What does it take to manage a multi-million dollar Havard Medical School science lab?

“How did you do that?” That’s usually how it starts. That’s how a vision is born. Before that, I never gave too much thought to what I was doing with my career and my life.

“How did you do start this lab, Damien?” Jiang was a junior investigator trying to figure out the best way to start his own practice.

I was pretty bewildered by his question, because I thought it wasn’t that big of a deal. Besides, who was I? In my mind, I was just the “lab manager.” I wasn’t the principal investigator. I wasn’t a postdoc, nor a graduate student, nor a staff scientist. I was hired to manage a lab. So, I thought. What I found was that I was hired because of my experience; my experience as a lab manager.

He was a postdoc from my current lab, and was starting his own practice. He was pretty clueless as to how to run the business side of academic research. He came to me because I’ve been the lab manager of a successful Harvard Medical School lab for almost a whole decade. Before that, I was a manager of another successful Howard Hughes Medical Institute laboratory for the better part of another decade. That, along with my biotech experience and research background, I was able to start up a consulting practice that aids young scientists in their own career vision. I speak about my background, because it’s what made me become good at what I do. All together, about 20 years of experience has been my teacher. It’s that process for which has enable me to help others to become successful in their own vision. I didn’t fully appreciate that long journey till that question; “How did you do that?”

How would he know? While he spent the last 4 years working out the molecular mechanism of the Jak/Stat signaling pathway in AML (leukemia), I spent those same years, cultivating and helping young investigators to negotiate financial start up support. During that I time I was also recruiting and training new technical support staff to help them.

How would he know? While he was working on his MD/PhD for over 6 years, with residency in tow, I was transitioning another lab from the start. I had moved from Southern California to New England to take what I’ve learned from biotech and HHMI to become the seminal platform that I use today to start other successful labs. Through years of trial and error, I managed to work out many of the bugs that plague many young scientific research labs.

How would he know? While he spent his undergraduate work at a competitive academic institution and studying to get into a prestigious biomedical training program, I was working at a biotech company and helped to start up a lab that became a successful HHMI diabetes laboratory. Here I learned that the art of management had more to do with managing people and their emotions, rather than the finances and operations. This helped me hone my people skills and to work within dynamic teams. I learned that EQ (emotional quotient) is just as important as, and sometimes more than, IQ (intelligence quotient).

All in all, the time that I spent learning about management has given me confidence and wisdom to know the ins and out of managing scientific teams. It’s the people that matters. It’s their vision for science. It’s their passion that drives it.

However, during my tenure as a manager, I’ve found that it’s the anxiety of business that can often derail a talented scientists. It’s that unknown variable that messess with their hypothesis. It’s what makes them fear taking risks, which are necessary for innovative discoveries. Business is frought with unknowns, and management is there to mitigate those risks. That’s why I found it an odd question. I thought it was clear, but its the years that has taught me the obvious. How would he know? He was busy learning about experimental science, while I was experimenting with the business of science.

It takes years of experience to run a successful Harvard Medical School lab, but how would you know?

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