Up and Running: Tips for Launching and Running a Successful Lab

At ENDO 2022, scientists and researchers flocked to the session, “The Business of Starting and Running a Lab,” which covered everything a new PI needs to know from hiring and managing a staff to preparing budgets and even managing your own time. Endocrine News spoke to that session’s speakers and other experts for the “secrets of their success.”

When Shingo Kajimura, PhD, became the principal investigator of his first lab in 2011, the notion that he was the final decision maker was the first real awakening to the new stature in his career.  

“There was no one else to say, ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Kajimura recalls. “When you’re in training stage, your mentor approves your writing and your fellowship proposals, for instance. But as the PI (primary investigator), you’re the one with the final say, the one who clicks the submission button, and it’s really nerve-wracking.”

Fast forward 11 years, and Kajimura now leads the Kajimura Lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School and is the 2022 Endocrine Society Laureate for Outstanding Early Investigator.

“There is a presumption that once you’re offered the position as principal investigator that you just know how to do the rest of the job, but all of our training leading up to that point is how to do research,” says Matthew Sikora, PhD, an assistant professor of Pathology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. 

“I like to think of a successful lab as one where everyone works towards a common goal. A successful lab will include working towards answering specific research questions, as well as publishing those findings to have a broader impact and obtaining funding to be able to pursue new research questions. A successful lab will also be a fertile ground for career development and mentorship.”

Kristy Brown, PhD, associate professor, Biochemistry in Medicine, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, N.Y.

Sikora has led his lab for six years and worked in one for more than 20. As a member of the Endocrine Society’s Trainee and Career Development Core Committee, he and fellow members Kristy Brown, PhD, and Sayeepriyadarshini Anakk, PhD, hosted the ENDO 2022 session, “The Business of Starting and Running a Lab,” where they presented strategies for how PIs can start and run a successful lab.

But what makes a lab successful?

“I like to think of a successful lab as one where everyone works towards a common goal,” says Brown, associate professor of Biochemistry in Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. “A successful lab will include working towards answering specific research questions, as well as publishing those findings to have a broader impact and obtaining funding to be able to pursue new research questions. A successful lab will also be a fertile ground for career development and mentorship.”

On-the Job Training

The experts agree that the biggest challenge to running a lab successfully and meeting the research goals is that most PIs are unprepared for their dual business management duties.

“The role of PIs changes dramatically with regards to finances and management of personnel,” says Brown. “Some will have had some experience as more senior members of their postdoc labs, but often this is not the case. The business of mentoring and managing are overlapping yet also distinct in some regards. Finding the balance between these requires certain skills.”

“I agree that we are unprepared for the business side of research, but also medicine and academia as a whole,” says Estelle M. Everett, MD, MHS, a 2022 recipient of the Society’s Early Investigator Award. Everett hasbeen a PI for three years at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, where she currently has two fellows, two residents, and three medical students performing research under her supervision.

“There is a presumption that once you’re offered the position as principal investigator that you just know how to do the rest of the job, but all of our training leading up to that point is how to do research.”

Matthew Sikora, PhD, assistant professor of Pathology, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Aurora, Colorado

“I think it is just expected that you figure it out on the way, like others before us,” Everett adds. “My mentors have been extremely helpful in guiding me through the process and answering any questions that come up along the way. The administrators in my department are also very helpful as they are aware of all the university policies and regulation that exists.”

Do’s and Don’ts for Overcoming Hurdles

As with any new venture, there are pitfalls new PIs need to avoid when maneuvering through their lab management duties. We asked the experienced PIs to share tips on how to navigate around some of the most common mistakes:

Do find mentors. Lean on other junior and senior faculty in your department or lean on peers who have recently gone through what you’re doing, says Sikora. “It’s also really important to get advice from experienced colleagues who know your work well but are slightly remote from your field, someone who is objective with no conflicts of interest,” adds Kajimura.

Do consider these budget questions early. “How do we budget the start-up money? Is it possible to negotiate costs for moving and re-deriving animal models? Can we segregate to what’s needed in the laboratory versus what’s available and easily accessible at the core? Where should we invest big and take risks?” says Anakk, an associate professor of Molecular and Integrative Physiology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Don’t just write the grants. “We’re accustomed to thinking we have to sit at our desks now and write grants to build funding but that’s not true,” says Kajimura. “The reality is that as PI, you are the best hand and have the best knowledge to see data and understand what is happening in the lab, not your post-docs. So, get out from behind the desk and stay on the bench, instead of waiting for the post-docs to bring the data.”

Don’t rush to buy the new and shiny. Ask yourself is expensive equipment really necessary? Can you buy refurbished items? “When you’re first starting, there often is departmental surplus,” says Sikora. “You can sometimes get your department to buy big ticket equipment to share with the department instead of trying to do it on your own.”

Do build a good team. Seek advice from your mentors or administrative team to improve your interviewing and hiring skills. How do you identify and hire appropriate people? “This is a major pitfall as we are not trained to do that and it is learning on the job,” says Anakk. “And how do you motivate the group acknowledging that each member needs different carrots or goals that they are passionate about?”

Don’t underestimate what people cost. “A lot of PIs don’t understand that we’re on the hook for fringe benefits, and that includes healthcare and retirement,” reminds Sikora. “Somebody you think you’re hiring at $40,000 will actually costs about $55,000 – $60,000 depending on the institution.”

Shaw is a freelance writer based in Carmel, Ind. She is a regular contributor to Endocrine News.

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