Faced with a need to move lab, scientists should consider as early as possible how to effect a smooth transition.
Two years into his PhD programme in immunology, Sudarshan Anand learned that his adviser was leaving the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. So where did that leave Anand? If he stayed at Mayo, he would need to find another mentor and probably another PhD project. But if he followed his adviser to Baltimore, he would have to rebuild his support system. “It is easier to make friends in the first year of grad school,” he says. “Joining a new programme in year three, you need to be more proactive and make friends outside of the lab.”
Anand followed his instincts — and his mentor — to Maryland. By doing so, he kept a research project and adviser whom he liked, but he was delayed by about a semester owing to the need to retake coursework. He also had to recruit a new thesis committee. “The faculty didn't know me. I just dropped in and said, 'Hey, I would like you to be on my committee.' That was a little tricky.” The experience helped Anand to prepare for two subsequent relocations: one to the University of California, San Diego, for a postdoc in 2007, and another in 2013 to take a tenure-track position at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, where he still works today.
Science is a mobile enterprise, and researchers at any stage of their careers could suddenly face the prospect of packing up and moving to a different institution, nation or even continent. The process is rarely easy, even for those who do not have the headache of moving an entire laboratory. For graduate students, a move may mean repeating coursework. For postdocs, it could mean losing access to painstakingly collected data, animal models or reagents, or sacrificing time to create back-up animal models or cell cultures. Senior scientists might need to recruit and train a new lab team. All those factors have a role in a scientist's decision on whether to move and, if so, how.
For Anand, things worked out well: his team at Mayo was close to publishing a paper when the time came to move, which helped to give him firm scientific footing. “It did wonders for my confidence,” Anand says. His remaining time at Johns Hopkins felt more like a postdoc, he says, because he had time to do experiments that were not essential to his dissertation. He passed his qualifying exams with minimal stress and few regrets about his circuitous educational path. “You learn a lot about yourself by how you handle curveballs,” he says.
But it isn't always such smooth sailing. Researchers who are faced with moving lab — whether to follow a mentor, because of a calamity or to snag a fellowship or research post — need to identify and maintain what they have already established before they consider recreating that situation in a new environment (see 'Five simple steps for a fluid transition').
A can of worms
Developmental biologist Phil Newmark left his first postdoc at the University of Barcelona in Spain to continue his work at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Baltimore. Naturally, he took his research collection of planarian flatworms (Schmidtea mediterranea) with him. But within two years, his entire worm colony had died off as a result of sudden problems with the in-house water-purification system — right as the team was making some important technical breakthroughs.
These were not just any worms. The Spanish species differs from the North American one in that it reproduces asexually, has a smaller genome and is not easily procured. “One cannot simply buy these animals from a supplier,” Newmark says. “We could have lost years.” Panicked, he and his postdoc adviser flew back to Spain to make a pilgrimage to the broken fountain from which he had gathered his first batch. They were relieved to find the same type of planarian still dwelling in the standing water.boxed-text
The problem recurred a few years later — again as a result of abrupt changes in local water quality — when Newmark moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. This time, however, Newmark had a safety net of back-up worms, which gave him time to develop defined culture conditions, using ultrapure water as the starting point. That was fortuitous, because by then workers had repaired the fountain in Spain. It is no longer a habitat for planaria.
Biomolecular engineer W T. Godbey also had to adapt quickly to unforeseen disaster. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed his lab, forcing him to move temporarily from Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Rice University in Houston, Texas. One of his graduate students, Xiujuan Zhang, decided to follow him — but she had to find him first. This was not an easy task in an age before ubiquitous mobile phones, and Tulane's e-mail server was down because of the flood. She eventually tracked him down through his mother.
“The first few weeks were the scariest part, because no one knew where anyone was — home, on vacation, dead,” Godbey recalls. Once the flood waters had receded, he visited his lab at Tulane to see how much damage the hurricane had caused. His plasmid samples had been wrapped in garbage bags, boxed and shoved into a hot, mouldy freezer in a sweltering laboratory — yet fortunately, none had seriously degraded. Back at Rice, he and Zhang grew the DNA segments into a larger library, then sequenced the plasmids to ensure that none had been compromised. None had, but Godbey knows now that back-up supplies — and disaster planning — are essential.
Even the most careful plans can be thrown out of whack when complications arise, especially for senior scientists. Molecular biologist Josh Brickman began a relocation in 2011 from the University of Edinburgh, UK, to the University of Copenhagen, where he had accepted a group-leader post at the then-newly created Danish Stem Cell Centre. He had to transport multiple types of animal, recreate several mouse lines, resettle half-a-dozen lab staff and, for a time, supervise labs in two countries to fulfil dual grant commitments. “It was an experience,” he says.
Different animal-housing conventions at the two facilities intensified the stress inherent in moving more than 100 frogs and 6 lines of transgenic mice. The Edinburgh facility had housed the mice in open-topped cages, which risked exposing them to pathogens. The animal facility in Copenhagen, by contrast, had closed cages that were considered pathogen-free — which meant that the relocated mice could not be placed directly into them. Instead, the animals were mated, and their embryos were removed and transferred to surrogate mothers that had been raised in the Copenhagen pathogen-free lab. “It took much longer than we had expected,” Brickman says. “And we had problems doing mouse experiments during the process.”
“The first few weeks were the scariest because no one one knew where anyone was — home, on vacation, dead.”
Transporting the embryonic-stem-cell lines — which according to Brickman's estimates represented more than 100 person-years of work — also proved cumbersome. First, he had to ensure that every line was duplicated in Edinburgh. Then he and his lab members arranged for the cell lines and reagents to be stored properly in liquid nitrogen and packed carefully into supercooled containers. The group loaded a truck with the cell lines and reagents and then flew to Copenhagen to meet it and ensure that the biological material was still stable.
Complicating matters further, the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where Brickman's lab was based, was moving to a new building at the time that the stem-cell centre in Copenhagen was under construction. When he learned that the opening in Copenhagen would be delayed, Brickman felt it best to move the bulk of his lab to temporary facilities in Denmark rather than to the new building in Scotland — even though he would later have to transfer again to the permanent lab.
Managing lab members in two sites also proved challenging. Brickman had landed a collaborative UK grant before he left, so he hired a new postdoc to work at his Edinburgh lab and continued to manage three lab members who remained there. He could not directly supervise his new recruits much of the time, and so missed out on day-to-day knowledge of how his Edinburgh lab functioned; he commuted between Scotland and Denmark weekly for three months but worked mainly in Denmark over the next two years. The protracted move, he says, may have delayed the publication of papers — an unfortunate result for his junior co-authors, although he says that the papers were eventually accepted into high-impact journals.
Despite all the snags, much went right, Brickman says. He credits administrative support in both Edinburgh and Copenhagen for the smooth relocation of his lab group. “All of my people were able to move both work and personal lives,” he says. “None of them ended up homeless, despite moving to a new country where they didn't speak the language and in a city where it is almost impossible to find rental apartments.” In the end, clearing the many logistical hurdles proved worthwhile, he says, because the new stem-cell centre's strengths outweigh the hassles that he underwent to join it.
There is no way around it — moving lab, whether within a university or to another country, is gruelling, stressful and likely to include disaster or catastrophe. Ultimately, however, no one can plan for everything, and adaptability is perhaps the most useful resource. “I am much more unflappable now,” says Godbey. “The more extreme the situation, the more flexible you need to be.”
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Smaglik, P. Lab transitions: The bumpy road to relocation. Nature 527, 399–401 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7578-399a