An early stab at leadership can help a young scientist to imagine heading a group, argues Katharina Genreith.
I am a 26-year-old PhD student. I am also an independent group leader — of a sort. I acquire my own funding, and run a lab with eight team members.
How could such a young student have such a serious responsibility? I am taking part in the Life-Science Lab: an unconventional education initiative at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg. The programme gives students from high-school to PhD level the opportunity to join independent, mixed research groups and work on scientific projects of their choosing — in their own labs.
Students get the chance, in essence, to fast-forward their careers and see what it is like to be two steps ahead on the academic ladder. I have been given a glimpse of my future, working as a responsible group leader on synthetic biology.
Apart from our remarkably low mean age, my team and I are just like any bunch of scientists. What we might lack in experience and maturity, we have tried to offset with enthusiasm, hard work and the occasional chocolate cake at lab meetings. Our project uses genetically modified Escherichia coli bacteria to make living ultraviolet-light sensors integrated into jewellery pieces, to alert people when the sun has started to cause damage to their DNA.
Despite our enthusiasm, our productivity had been flagging. It can be difficult to convince volunteer team members to sacrifice their Sundays in the absence of deadlines or external incentives. But productivity got a boost when, with fellow Life-Science Lab participant Dominik Niopek, we joined the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM). Suddenly, we had access to thousands of DNA parts (virtual and actual) from iGEM's Registry of Standard Biological Parts, and had the outstanding incentive of measuring ourselves against teams from all over the world. At the same time, however, we were exposed to clear project requirements, deadlines and the small problem of acquiring US$10,000 in funding for lab disposables and expenses for travelling to the competition finals in Greenfield, Indiana. I felt the pressure of being in charge.
The work demanded personal sacrifices, caused sleep deprivation and meant that we had to cope with high expectations from the sponsors and ourselves. But it was worth it. Ten weeks after our team signed up for the iGEM competition, we had raised about US$13,000 in funding from biotechnology companies, government education funds and generous grandmothers.
The experimental results were better than we had dared to hope. At the iGEM high-school competition jamboree, the judges awarded us not only the main prize — a green BioBrick trophy in the shape of a Lego brick — but also five out of ten special prizes.
Jumping into the deep end
Changing my perspective — from PhD student to group leader — gave me the opportunity to develop a scientific project from beginning to end, with responsibility for both the research and my team. I gained practical experience of managing a project, reconciling competencies and team dynamics, assigning tasks and providing constructive feedback. I also saw my shortcomings, including my tendency to grow impatient, which raised anxiety levels.
But most importantly, the career fast-forward taught me to come up with my own project ideas rather than relying on the expertise of my supervisor. I discovered that what I really love about science is the creative process and the possibility of making an impact on society. The experience reinforced my desire to pursue a research career.
By becoming group leaders, early-career scientists have a chance to broaden their horizons and acquire skills such as project organization, mentoring and coordination of a research team. And student-led research teams would work well in nearly any branch of science. The only things really required are a genial, enthusiastic group of students, lab space, the courage to stray off the beaten path — and the occasional chocolate cake.