Quite honestly, I need a bit of positive feedback every now and then to keep me going. “Good job”. “Well done”. “Terrific work”. “Keep it up”. It really doesn’t take much. Just a little encouragement and support. Does wonders.
Trouble is, it seems sometimes that academic life is all about negative feedback. Experiments fail. Grant applications get rejected. Fellowship applications get rejected. Manuscripts get rejected. These applications and papers take weeks to write, not to mention the blood, sweat and tears – and often the years and years of work – to generate the data and the big story. Then in an instant, hopes and dreams are dashed when the email arrives that says, effectively, not good enough.
Some years ago, to counteract the incessant negativity, Group Martin decided to celebrate our everyday science successes together. Here is what we do. At our weekly lab meetings we have a permanent agenda item “result of the week“. Nominations are called for by the chair of the meeting (everyone gets a turn at chairing the meeting during the year – it’s good career development experience). Anyone in the lab can nominate a ROTW contender. BUT rule number 1 is that you can’t nominate yourself. And rule number 2 is that if you won ROTW last time you are ineligible to win this time.
The chair of the meeting collates the nominations and arranges for the nominees to each provide a single slide that illustrates the result. At the end of the lab meeting (after the research presentation and other lab business items of the agenda), there is a hush as the chair announces each ROTW nominee and presents each slide in turn. How many nominees are there? Who has been nominated? What did they do to move science forward? When their slide comes up, the nominee explains over a minute or two why the result is significant and what makes it new and exciting. At the end of the nominations, the chair of the meeting writes the nominee names on pieces of paper which are then folded up tightly. A drum roll (fingers on table) often accompanies the announcement of the winner who is selected randomly from these folded-up pieces of paper by the previous week’s winner. And the prize? Well that is a coffee or tea with me at the local cafe. OK so the prize isn’t great, but at least it’s some recognition and reward for a job well done. Actually, in addition to the caffeine hit there used to be a rather unique statue that would sit on the winner’s desk for the week. But that went missing some time ago. Admittedly it was rather ugly. May have to find a replacement for that….
Anyway, just by way of example, the three ROTW nominees this week were (1) a senior RA who produced beautiful protein crystals for structural studies, (2) a team of 2 postdocs and a visiting Danish PhD student who together generated and analysed some lovely synchrotron X-ray scattering data on a protein sample, revealing the shape of the protein in solution, and (3) a postdoc who – with others from external labs – successfully applied for quite a large amount of funding from the University to run a career forum later this year. The last nominee was ruled ineligible (last week’s winner, postponed to next week). Of the remaining two, the winner – chosen randomly – was the senior RA.
Even with the relatively insignificant prize on offer, result of the week has become a bit of a lab highlight. And this has had some rather unanticipated effects on lab culture. First, because self-nomination is not allowed, researchers need to talk about their research and discuss their results with others in the lab in order to be nominated. This means that sharing of data with others and a collegial environment in the lab is expected and accepted by everyone. Second, choosing a winner at random rather than voting on the outcome discourages voting alliances and manipulations (of the sort, “I’ll vote for you this week if you vote for me next week”). Moreover, when the winner of a competition is randomly selected, everyone has the chance to win. Indeed over a year, everyone is a winner. Finally, because last week’s winner can’t win this week, it’s unlikely that the same person will win often enough for it to become annoying. Having said that, lab folklore insists that on those occasions when one former PhD student was nominated it was best not to be in the competition as his name would always be the one drawn out of the hat. I don’t hold any truck with that nonsense. Though it was uncanny sometimes….
Of course, there are many other things that we do to celebrate working together – lab lunches (next one with a “traditional” theme), birthday cakes (this year with crystal-themed cakes in honour of the International Year of Crystallography – I’m up next to bake for Dorothy Hodgkin’s birthday), outings (cycles around Brisbane, walks in the Gold Coast hinterland rainforest), and specific celebrations for grants and papers when they do get awarded. Not to mention the famous secret Martin family “yo-yo” biscuit (cookie) recipe that is solemnly handed over to Martin lab students after their PhD is awarded. That very special event requires a one-on-one workshop with me to bake and assemble the biccies, and then a taste test with lab members. Actually, on one very memorable occasion we couldn’t do the traditional lab taste test. I bought the secret ingredients in Oxford UK when I was visiting colleagues there, and travelled by train with the loot to London where I met with not one but two graduated PhDs who were by then postdocs at King’s College London and University of Zürich. Yes, that’s correct. A former student traveled all the way from Switzerland to the UK for this knowledge handover, and to celebrate and reaffirm our research connection.
Reading through this post, I can’t help but think there is a strong theme around food – cakes and biscuits in particular. In all honesty, I can’t deny this. I am a Martin after all. And we Martins do love our food.
But getting back to the topic at hand, I wonder how other scientific researchers overcome the niggling negativity of constant critical assessment and low success rates. What do you do to highlight the joy of science discovery and celebrate everyday science success?
I’d love to hear about other ideas that we might adopt in the Martin lab.
And no, these don’t have to involve food.
**Updated with photos on 11 and 12 May 2014 after posting***