A good, bad, and ugly look back at Shreejoy’s first year running TripLab

It’s been quite a year, full of ups and downs in my first year as a PI and head of my own lab. I thought it’d be good to write out a few of my experiences for posterity and if any of these might be helpful to others.

The good:

Becoming a PI has been a goal that I’ve been striving towards for many years. I feel so incredibly lucky and grateful for my position. What luck for a Neuroinformatics Centre to open up in Toronto, close to friends and family, and to be headed by Sean Hill, a former collaborator and world-leading neuroinformatics guru.

I feel so fortunate to have been one of a multiple new PI hires in our new Neuroinformatics Centre. The other PIs, John, Etay, Andreea, Leon, Dan, and Joanna have become close friends and trusted advisers. Each day of being a PI presents unique challenges, but having other folks experiencing the same things whom you can lean on makes it bearable. I was worried early on that we would be competitive with one-another, as we would be applying for the same grants, competing for students, etc. But these have ended up mostly being non-issues (so far!). We co-advise students, write papers together, and help review each other’s grants. I’m looking forward to working closer with all of these folks, as our efforts on an integrative project crystalizes.

I’m really pleased with my lab. It’s still growing actively and my first graduate students will be starting soon. But I’m really impressed with what my lab – composed mostly of undergraduates this past year – has accomplished. I remember at some point in summer 2019, having the distinct feeling of being like: “oh my gosh, I have a lab!” We also have a wide network of experimental collaborators and it’s really validating as a computational person to do things that are in demand by experimentalists. One of my proudest moments is when I heard that one of my students had instructed another to “plot the data and really look at it” as the first step following an analysis.

We’ve been lucky with grants. We were fortunate to have two proposals funded (of 4 total grants submitted): the first, a large 200K seed grant from my institution to fund our collaborative human ex vivo brain slice work with Dr. Taufik Valiante. We also received a 10K USD seed award from the Kavli Foundation to fund our work related to the Neurodata Without Borders data format for intracellular electrophysiology. We have two more grants that are submitted that we are waiting responses on: a NSERC Discovery grant and a collaborative NeuroNex proposal. I feel pretty good about both of these, and writing the second one especially was a really cool (but hectic) experience, as I got to write this proposal with many top scientists whom I greatly respect. My grants “strategy” thus-far has been to apply for primarily small foundation grants that I feel that we might have a pretty good chance for (as opposed to larger R01 or CIHR-style grants).

The bad:

Applying for grants is relentless. I often felt like I was applying for multiple grants simultaneously. Or I would finish a grant and would have a week or so to catch up on other responsibilities before having to jump into another grant. I haven’t had to write so much, so frequently (when I didn’t really want to) since writing my thesis in graduate school. But I’ve gotten much better at writing pretty good, pretty quickly – I can hammer out a half-decent specific aims page in just a couple of hours, down from a couple days/weeks before. One benefit of this skill is that it’s often really helpful to just put down some ideas on paper (usually with a schematic figure that I’ll mock up in Illustrator). I also realized that just because a grant was unfunded doesn’t mean the idea was necessarily bad or worthless.

One of the hardest parts of being a PI for me so far has been developing administrative and managerial skills. I’d never put together an ethics proposal for human subjects research. Or how to make the utterly terrifying decision of whether to hire someone. Or figure out how to navigate so many countless examples of organizational bureaucracy – easily among the most frustrating aspects of my new job. I understand now why most labs have lab managers and I’m grateful to my past lab managers who dealt with all of this effortlessly.

A final challenge was figuring out what research questions my lab should pursue. I think we eventually figured it out, but it was tough knowing how my lab should split its focus between short and long term goals and working on my personal passion projects versus problems that are in demand by our collaborators and centre. This past year, we’ve been working on a large number of projects that have relatively short term goals. Simultaneously, we’ve putting together the groundwork for making progress on the longer term projects (i.e., setting up collaborator networks, getting access to data, hiring, etc.).

The ugly:

Over the past year, I’ve really struggled with anxiety. As a new PI, there are so many things that you should be doing, but you only have time and energy to do a small fraction of them. I would often have the feeling of drowning in my to-do lists. It’s hard to know if you’re doing a good job, and even if you are, it’s difficult not to compare yourself to others who are vastly more successful than you. Looking back, I think social media and Twitter really exacerbates this for me. I would often find myself lying awake in the middle of the night being stressed and anxious about some irreconcilable issue from the day prior. Did I interact with that difficult collaborator well? Were we taking the right analysis approach? Would our lab’s project get scooped by bigger labs or institutes? Caffeine became my best friend through these toughest times – at the cost of obliterating my attention span and focus.

I also found it so easy to let the line between work and life blur completely. I worked many, many more weekends than I didn’t work. While I was able to put this time to good use (mostly), I wonder how much strain I put on myself and my relationships due to my inability to say no. Judging by the grey in my beard and the growing size of my bald spot, my epigenetic clock has ticked forward considerably over the past year.

Looking forward:

This coming year, I want to try to be more relaxed about my job. I don’t expect that I’ll become an anxiety-free Zen master. But I want to try to make time for more things that I enjoy that are completely divorced from my job, like cooking healthy meals and picking up my violin every once in a while. I want to be better about separating work from the rest of my life, and plan to be more intentional about when and how often I check email, Twitter, and Slack, especially at home and right before I go to bed. I also want to try to delegate more and learn to lean on the emerging expertise of my lab. I want to get better at saying no. I also want to spend more time writing papers and grants with my lab and less time writing grants by myself.

I also want to do more to cultivate a culture of fun. I’m disappointed to report that there have been exactly zero nerf gun fights in our centre over the past year (but we did have a few sessions of Throw Throw Burrito and many epic chess matches over the summer). If this last year our centre was largely defined a bunch of ambitious new PIs eager to make their mark on the world, I hope this coming year is shaped by a bright group of graduate students and post-docs, bubbling with enthusiasm, scientific curiosity, and silliness.