Gearing up for the summer research season? Read this excellent post from Dr. Joe Reczek on how to build a supportive group culture in your lab this summer.
Each year at the end of the spring semester I have my research students over to my house for the “senior send off” party. It is always a fun event, and a little bittersweet, as I and the junior students bid good luck and farewell to the graduating seniors.
It reminds me that fostering a supportive group culture is perhaps as important as any of the work I do as a professor engaged in undergraduate research.
Even after many years of this tradition, it is always a little surprising to me to see just how close each group of research students has grown. Students who otherwise might not have known each other, and sometimes are complete opposites, have developed a mutual respect for each other and often become great friends thanks to their shared time in the research lab. It reminds me that fostering a supportive group culture is perhaps as important as any of the work I do as a professor engaged in undergraduate research. I was lucky enough to have a mentor during my post-doc at Trinity University, Adam Urbach, who did this well, and it’s something I think about as each summer approaches. Here are some of the ways I try to foster a cohesive and productive research community during each immersive summer experience.
1. Setting the stage.
The first week is arguably the most important, as this is when to set the tone for the rest of the summer. I start with an introductory meeting on safety and expectations (of course!), followed by a grueling day of lab clean-up and inventory (pizza provided). This day helps everyone get a feel for where everything is in the lab, and how it should look. Perhaps more importantly, starting with such a big job that requires teamwork and organization gives everyone a sense that they are in it together from the very start!
At the end of the first week, I give a big-picture research talk to my students where I highlight how the individual work they will be doing over the summer fits into an overall research arc. This helps the students understand how their day-to day work is advancing our science, and really gets them excited for the weeks to come.
At the end of the first week, I give a big-picture research talk to my students where I highlight how the individual work they will be doing over the summer fits into an overall research arc.
2. Trial by fire
I may give the first presentation, but by the end of the summer, every member of my research group will present at least twice. That’s because we have a research meeting every Friday where two of the students present their projects. This can be a bit stressful for the students, especially as we spend at least as long critiquing the presentations and discussing the science as the students do presenting. Even though it may feel like a “trial by fire,” the experience is invaluable because it improves both student presentation skills and their understanding of the chemistry behind not only their own project, but also that of their fellow group members.
In years where my group is on the small side, I have often teamed up with another professor, my colleague Jordan Fantini, to hold joint weekly meetings. This works well as although our chemistry is different, it is related enough that it allows his students and mine to enjoy the cross-group collaboration.
3. Make time for fun!
While the presentations may be a bit stressful, they are only the first part of the weekly research meeting. After our talks, the whole group goes to lunch… and the presenting students get to choose where! This informal time to chat about the research and their summer experience is a key part of not only creating group cohesion but also creating valuable memories for the students. It also ends up being a very interesting learning experience for me; this is where I pick up most of my pop culture knowledge.
Before the end of the summer, we also order group t-shirts, designed by the students.
Before the end of the summer, we also order group t-shirts, designed by the students. The group usually likes to surprise me with the design, usually featuring the sun, our group logo, and always their names and the year. I often see the shirts being worn throughout the next year, a sign to me that the students enjoyed their summer research experience as much as I enjoyed having them in the lab.