Pouring heart into the lab manual

By: Lauren O’Connell and Nora Moskowitz

Our lab manual is a living document that has a long history and development in our lab. Here we share the story of origin and how it developed into something that the lab cherishes.

The origin story

(Lauren) When I was a grad student, the only lab in my department that had a lab manual was notoriously abusive. Every department has that lab - the PI is famous in a way where students consider themselves lucky to be in that lab and are willing to endure abuse with the promise of future career success through connections and fancy publications. I joined that lab, but ended up transferring out midway through my graduate studies and will one day write a blog article on the value of mentorship over scientific topics. But here, we are focusing on the lab manual, and so beginning with this story is important, because I began my own lab with a negative association between lab manuals and mentorship quality. Through a two year process with lab members, we now have a lab manual that beautifully reflects our values and is a cornerstone of mentorship and lab practices. Through this post we hope to encourage others to  adopt a similar process to foster discussions around lab practices and values.

The first draft

It was around two years into having a lab at Stanford that I realized we needed a clear way to establish lab norms. This was mostly for practical reasons. As the lab was expanding, responsibilities for myself and other lab members were ambiguous, onboarding was messy, and expectations around certain behaviors were unclear.

To draft a lab manual, I searched around for samples of other lab manuals from biology labs and found some excellent examples to pull from, but mostly mimicked the Aly Lab Manual. I followed their general organization and adapted the text to rework how I felt about particular topics and to fit current lab policies (version 1). I spent the summer writing the lab manual and we devoted one or two lab meetings the following Fall to discussing the wording and content. This part of the process was helpful because this fostered a larger conversation about individual expectations and responsibilities, as well as broader topics like authorship and manuscript writing. This process created an opportunity to identify problems with specific lab practices and design solutions that the entire lab was happy with, as well as gave lab members the space to express frustrations about specific practices in the lab. For example, trainees sometimes felt like I sprang deadlines on them in a stressful way, and thus our “Deadlines” Google Calendar was born, which has deadlines for grants and manuscripts on it so lab members can know what to expect in the weeks ahead. We ended up with a document that (mostly) incorporated everyone’s suggestions (version 2).

Going back and forth on the lab manual and its implementation was met with different attitudes in the lab.  Some lab members – who had been with the lab for a while at this point – did not want to sign a lab manual agreement that outlined expectations on science and workplace behavior. In retrospect, it was difficult to ask for behavioral adjustments from lab members halfway through their time in the lab. However, the overall consensus (from my view) was that having a lab manual was a positive step forward in building trust and communication in our group.

From laundry list to manifesto

One year into the lab manual, I felt that expectations were more clear and there was an easily accessible list of useful resources. But that is mainly what the document was – a list of expectations and resources that I made for the lab and members agreed to. It lacked a robust structure, but more importantly, since I had adapted the lab manual from other examples, it lacked heart from our lab. It didn’t really reflect our group values. It didn’t articulate our perspectives on inclusion or outreach or mentorship. It was a boring laundry list.

In the spring of 2020, a lot of social change was happening in the world, from the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the laboratory to the death of George Floyd reigniting the BlackLivesMatter movement. It was a time of social reflection in our lab, where we spent most of our lab meetings discussing social justice issues both outside and inside our communities, our laboratory, and our institution. In the Department of Biology here at Stanford, the graduate students mobilized to create the change they wanted to see in the department that faculty members had failed to address for decades. They wrote a list of demands to change departmental practices to be more inclusive and formed committees/groups focusing on various topics, from how to make an anti-racist lab to creating inclusive practices in community outreach. In our own lab, we channeled this energy into writing several sections of the lab manual that reflected our values and priorities.

In early June, we had a lab meeting that was transformative for our group. We held a 8 min and 46 sec moment of silence to reflect on the police brutality that killed George Floyd, followed by a discussion of the BlackLivesMatter movement and racism in academia. Then we made an action item list for our lab members to hold ourselves accountable for change (See Figure). Lab members volunteered to work in teams to draft sections of the lab manual that were missing, including sections on Inclusivity, Outreach, and a Land Acknowledgement statement. Over the next several weeks, these teams drafted specific sections, which were then discussed in a lab meeting with everyone. People were able to provide comments during the lab meeting and we edited the Google Doc live as a group. Lab members were given one week to reflect on and add edits or comments to the new lab manual sections.

DEI Lab Meeting

In parallel to incorporating new sections that reflect our group values, I also reorganized the lab manual to have a better flow, using this template from the eLife Community. This template provided a great backbone, but also highlighted some additional holes in our lab manual, like a section on departing the lab or environmentally sustainable science. By September 2020, all new sections were incorporated into the lab manual with the new organization scheme. Finally, lab members were given a one month period to review and edit the lab manual, which was finalized October 2020 (version 3).

When I read our document now, I must admit that my eyes get a little watery because so much heart went into its making. The overall process of reflection turned this document from a laundry list to a manifesto of what we value as a lab community. But this document is not final. Every year, we will go through this process again to make sure the document continues to reflect our current values, beliefs and practices. I am immensely proud of our lab manual, but more so of our community members for pouring themselves into it with honesty and openness. I’m so excited to see how the document changes next year.

A graduate student’s reflection

(Nora) I have worked in the Laboratory of Organismal Biology for over four years now, two of which were as a technician, and two of which have been as a graduate student. During this time period, I have seen so much positive change in the lab, much of which has been encapsulated in this process of creating the lab manual.  The shift in mentorship, planning, and organization coupled with the emphasis on lab member well-being created notable improvement in our research environment. Every member’s input was essential in order to create an effective document that we all felt comfortable honoring.

When I first joined the lab as a technician, I was extremely tight-lipped about my personal preferences, especially those regarding concerns about mentorship, task allocation, and time-commitment expectations. At the time, there were only two postdocs and myself. Once I became a graduate student and the lab grew, my sense of belonging increased ten-fold, as did my willingness to ask questions and speak out. The process of creating this lab manual provided a safe environment for me to express my preferences and see those become incorporated into our collective expression of the lab culture.

One of the most important things covered throughout the writing process was the often covert power dynamic between the PI and the rest of the lab. Lauren fosters an inclusive environment free from condescension. Still, she understands that, as the PI, there is an inherent power dynamic that can be difficult to navigate.

One of the first topics we discussed was expectations regarding working hours and time off.  In my experience, most laboratories have vague working hours expectations which can be distressing, especially to newer lab members who aren’t familiar with the unspoken lab norms. Although all of us in the lab had a sense of what our working expectations were, it became clear that, overall, these expectations were not well-delineated. Some trainees felt comfortable working from home all day without communicating that to Lauren, while other trainees students felt an expectation to come in all day, every day. This was through no fault of Lauren - she was always willing to chat about these expectations, but since there weren’t centralized, written expectations regarding time, what was deemed as “acceptable” was unclear.

Through the process of creating our lab manual, we addressed some of the following questions: Is it okay to work from home for an entire day (pre-COVID)? Are we expected to come in on weekends? Am I expected to complete tasks above all else? Can I take a week off here and there? What about a day or two? Can I take time off for my mental health?

There is something very comforting about having a set of written expectations to rely on. As highly driven researchers, we are often hard on ourselves, and feel that we are not producing or doing “enough.” This is not a result of the environment fostered by Lauren, but rather the brute-force approach to productivity that is often lauded in academia, and which many of us bore witness to in our earlier years of research as undergraduates and interns. Although the philosophy around merit in research is changing, there is still a culture in academia that encourages us to continuously “prove” ourselves and our worth as researchers. At Stanford I still witness many conversations sprinkled with humblebrags about how late someone has worked, that they can’t remember the last time they took a day off, and how many papers they read in the last week. This culture leads to the classic compare-and-despair, and at least for me, often overrode Lauren’s encouragement to take time off regularly and to put our well-being above all. Even after being in the lab for a couple of years, I had found myself asking Lauren for reassurance regarding my “earning” of vacation time, rather than treating it as a need. Since the creation of this section, I have found much comfort in knowing that our philosophy is explicitly written: well-being, physical or otherwise, matters above all. I have since stopped seeking reassurance because our expectations are now so clear. Taking time off has become much less daunting. With this document to refer to, we no longer have to mentally scramble for the “rules”.

This section eventually led into a discussion regarding mental wellness, which soon birthed a “wellness” portion of the lab manual. The creation of this section was very validating and rewarding for me personally. I have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and severe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. This severely impacted my work for the first time ever during my field research in 2019; I had to leave the field three weeks early because I was unwell. The expansion of the wellness section of the lab manual to heavily emphasize the importance of mental wellness meant so much to me. Although Lauren and my labmates have never wavered in their support for me, mental health disorders are still highly stigmatized, especially in academia. Again, a comfort arose from the creation of this section, because there is safety in a written, centralized document that we have all agreed upon. My disorders now felt much less like a nuisance that my colleagues and PI had to navigate, and a lot more like a part of my persona that was to be embraced, respected, and carefully managed. I am proud to say that Lauren and I check in about mental health regularly. Something that used to make me feel silly and weak is now a point of pride, and this document, as well as the discussions that have gone into making it, are the main reasons for my changed mindset.

Our lab manual serves as a place to write down the many previously unwritten rules that exist within every laboratory. The range of these rules is astounding, from “who can I ask for help” to “are we allowed to photograph our frogs”?  I know that we never expected the manual to become as detailed as it is, but I am so happy to see what it has become. It is so rewarding to be a part of the continuous curation process. I know this will continue to foster our growth and empathy for one another - things that I feel are crucial to success in any workplace.