasn’t doubled. I still need to find the time to do my job and not spend the whole day sitting in the auditorium, trying to get the right balance is a challenge. I still need to work out which are the most useful seminar series to attend and which of the internal meetings I skip without consequence. This will take me a few more months.

Another change I’ve noticed is the effect that the location of my office has. In Mill Hill my office was in the corner of my main lab. This meant that several times a day I walked through the lab, seeing people as they worked at the bench or at their desks. In addition, the door to my office was normally open so I would often hear and join in conversations. I had a good sense of what was happening in the lab – or at least I thought I did. And sometimes the spontaneous conversations that resulted led to new ideas, clarified existing questions or solved a problem. It also meant I was an obvious part of the lab, connected to and participating in its daily life. The arrangement in Midland Road is different. The desks are now located adjacent to, but outside, the labs and although my office is only a few metres down the corridor, it is separate. This means I’m no longer as in touch with the day-to-day detail of life in the lab as I was before. I’m beginning to miss the involvement. I no longer know when someone has an interesting or unexpected result and I don’t hear about the little difficulties someone might be having getting a thing to work. The weekly group meetings and individual meetings keep me in touch with progress and allow me to contribute ideas and suggestions but it’s not the same as hearing it in real time unfolding in the lab. I have a feeling that this will have a major effect on the dynamics of interactions within the group. I’ll be watching this with interest, because, although I might feel left out, the new arrangement might be disinhibiting for the rest of the lab. I’m also wondering whether there are different ways to have the informal and productive interactions that I’m beginning to miss and whether other group leaders have similar thoughts to me.

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