We're a little crazy, about science!

The lab brain drain

Today was another proposal defense! No, not mine thankfully, but one of my labmates who’s been in the lab for some time now. As the term is coming to a close, I think a lot of us are in the proposal defense phase, which means things will be changing dramatically in a year or so for the lab. It made me realize that there was a rather large gap between those of us finishing and the new members, which means big changes once we graduate.

I’ve worked in my school-PI’s lab for four years, nearly the start of fall term will be the four year mark. In that time I’ve seen the lab grow and shrink. We don’t only take PhD students, so we’ve had Masters students and undergrad students who’ve all come through the lab and pretty much all have left. We’ve also had one fairly close together graduation for PhD students. I think we were averaging one or two graduations a term for a minute there.

Which brings up an interesting conundrum. We all learn from each other in the lab. We’ve taught or been taught by others how to do specific things. From working with the EEG equipment (which is surprisingly difficult at times) to the way we process data and the limitations of those methods, I’ve learned a lot from former students and postdocs in the lab.

For whatever reason, probably COVID, we had students leaving, but not many coming in. Which means we had a rather large experience vacuum occur or a “brain drain” if you will. There are currently three of us, roughly, that have been around long enough to have learned all (most) of the stuff the other lab members had taught us, but all three of us have done our proposal defense, or in the case of one, will be doing it next month. We’re all graduating fairly soon (with luck).

Once we leave, all the experience is going with us. We’ve had very few chances to pass on the experiences we’ve had to the newer students, some of whom have only been in the lab for a few months. Add to this the fact that I’m not even in the school lab most days and you can see the problem. There will be no one left who really and truly understands the equipment and techniques we use in the lab. This is already apparent by some of the very basic problems the newer students are running into that don’t get resolved for weeks because the three of us are incredibly busy at the moment.

Ideally the flow would be one student graduating, one student joining the lab. In the last year, we’ve “lost’ two postdocs, seven former PhD students, one masters student, and in a few weeks the last of our undergrad researchers (Kay is graduating, I’m so excited for her!). While we still have a good dozen or so students, none of them really have the experience we have/had. We’ve all been out of the lab since COVID and none of them have even gotten to the qualifying exam stage (the whole reason my 365 days of academia project exists is because of my qualifying exam), so they are all very early in their studies, some have only been with us for a few months.

It makes me anxious to see what happens once we leave. I literally sat down a few weeks ago with one student for 20 minutes just going over some of the pre-checks we usually do for the equipment because no one had taught them. They had mistakenly assumed that several pieces of equipment were broken, when in fact they were just being picky, an easy mistake, but one I helped diagnose before they convinced school-PI to try and replace them all.

The past few weeks have also made me realize just how much I’ve learned over the past four years with regards to best practices, equipment management, etc. It’s been eye opening and somewhat frightening because I’m left wondering what will happen to the students after we leave. I’m sure school-PI will fill in the gap as best as he can, but as a PI you don’t get a whole lot of hands on time with the equipment, in his case I don’t think I’ve ever really seen him work with the equipment directly so he simply doesn’t understand how particular it can be.

That’s not a bad thing, I mean a PI’s duty is mostly managing the students under them, so you don’t get a whole lot of time for experiments yourself. Especially when you’re as established as he is and have a lot of people fighting for your time. It just means he doesn’t have the same direct experience we do with the equipment. I’m sure my fellow senior labmates are doing what they can to help with this problem, but there’s only so much the three of us (really two since in the lab so infrequently) can do. In fact, we’ve already talked about this problem and we’ve agreed it’s not an easy one to solve.

At this point, I’m debating about attempting to catalog some of the specifics here, so that others (including my labmates) can find the information and troubleshoot any of the problems they have. We use EEG systems from a company called brainvision, which is probably the biggest supplier of EEG equipment in the world (at least from a study looking at EEG equipment used for research). So it wouldn’t be just our lab that benefits from the information. I’m not sure I want to take on a project like that though, especially at this stage in my education.

I guess it’s just something to think about as the next batch of PhD students are entering the lab and we are (hopefully) finishing up. I mean it’s not my responsibility to worry about exactly, but I do want my fellow students to have a good experience while working in the lab and I feel like that would be marred by the huge knowledge gap slowly building.

Something to think about as I start gearing up for data collection for my dissertation I guess.

2 responses

  1. Member turnover has been a problem in nearly every organization I’ve been involved with – even groups like the student robotics team I mentored for a while. Preserving institutional knowledge when experienced people leave and on-boarding confused newbies is a constant struggle. It’s enough to make me wish we incentivized stability more and transition less. Society-wide, how much time do we waste just shuffling people around?

    (I also resent this on a personal level, since I tend to bond to people slowly and then want to keep them around for a long time. Constant flux among my co-workers, etc. is upsetting.)

    Documentation helps, but yeah, the last thing you need to be doing is giving yourself another job.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 29, 2022 at 6:44 pm

    • Oh man I feel that. Just when you start making friends, people up and leave. I’m very similar it takes time to open up. In grad school it sort of makes sense, but it still isn’t fun to take part in. Stability would be ideal, it’s frustrating that it isn’t something that happens in the market today, because capitalism! So fun.

      I feel guilty about not documenting things, but at the same time no one ever did it so it never occured to me until recently that it would’ve been useful. We had a strong system of teaching each other as we progressed and that worked well up until now. I’m nervous to see what happens frankly, but I have at least a year to pass along some knowledge and hopefully one of the newer students can take the documentation job. I’m too old and tired for that, I’m like 140 in grad school years.

      Liked by 1 person

      April 30, 2022 at 2:56 pm

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