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Laboratory management

Knowing how to coordinate research groups is important for creating a sustainable work agenda involving large projects

DANIEL ALMEIDALeading a research group requires responsibility to be able to coordinate and plan team projects, conceive of new lines of research, and seek funding for studies. All activities need to be articulated with clear and well-defined goals, and the leader must be aware of his or her own limitations in order to properly delegate activities. Building a healthy work environment is important for stimulating team creativity, optimizing research efforts, and producing good results.

Research groups are simultaneously a source of knowledge production and a context for training human resources. These groups usually bring together individuals at different stages of professional development, from undergraduate students to postdoctoral researchers. “PhD students and post-doctoral students have a more sophisticated academic background, with more well-thought-out ideas and a better analytical capacity, while undergraduate and master’s degree students are still at the beginning of their academic trajectory,” explains political scientist Renata Mirandola Bichir, a professor in the public policy management program at the School of Arts, Sciences, and Humanities of the University of São Paulo (EACH-USP), also known as the USP Leste campus. “It is therefore important that the leader of the group invest in building a common language among all members of the team in order to avoid asymmetrical relationships,” she adds.

Bichir coordinates 10 researchers in a research group of the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM), one of the Research, Innovation, and Dissemination Centers (RIDC) of FAPESP. The objective of these centers is to understand the role of public policies and institutions in economic development and poverty reduction in large urban centers. According to Bichir, it is important for coordinators to identify each team member’s personality traits, to assess their abilities and limitations, and to distribute the research-related activities according to the team members’ level of experience. “This will help keep the group motivated and committed to the work being done,” she says.

One of the challenges faced by leaders is the interplay between the teaching and research processes on the one hand and productivity and the production of results on the other. The publication of scientific articles, especially in high-quality journals, tends to be a goal for most researchers, but it is a long road. Publication requires thorough and continuous reviews of the literature, the establishment of relevant scientific questions, and the implementation of appropriate methodological processes for the hypotheses to be tested and subsequently presented and discussed in the form of an article or book. “In order to maintain the group’s productivity, we run several projects at the same time, all of which are interconnected, which requires cooperation among team members,” says psychiatrist Euripedes Constantino Miguel from the Department of Psychiatry at the USP School of Medicine (FMUSP).

DANIEL ALMEIDAMiguel is responsible for several projects at the Brazilian National Psychiatric Institute for Childhood and Adolescent Development (INPD). He says that, in order for research activities to be integrated and in line with the objectives of each project, the coordinator needs to create a cooperative environment so that everyone can work together. “The teaching process involves not only technical aspects, but also the enhancement of social skills,” he says. To this end, he pairs students just starting out in their academic careers with more experienced graduate students. “Thus, the more educated students instruct the beginners and the knowledge is transmitted along a chain,” Miguel adds, noting that, in the projects he leads, the senior researchers are given tasks that add the most value to the research, such as conducting the experiments and analyzing and interpreting the results.

This is also what happens at the Molecular Genetics Laboratory of the Institute of Biosciences of USP (IB-USP), headed by geneticist Lygia da Veiga Pereira. As in many North American and European laboratories, postdoctoral students are a key element to her team. In addition to coordinating tasks, writing scientific articles, and helping to design and execute new lines of research, these students also co-advise undergraduate researchers, master’s students, and PhD candidates.

According to Bichir, group coordinators should remind postdoctoral students of the importance of helping the students starting out in their academic careers. “This experience helps them hone their scientific skills, allowing them to gain experience that will be important for them to establish and manage their own research groups in the future,” she explains. Therefore, she also recommends that leaders encourage postdoctoral students to take management and leadership courses to learn how to delegate work in the laboratory, motivate colleagues, dissolve tensions, keep activities within the established budget and schedule, and ensure that everyone works toward the same goal.

Follow-up meetings
In order for activities to be carried out properly, coordinators are advised to hold periodic meetings with members of their teams to discuss established goals and to identify problems and solutions. “These meetings are essential for the success of the research and therefore need to be held regularly,” explains Pereira. She suggests that all the researchers present the tasks they completed the previous week during these meetings and focus on the importance of the tasks for the progress of the main project, regardless of whether it is an undergraduate research project or doctoral dissertation.

“This is also a way to keep everyone motivated and committed to the work,” says biologist Lúcia Lohmann. Also a researcher at IB-USP, she coordinates several projects, the largest of which is a partnership between the Biota-FAPESP program and the Dimensions of Biodiversity program of the National Science Foundation, one of the main American agencies supporting scientific research. “These meetings help students understand how their individual contributions are critical to the progress of the project as a whole.”

Lohmann holds weekly meetings with her team to discuss scientific articles relevant to their ongoing research, as well as to evaluate manuscripts and grant proposals and to prepare for lectures, among other activities. To maintain group productivity, she establishes schedules involving all of the sub-projects. “Using these data, I can evaluate what was done in the years prior and set goals for the next year,” she explains. At the same time, to meet the demands for productivity and the publication of results, Lohmann advises her master’s and PhD students to write the chapters of their theses and dissertations in the form of a scientific paper and to submit these manuscripts to scientific journals as they work on the projects. “Each student in the lab publishes at least one scientific article as the lead author per year.”

The search for funding
Another common challenge for managers involves the search for funding for research projects. In order to obtain funding, especially from financial support agencies, researchers need to present a project that has been or will be submitted to the peer review process (see Pesquisa FAPESP, issue No. 254). Even if the request is accepted, the amount granted may fall short of the budgeted amount, and it is then up to the coordinator to reorganize the project in order to achieve the initial goals with less money than expected. “In the absence of resources, we can try for public bids and other alternative sources of revenue, such as paid courses and partnerships with private institutions,” suggests Miguel. “Coordinators need to use their experience to anticipate this and other difficulties.”

Just as important as securing resources for the project is a healthy team relationship. “We have to listen to and understand the researchers’ wishes and show concern for each team member’s career. We have to make ourselves available to discuss any issues that help ensure each team member’s professional development,” says Miguel. For this to happen, coordinators must exert their leadership in a balanced and decentralized way, without resorting to very rigid hierarchical structures. “A good coordinator needs to be able to let go of the lead role whenever this can improve teamwork,” Miguel recommends.