A look back at TripLab’s third year

The lab as a living, breathing organism

I feel like over the past year, our lab really found its identity. The lab has a clear culture and feel to it. In a lot of ways, it feels like a community of diverse, but like-minded individuals where the whole is considerably greater than the sum of its parts. Hiring for diversity has been a huge force multiplier, as well as giving lab members a lot of freedom to choose their own projects.

Whereas my first couple years of running the lab were primarily defined by interactions with colleagues and collaborators and other folks in my neuroinformatics centre, this year, the lion’s share of my time was spent directly interacting with members of my lab.

One of my dreams since starting my lab was for it to grow and mature to the point where ideas would be internally generated within the lab - ideally by interactions among members of the lab with one another, as opposed to such ideas coming “top-down” from me or collaborators. It’s been so cool to see this start to happen, to hear about exciting research ideas that have formed through different lab members talking and hanging out with another.

Looking back, some of the explicit social engineering efforts we implemented in 2020 and 2021 started to pay off big time: from playing codenames and mafia virtually (these work really well over zoom!), to meeting up in a park over burritos to celebrate student graduations, to holding our first ever lab retreat at a cottage in the Muskoka region. These events have given lab members a chance to hang out and get to know one another and (I think) feel comfortable reaching out to one another and asking for help or advice on projects. I’m so blessed to have lab members who are not only brilliant and exceptionally hard-working, but more importantly, who are kind and sociable and genuinely care for the well-being of each other and the success of our lab as a whole.

Honestly, it’s a little bittersweet to watch genuine friendships form between my lab members while being mindful to keep a healthy distance between myself and my lab. But mostly it just feels awesome to watch my lab take on some of the attributes that made my PhD and post-doc labs so fun and vibrant and successful.

Reflections on the past year of scientific output

I can’t believe the scientific output the lab had over the past year. We published so many papers (14!?!), in so many areas, from single cell gene expression, to human neuron ephys, to population scale analyses using the UK Biobank. It’s frankly mind boggling and a real struggle to try to stay on top of so many areas of science, but it’s thrilling to learn so much and get to contribute to so many areas.

A major personal highlight for me was all the press we got around Michael Wainberg’s paper using the UK Biobank to investigate how mental illness is associated with disrupted sleep measured using wearables. Michael and I were asked for interviews with a number of science reporters, including the study being profiled in the Toronto Star, (un-paywalled pdf), and I went on the radio a few times to talk about the work. I absolutely love talking about science with the public and a major personal win was hearing from my mom that she finally understands some of what I do. As an aside, Michael is going on the academic job market in the next year or so (this sleep study was just one of five first-author papers he published last year) and any department would be incredibly lucky to have him.

With each passing year, I feel more and more confident that we’ll be able to translate the basic fundamental knowledge of human neuron gene expression and physiology into actionable insights that can impact human health and the treatment of disease in our lifetimes. I’m really looking forward to the papers we have in the pipeline for 2022 as they’ll hopefully continue our lab’s push towards this goal.

Process over product

Our lab is faced with a ridiculous amount of decisions each day, from hiring, to deciding whether to pursue a project or collaboration, to helping students figure out how to proceed in a challenging project. One approach I’ve found helpful is trying to have a clear approach and process for decision making. I really like the approach outlined by Emily Oster in the book The Family Firm, and she proposes a 4-stage “4-F” decision making process that involves: Framing the Question, Fact Finding, Final Decision, and Follow-up. She also advocates having clear “principles” that can help guide a lot of complex decision making in the moment. For example, one principle I try to really stick to is : “do what’s in the best interest of the trainee”, and I’ve found that helps answer a lot of otherwise really complicated decisions.

On a personal note, while I’m clearly ecstatic about our lab’s successes, I’m finding myself getting less joy from traditional research outputs like getting a paper published in a high impact journal or being awarded a grant (though, those are clearly important for the continued success of the lab!). Instead, I’ve become more driven by the day-to-day “small wins” of doing science, like seeing fresh data and analyses, talking through scientific problems, and watching my trainees level up and live their best lives as scientists. But I’m aware this feeling comes from a huge position of privilege and I likely wouldn’t feel this way if the lab was struggling more to publish or get grants.

The room where it happens

As the lab accrues success and recognition, I’m finding myself increasingly asked to participate in administrative duties, including contributing to grant review and funding committees and serving as a public face for my organization, like for fundraising pushes. It’s exciting to get to be asked to participate in these roles and for my opinion to be explicitly solicited. But it’s terrifying too, as I still rarely feel like I know what I’m doing, especially when I’m talking to folks much more senior and established than myself.

But all in all, it’s been a worthwhile learning experience being in the “back-rooms” and getting to watch how the sausage is made. One take home I’ve observed is the importance of clarity in scientific proposals, as it’s rare for someone in an “evaluator” role to truly be an expert in what they’re being asked to assess or to have the time or energy to dissect an overly complicated idea. Another take home is the importance of networks and trying to “get your name out there”. Despite even the best intentions, it seems like it’s hard to avoid opportunities going to those who are already front of mind or who are otherwise already well connected. But on a more positive note - there’s clearly a lot of effort being made (at my institution and elsewhere) to hire diverse candidates and I look forward to these efforts bearing fruits soon.

Reflections on myself and how I approach my job

As I wrote about in my experiences from previous years (2021, 2020), in my first couple years as a PI, a lot of my approach to my job was defined by a frantic sense of urgency and anxiety and the feeling that if I’m not working 24/7, everything would fall to pieces and I would be fired unceremoniously.

This past year, I didn’t feel that way at all. More often than not, I worked healthy hours (9 to 5 or 6ish), working each week about 3-4 days at home and 1-2 days at the office. I tried to make “shutting off” my computer at the end of my workday a daily ritual and tried to keep it off until the next morning. Uninstalling slack and twitter from my phone was also really beneficial. It’s a running joke in the lab about how militant I am about promptly ending meetings by noon so I can have time for lunch with my wife, who also works from home. And I’ve taken steps to prioritize my physical health and well-being, like making time for walks and long runs or doing workouts at home or my crossfit gym. And as (some of the) restrictions of the pandemic abated, my wife and I were able to prioritize spending quality in-person time with our families.

In part inspired by Michael’s paper on sleep, over the last year I’ve undertaken a huge self-experimentation project to use wearables to get a better handle on steps I can take to improve my own sleep. At one point, I had three separate devices to track my sleep (I’ve since settled on just using a Whoop, which is really good at tracking both my sleep and physical activity). Nothing I learned about myself was particularly groundbreaking (and I could write a whole blog post on my own analysis of a year’s worth of data), but it was really meaningful to see how factors like alcohol, workout intensity, and work stress impact my sleep, and I’ve since taken efforts to limit some of these, like switching to non-alcoholic beer when I drink socially. On a recent walk, my wife mentioned that I seem a lot less stressed and anxious these days.

What’s next

Over the coming year, the lab will likely continue along it’s slow evolution from “brand spanking new” to “slightly more established” lab.

What I’m most looking forward to is cheering on my first crop of post-docs as they dip their toes into the academic job market. I can’t wait to see my grad students continue to find their unique voice as scientists and enter the workforce in positions that are uniquely suited to their skills and tastes, in academia or otherwise. And I can’t wait to mentor (a too limited number) of undergrads and watch them realize how fun and meaningful scientific research can be.