Attribution: this is adapted from the SNEL lab manual.
For new researchers, a helpful thing to keep in mind is that research is fundamentally different from most people's experiences in school. In most undergraduate classes (and many professional training environments), you're usually asked to solve problems with a known solution. You have a syllabus, a textbook, lecture notes, etc., and generally if you use the listed resources and do what you're told, you will succeed. In research, we're ultimately trying to expand the frontiers of human knowledge. Therefore, with research questions, if we (or anyone else) already knew the answer, we would not be studying the question. A great piece that describes this concept is the now classic "The importance of stupidity in scientific research". One key takeaway: don't worry when you don't know the answer to something. That's to be expected, and often times, nobody does! Once you're comfortable with that idea, you can focus on using all the resources around you to figure out the answer.
Here are some keys to being successful in our lab environment:
- Collaboration: Our lab benefits by being an intellectually diverse team. We bring in expertise from many disciplines, e.g., Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Neuroscience, Biomedical Engineering, Physiology, Physics. No one in the lab (including Adam) has the background necessary to tackle all the problems we're trying to solve. The only way we can be successful is by fostering an openly collaborative and communicative environment. We prefer team members who are comfortable admitting what they don't know and learning new material as they go (both through independent research and discussion with colleagues).
- Patience: If we already knew the answer, we would not be studying the question. Similarly, if the work was easy, someone would've done it already. From that standpoint, we expect our experiments and approaches to fail more often than they succeed. So, it's important to have thick skin and not get overly frustrated when things aren't working out. Keep working diligently, thinking through the problem, and discussing it with your colleagues. It's also important to continually make honest evaluations on whether a problem is worth pushing on further, or when it's worth cutting our losses.
- Accept the process: Don't hide or be afraid of contradictory results, mistakes, bugs, etc. We're going to make mistakes, and we'll find plenty of results that challenge our hypotheses, or that we don't initially know how to explain. So even if something is intimidating or embarrassing, the only way forward is to face it head-on and openly, figure out solutions, and move on.
- Caution: Science is about being extremely careful and thorough. Double and triple check every result. Be extremely skeptical about results, and think through every way they could be wrong before concluding that they're correct. Ask others to look at your results and think of ways they might be wrong. If we apply extremely high standards internally, then our work will easily pass external review.
- Attention to detail: Our studies involve complex systems and processes, with many points of failure that could doom an entire experiment or analysis. So careful attention to detail and quality control are crucial.
- Communication: No one in our lab works in isolation - at a minimum, you communicate frequently with Adam, and likely work closely with other lab members and collaborators. Without sustained effort from everyone to communicate, it's easy for things to go off track, for there to be misunderstandings or duplicated efforts, etc.
- Feedback: We want everyone in the lab to be comfortable giving and receiving direct, constructive criticism and feedback. Often this will reveal flaws in ideas that are hard to see when you're too close to them, and new solutions.
- Positivity: Everyone on our team is working on a challenging set of problems. Being positive and supportive makes the endeavor more enjoyable for everyone. If you run into issues where it's difficult to be positive and supportive with your colleagues, take a break and come talk to me, we'll work something out.
- Balance: Don't try to work 24/7, if for no other reason than you'll just find yourself staring at a screen without doing anything productive. However you do it, make sure you take breaks to refresh your mind, and have a life outside of lab. There are obvious benefits for your mental health, but you'll also find yourself refreshed and productive when you do get back to work.