CAREER COLUMN

Advice from the high seas: how to transition to a new lab

Respect for what you and your colleagues bring to the table is vital to successful integration, says Melissa T. Miller.
Melissa T. Miller is a research associate and budding science communicator at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.

Search for this author in:

Biological assistant collects samples on board a research vessel

Research at sea can teach scientists quickly how to collaborate well in a small space.Credit: Morris MacMatzen/Getty

As a marine-chemistry technician, I work aboard research vessels all over the world. I’ve crossed every ocean and been to the North Pole in the name of science. There are many obvious ways in which my life differs when I’m at sea, including working 12-hour shifts, someone else making all my meals and only having a limited amount of dial-up-speed Internet.

But despite the differences in working environments, I’ve learnt that many of the same skills come in handy whether there’s ground beneath my feet or 5,000 metres of water.

Scientists who work in lab groups generally end up in a few different ones over the course of their career. I enter a new group a few times every year. From my base at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, I head to a ship and set up my equipment in a space designed to be adapted for a variety of lab purposes. The room usually has the basics — benches, cabinets and sinks — but only some have fume cupboards, gas lines or temperature control. Spreading out is rarely an option, and sharing lab space and resources is the norm. It takes months of planning and prep work to accommodate different groups of scientists, and then sometimes we’re aboard only for a few days before packing everything back up. Usually, the ship is at sea for weeks or even a few months between ports.

Here’s my advice for others who are starting in a new lab, from someone who has moved labs more than most.

Seek out support. Learning to ‘make it work’ is a necessity, and I seek out people who have genius brains for problem solving to compensate for the fact that I do not. On one trip in the Southern Ocean, I kept losing magnetic stirrer bars down the drain while washing dishes. The ship didn’t have any extra drain plugs or screens, so a colleague used a glue stick and part of an empty pipette rack to engineer a fix, which was lucky, because I had only so many spares.

At sea, there are no hardware stores or stockrooms to buy supplies, so an ‘all for one, one for all’ attitude quickly forms. I do what I can to make myself useful to others — sharing supplies when I can spare them, covering someone’s station so that they will have time to grab food or coffee, and bringing lots of music and movies to share. If nothing else, I try to keep a positive and helpful attitude, which is usually contagious and always useful.

This strategy for lab cooperation has carried over to my work on land, and is now habit. Even when I’m not literally in the same boat as my colleagues, I am figuratively. We’re all working at the same place, because we want to be a part of the academic process. But we also all have our separate lives and other people who are special to us. Remembering that, and respecting it, is key.

Melissa MIller poses by a ship's bell

Melissa Miller on a ship off the coast of Chile after completing a scientific expedition.Credit: Melissa MIller

Collaborate cleverly. I go to sea for a variety of projects, usually involving a different group of scientists every time. On top of the usual graduate students and principal investigators, everyone from undergraduates to shipping engineers and emeritus professors might be aboard. There are also members of the ship’s crew, many of whom have completely different backgrounds from me. But what’s important is that we’re all working on the same project, and we all need to do our jobs to make it successful.

For me, adapting to being surrounded by people I didn’t choose, and whom I might not know, involves finding something to talk about with as many of them as possible. As an extrovert, I find this relatively straightforward, and it’s made even easier on board a research vessel, given that I spend all day, every day, around the same 20–50 people, depending on the size of the ship. Conversation is assisted by the fact that we eat all our meals together, use the same small gym and have only a few other places to spend our down time.

But the same strategy applies in a more typical work environment — be friendly, interested and interesting. You never know when you’ll hit on that one topic that gets an introvert talking. Or when you’ll bond with someone because you loved the same television show as kids, or have been excited about the same article. I enjoy the moments, no matter how small, when I can relate to someone with whom I might have little else in common other than being aboard the same ship in the middle of a vast ocean.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06824-0
Nature Briefing

Sign up for the daily Nature Briefing email newsletter

Stay up to date with what matters in science and why, handpicked from Nature and other publications worldwide.

Sign Up