Lab Meeting Ideas

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Ollie123

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Starting to think through a plan for restructuring how I run my lab meetings. We're in an AMC and a small-ish lab (5-10 people), but with pretty diverse educational backgrounds. Most are BA/MA-level staff, but I also have post-docs and the occasional undergrad, grad student or med student in attendance. Interested to hear from anyone who wants to respond (students, faculty, folks who haven't attended a lab meeting since grad school a decade ago) about how other lab meetings are structured and what they did or didn't like about them.

I have labs in two cities about 90 minutes apart with staff in both locations so unfortunately I think we're stuck meeting via zoom, at least on a regular basis (though I try to get us together in-person sporadically). I may try to go back and forth to host from either location on alternating meetings as unfortunately my "remote" team (who actually does the majority of the heavy lifting on my federal grants right now) has not been getting the attention they deserve as some personal things going on has me making that trip less frequently myself.

I do try to minimize generic "project update" style lab meetings where we just go around the room and do 5 minute individual meetings with everyone, but especially with a distributed group in a post-COVID era with people working from home more, I am actually wondering if there may be more value to this than I thought as it seems like many lab members genuinely don't know what other projects are going on. I also like to keep at least some educational component to it. In the past this was someone from the lab presenting an article. I'm thinking we will continue that, but I'm going to narrow the pool of articles some (I've selected about 200 current and historical articles relevant to our work as a lab for folks to pick from). Otherwise, it seemed like some folks (the junior ones in particular) could select some obscure things that didn't have much relevance or value. I'm still open to folks selecting outside the 200, particularly for hot-off-the-presses things but I wanted to offer some additional structure for people.

So what do/did your labs do? What cadence was most helpful without being overkill (weekly/biweekly/monthly)? What did/didn't you like? What specific activities?

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Was in a neuroscience lab, mainly made up of undergrads. Wuz one of the undergrads.

All we did: Weekly meetings time changing semester-ly to fit peoples schedules. We rotated paper presentations (for finite amounts of time, usually a list of 9 or 10 papers or until everyone had presented 1-2 times, we students never chose the papers- they usually built on each other and they gave history about the fundamental people/theories at play), and if there were a conference coming up we'd have the person present their poster/talk to us and we'd give feedback.
We also always did word of the week where everyone brought in a word they'd encountered during the week that they had to look up (GRE type in-reach words, though inevitably someone always brought in something esoteric), this was a fun, human thing to do and everyone knew lab meeting began when he said 'ok, word of the week!'. Also, we were a pretty small lab of mostly juniors and seniors, but the PI always took personal interest and did a general check in around the room, usually about grad apps or something along those lines. Esp since there wasn't always much to talk about besides the mountain of scheduling.. Usually done by a designated lab manager undergrad. Very often there were smatterings of trainings by the veterinarian (animal lab), procedure refreshments, or inter-observer tests to see that we were all within 85% accuracy of eachothers observations.

What I appreciated, also, was that the PI also wasn't afraid to reccomend things casually, talk about other fields (though he was not fond of clinical psych..), share his coffee technique (chemex), or simply cut a meeting short if there was nothing left to say. Also, if there was something to celebrate, we'd have a casual lunch at a mexican resturant nearby. The guy wasn't an extrovert but he made time for us, he was also scrupulous and gave praise sparingly, though remained extrodinarily kind, and seemed to have well calibrated expectations for what an undergrad is capable of.

Dunno if that's what you're looking for. I feel like the needs of your lab meeting will directly reflect the needs of your research (standards, procedures, liabilities, personalities, etc).
 
Thanks - that does help. I kinda like the word-of-the-week idea though might expand it to something a little broader. Having something at least partly removed from the primary academic context seems like it would help bring a sense of playfulness to it though.

To clarify for others - really I'm just looking for ideas for how the meetings are structured and what you actually "do" during the meetings. What does your typical agenda look like? Do you just go around the room and check in with the coordinator for each study on trial accrual number then update an excel spreadsheet of ongoing papers and target submission dates (BORING!). Exclusively present data from projects within the lab and eviscerate one another over interpretations of it? Present articles? Play board games?

Things I'm trying to achieve:
- Ensure everyone has at least a "general" understanding of the bajillion projects going on in the lab, at least enough that they feel like they can jump in and help with something that interests them vs only finding out when we announce a publication
- Build cohesion and support amongst the team members. Both so we generally create a supportive environment and also so they feel like they can go directly to one another for day-to-day questions vs everything running through me
- Have an extra touchpoint to help me keep the bigger picture in mind and stop individual projects from slipping off my radar amidst the tidal wave that is my to-do list
- Foster the curiosity, intellectual conversations and idea generation that is part of what inspired me to go into academia but often gets lost in the sea of study logistics we're dealing with

I don't need brilliant out-of-the-box ideas, though they're certainly welcome. Just curious to hear what people's experiences are like.
 
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I like the idea of having a fairly standard agenda of different components of the meeting.

1. a fun something -

  • I love word of the week idea! (For those who like learning new words: check out The Highly Selective Dictionary... and/or the Highly Selective Thesaurus... both by Eugene Ehrlich)
  • But for something broader- what about an interesting fact of the week? That way people can bring in facts related to whatever their interests are. In the past I have also facilitated trivia on our team -- with each person submitting a few trivia facts (though also not expensive to hire someone that hosts trivia night at a local bar or whatever and have the team provide them with potential topics to pull from).
  • Could also open the meeting with opportunity for any accolades or thank yous folks might want to give to other team members since last check in

2. Project check-in: For a brief extra touchpoint - what about asking each person to give a pit and a peak for the project since the past check-in? Another good question might be "what - if anything - do you/the project need more or less of?"

3. something to facilitate getting to know what others are doing and foster discussion to build connections / engagement across projects -
  • spending half / a sizeable portion of each meeting rotating which project gets presented to the group - including a brief overview of the lit, the "why study this" etc. and where things are currently at, challenges thus far and how they have been addressed, and end presentation with a couple of questions to facilitate discussion? Part of the discussion could also be asking folks on other projects how aspects of the presented project may relate to their own work / area.
  • We also have folks do a brief overview of previous projects they have done or areas of expertise/experience. Even if not directly related to a current project, has often been fruitful down the road in various ways. Or maybe it just connects people with similar interests / background that they didn't know they had in common.
  • could also rotate with discussion of journal articles or etc - maybe a list of pertinent topics to chose from to keep things relevant though i also like the idea of a list to choose from. We are currently doing rotating topics with one in rotation being DEI related and how the research/article relates to a project or recent case

Potential closer if you rotate with one person ending each time, or as a longer team-building fun activity: 2 truths and a lie with the team. we have done this a few times and the winner got to pick the restaurant for next in-person gathering.
 
I’m picturing a Squid Game type of scenario…

*I might have a ridiculous history with PIs.
 
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I’m picturing a Squid Game type of scenario…

*I might have a ridiculous history with PIs.
Honestly I'll echo this ... kind of.

Simply being cognizant of what undergrads are going through is quite a lot. Clinical Psych PhDs applications, medical school, etc.

It's a very competitive world right now and I'd be willing to bet that the average undergrad is going to try to go above and beyond to impress you with whatever you pick for lab meetings (if they're asking you for a LOR, this goes quadruple). I can honestly say that in my journal clubs I would prepare and look at, not the most challenging or interesting articles, but the ones I could hint at my own deeper understanding of the material. It was an exercise in influencing a PI's opinion of me and not too much else due to how high-strung the environment can be, examples of my own rational would be "I don't want to be the guy whose known for asking bad questions suggesting an extreme amount of ignorance, instead I will simply look into what I'm thinking by myself later."

Not that I want to scare you away from Journal clubs, just that their utility may be different to the average undergrad in a way you may or may not have anticipated.
 
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I've been trying to come up with new things for lab meetings because many of the regular stuff seems boring. I recently asked all project leaders to submit weekly updates to our lab coordinator who then compiles everything in a weekly email before lab meeting.

We've instead been trying something completely new in my lab that resembles a live peer-review or paper workshop. Each week, one or multiple grad students will submit a manuscript they are leading; the students then ask for general feedback or something specific (e.g., how to structure a part of the introduction, information presented in the discussion). All lab members read the papers ahead of time and provide their two cents.

So far the students seem to like the structure because it exposes them to their peers work. They also seem to like watching the evolution of manuscripts. The major downside seems to be that many students are intimidated to present their work like this in front of our peers, and some students at earlier skill levels really struggle to present their work. That said, we have a strong and supportive lab culture where people seem to all want to help each other succeed.
 
Things I'm trying to achieve:
- Ensure everyone has at least a "general" understanding of the bajillion projects going on in the lab, at least enough that they feel like they can jump in and help with something that interests them vs only finding out when we announce a publication
- Build cohesion and support amongst the team members. Both so we generally create a supportive environment and also so they feel like they can go directly to one another for day-to-day questions vs everything running through me
- Have an extra touchpoint to help me keep the bigger picture in mind and stop individual projects from slipping off my radar amidst the tidal wave that is my to-do list
- Foster the curiosity, intellectual conversations and idea generation that is part of what inspired me to go into academia but often gets lost in the sea of study logistics we're dealing with
Do you already have a visual map/overview of your projects? If not, maybe that could be an activity for a lab meeting? I’m thinking of something like a concept map that shows similarities and differences among your projects. What theoretical concepts/theories are being researched? What factors/variables are being measured? What populations are being recruited? What methodologies and statistics analysis? Etc etc. Lab members can identify which projects are very similar, reasonably similar or very different. And it might give a broad overview of the lab in general. Then, if someone is stuck on a particular area they could reach out to a different project member who might be using similar (insert area) and get support in that manner. If you are using zoom, the whiteboard feature could be used to “map out” the projects. It could also build the idea generation you were talking about… lit reviews, collaboration opportunities, discussions about how projects that look very different might still have similarities, other research ideas for lab members to explore for future….

I haven’t been in a lab meeting in almost 20 years but I find value in having a visual road map or overview of what a project is trying to accomplish. And I’m wondering if that could also apply in a lab where there are many projects happening at once?
 
I really dislike the 'generic project update' format because it always ends up focusing almost entirely on logistics and even if you hear about what other people are doing, instead of a look at the actual scientific rationale and results, you just get to hear about the minutiae of some administrative barrier or how to troubleshoot their protocol.

My favorite lab meeting format is when each person has an assigned date and does a formal presentation, with slides, of the project they are working on and their results to date. That way you actually get to hear about the content of what everyone is doing and there is a much more relevant and productive exchange of ideas.

I've never been in a lab meeting where people routinely presented journal articles from outside the group. I feel like that would not be as useful as far as having a measurable impact on the quality of the science going on within the group.
 
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Thanks all, this has been SUPER helpful to hear. Keep em coming.

Honestly I'll echo this ... kind of.

Simply being cognizant of what undergrads are going through is quite a lot. Clinical Psych PhDs applications, medical school, etc.

It's a very competitive world right now and I'd be willing to bet that the average undergrad is going to try to go above and beyond to impress you with whatever you pick for lab meetings (if they're asking you for a LOR, this goes quadruple). I can honestly say that in my journal clubs I would prepare and look at, not the most challenging or interesting articles, but the ones I could hint at my own deeper understanding of the material. It was an exercise in influencing a PI's opinion of me and not too much else due to how high-strung the environment can be, examples of my own rational would be "I don't want to be the guy whose known for asking bad questions suggesting an extreme amount of ignorance, instead I will simply look into what I'm thinking by myself later."

Not that I want to scare you away from Journal clubs, just that their utility may be different to the average undergrad in a way you may or may not have anticipated.
Appreciate your take on this. I'm cognizant of it and do my best to create a culture where people don't worry as much about things like that - at least within these contexts - but I understand any interaction with trainees is necessarily likely to be somewhat performative on their part. It also just predominates academic culture more broadly in early stages - almost no one is going to pick the "challenging" option over the "Easy A" option when given a choice. I am a little fortunate in that my lab tilts heavily towards post-docs and professional staff over undergrads, so I think that helps with this a bit as by that stage most people have outgrown this mindset. Most also know me well enough at this point to know that spurring challenging/interesting ideas they openly half-understand but put some work into is getting an infinitely better LOR from me than someone who picks the "Easy A" so to speak. I do take your point though and balancing these things can be a delicate balance.


I've been trying to come up with new things for lab meetings because many of the regular stuff seems boring. I recently asked all project leaders to submit weekly updates to our lab coordinator who then compiles everything in a weekly email before lab meeting.

We've instead been trying something completely new in my lab that resembles a live peer-review or paper workshop. Each week, one or multiple grad students will submit a manuscript they are leading; the students then ask for general feedback or something specific (e.g., how to structure a part of the introduction, information presented in the discussion). All lab members read the papers ahead of time and provide their two cents.

So far the students seem to like the structure because it exposes them to their peers work. They also seem to like watching the evolution of manuscripts. The major downside seems to be that many students are intimidated to present their work like this in front of our peers, and some students at earlier skill levels really struggle to present their work. That said, we have a strong and supportive lab culture where people seem to all want to help each other succeed.
Love the live peer-review idea. Can't make it a regular thing since we likely will meet too frequently for something to always be ready, but when it works I can see value in it. We also generally have a supportive group so I think it could work well, albeit I feel like grad students would stand to benefit most and I don't have any right now...
Do you already have a visual map/overview of your projects? If not, maybe that could be an activity for a lab meeting? I’m thinking of something like a concept map that shows similarities and differences among your projects. What theoretical concepts/theories are being researched? What factors/variables are being measured? What populations are being recruited? What methodologies and statistics analysis? Etc etc. Lab members can identify which projects are very similar, reasonably similar or very different. And it might give a broad overview of the lab in general. Then, if someone is stuck on a particular area they could reach out to a different project member who might be using similar (insert area) and get support in that manner. If you are using zoom, the whiteboard feature could be used to “map out” the projects. It could also build the idea generation you were talking about… lit reviews, collaboration opportunities, discussions about how projects that look very different might still have similarities, other research ideas for lab members to explore for future….

I haven’t been in a lab meeting in almost 20 years but I find value in having a visual road map or overview of what a project is trying to accomplish. And I’m wondering if that could also apply in a lab where there are many projects happening at once?
Love this idea too. I'm not sure anyone but me perceives our projects as having any connection beyond generally being focused on addiction.
I really dislike the 'generic project update' format because it always ends up focusing almost entirely on logistics and even if you hear about what other people are doing, instead of a look at the actual scientific rationale and results, you just get to hear about the minutiae of some administrative barrier or how to troubleshoot their protocol.

My favorite lab meeting format is when each person has an assigned date and does a formal presentation, with slides, of the project they are working on and their results to date. That way you actually get to hear about the content of what everyone is doing and there is a much more relevant and productive exchange of ideas.

I've never been in a lab meeting where people routinely presented journal articles from outside the group. I feel like that would not be as useful as far as having a measurable impact on the quality of the science going on within the group.
100% agree about the logistics aspect of it and that's precisely what I'm trying to avoid. I've sat through too many meetings that were basically just me listening to someone else recite accrual numbers for studies I have nothing to do with while tuning out. However I'm inclined to shy away from formal presentation as it just feels like a "lot" of extra of work to piece together a formal presentations that don't count for anything and I want to make sure this doesn't feel burdensome. Perhaps this is something that can be built in prior to conferences when folks may have these things already canned.

The "journal club" component is not so much for having an immediate measurable impact on our scientific output. If anything, I actually see it as an outlet to get away from that and just have an outlet for fun intellectual discussions, spurring new ideas, thinking broadly about the field and (for my more junior folks) getting introduced to key scientific concepts in the field. My grad lab did this and I miss it dearly....

I’m picturing a Squid Game type of scenario…

*I might have a ridiculous history with PIs.
Squid game was to determine who gets hired in the first place. Too much of a PITA to organize it again, especially with all the hospital compliance paperwork. Not doing it again unless one of my post-docs want to take it on...
 
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100% agree about the logistics aspect of it and that's precisely what I'm trying to avoid. I've sat through too many meetings that were basically just me listening to someone else recite accrual numbers for studies I have nothing to do with while tuning out. However I'm inclined to shy away from formal presentation as it just feels like a "lot" of extra of work to piece together a formal presentations that don't count for anything and I want to make sure this doesn't feel burdensome. Perhaps this is something that can be built in prior to conferences when folks may have these things already canned.

We had this system in the lab where I did my PhD. I think it's a more dominant model in the wet lab world (my PhD was in molecular/cellular neurobiology). It was slightly stressful when your turn was coming up to present but the meeting was invariably so helpful for getting fresh eyes on your data and improving your approach that it was totally worth it. Also, having had to pull your results together on a regular basis then made it much less work to get a poster or talk together when a conference came around.

I'm not sure it can work as consistently in the human subjects world because the projects function on a much longer timescale. I do human subjects work now and our group meetings are a hodgepodge. Sometimes we have people's data presentations, sometimes we brainstorm together about a given topic, and sometimes we also succumb to the dreaded 5 minute logistics update round robin. I personally enjoy the data presentations the most though.
 
Ahhhh, yes that makes a lot more sense with the added context of a wet lab background. As you alluded to, we're often looking at a 2-5 year data collection window before we can really "do" anything with it, so having stuff hot off the presses on a routine basis isn't as viable without a much larger group than I have.

Eventually I'll hopefully be sitting on a large enough quorum of giant datasets to run secondary analysis we can have more churn, but not there quite yet...
 
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