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Diversity Improves Science Ten Rules to Make Lab Meetings More Productive

Editor: Alexander Stark

A new paper seeks to help scientists structure their lab-group meetings so that they are more inclusive, more productive and, ultimately, lead to better science. The scientists have outlined their results in ten simple rules.

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(Source: Public Domain / Pixabay )

Amherst/USA — The word “scientist” might conjure images of lab-coated researchers tending bubbling beakers or building supercomputers, but an enormous amount of scientific work takes place around a conference table during weekly group meetings.

Productive lab meetings foster a sense of participation, integration, and inclusion among a diverse lab community, and leverage the diversity of experiences and skills of lab members. Diversity and inclusion starts with the structure of the lab meeting itself. Graduate Student and one of the co-authors of the study, Kadambari Devarajan and her colleagues developed a set of ten guiding principles that help to cultivate lab environments that are inclusive as well productive lab environment, which range from the practical with “Rule 2: Identify roles and rules” and “Rule 6: Manage conflict” to the interpersonal with “Rule 5: Be respectful and practice civility” and “Rule 9: Be aware of biases”.

There is plenty of good research showing that diversity and inclusion make the science itself better

Kadambari Devarajan

Each of the ten rules came out of the team's own working practice, honed by years of use, in Toni Lyn Morelli's lab, whose members hail from countries around the globe and are in various stages of their careers. Morelli (Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center and US Geological Survey), a co-author of the paper and a research ecologist affiliated with the environmental conservation department as well as the organismic and evolutionary biology program, notes that though diversity and inclusion are of interest far beyond the realm of science, there's not always a practical guide to go by. “How does one create a diverse and inclusive lab that enables all members to bring their whole selves? What week-to-week actions can reinforce the sense of community and increase an individual's, and thus the whole group's, productivity?” She hopes that these guidelines can act as inspiration for her graduate students, as well as other lab groups, to build similar and even better spaces in the future.

When answers to practical questions such as these are approached deliberately, the result can be powerful and long-lasting. “Lab meetings can be some of the most memorable and rewarding moments in our academic careers,” write the authors, and can help “increase diversity in science, boost scientific creativity, and facilitate problem solving”.

Perhaps most powerfully, the paper's authors argue that what happens in the lab doesn't just stay in the lab — it ripples out into society at large. “Science isn't isolated from what's happening outside of academia,” says Nigel Golden, co-lead author, graduate student in environmental conservation, and a fellow at the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, “the world is influencing our science, and our science is influencing the rest of the world”.

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Ten Simple Rules for Productive Lab Meetings

Rule 1: Define lab mission and objectives

As with any meeting we encounter in academic settings (e.g., committee meetings, faculty meetings, advisor meetings), lab meetings will be most effective and productive if they have clearly articulated objectives and fit within the overall lab mission (Fig 2) [5]. Many research enterprises and organizations have a “mission” statement. Considering the expectations for a specific meeting within the context of the lab’s mission will help lab groups articulate goals and expectations.

Rule 2: Identify roles and rules

For a lab meeting to run efficiently, all participants should have a clear understanding of their individual roles, as well as the rules of the meeting environment. Long-term meeting roles and ground rules might be developed and agreed upon by the meeting group based on the lab mission and group objectives.

Rule 3: Be accessible and inclusive

Accessibility and inclusion go hand in hand. Accessibility here refers to the degree to which lab meetings are attended by and welcoming/supportive to as many people as relevant. There are different dimensions of diversity and accessibility to consider when running lab meetings. In some contexts, these terms refer to differently abled, neurodiverse, or special-needs learners; in others, they are used in the context of racial, gender, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity.

Working to be accessible/inclusive is necessary and rewarding, and though resources abound for navigating accessibility challenges (e.g., ITACC Project Advisory Committee 2012), there is no simple list of rules to follow.

Rule 4: Be supportive

Types of support can be emotional (such as trust, empathy, and encouragement) and/or professional (such as helping and mentoring according to specific needs, advice-giving, and providing feedback). Ideally, the lab meeting is intentionally designed from a people-centric approach where members want to participate because they feel a sense of community, camaraderie, and support. Lab meetings should be a place that is safe physically, intellectually, emotionally, and culturally, where members can celebrate their accomplishments and share disappointments, both big and small, with the group. An environment that encourages collaboration (and discourages toxic competition) is critical, albeit difficult to foster

Rule 5: Be respectful and practice civility

In interacting with each other during lab meetings, strive for creating respectful and humanistic spaces. In other words, practice civility and be respectful to everyone in the lab group. Research on workplace incivility makes it clear that an intentional focus on civility and respect is beneficial as it improves interpersonal relationships between participants (see Rule 4) and productivity, whereas workplace incivility can result in heightened levels of burnout and withdrawal. This is especially true when the root of that incivility is based on intersecting marginalized identity markers in academia

Rule 6: Manage conflict

It is important to foster an environment of collegiality, collaboration, and support within a lab group, but creating a cohesive team of lab group members can be challenging. These challenges may extend to lab meetings, which bear witness to the unique internal ecosystem of energy levels, stressors, opportunities, constraints, strengths, and weaknesses each individual member brings to a meeting. Moreover, most lab groups include a diversity of stages and priorities. Conflict may arise during a lab meeting despite our best intentions, even when objectives and rules have been clearly defined, and even when participants are making good faith efforts to be open-minded, supportive, present, respectful, and conscious of their biases.

Be careful to distinguish between dissent and conflict. A disagreement by itself is not a conflict, and neither dissent nor conflict should be managed in a way that forces individuals to conformity

Rule 7: Be open and curious

Though open-mindedness feels effortless when the idea at hand is consistent with our existing views (see Rule 9: Be aware of biases), a greater challenge is consciously remaining receptive to suggestions, concepts, and critiques that contradict one’s individual views and lived experiences to revise one’s viewpoint (i.e., learn). A commitment to open-mindedness during meetings can foster curiosity (active information-seeking) and lead to new ideas and knowledge creation, in addition to helping preempt conflict (see Rule 8) [52], and thus improve lab meeting productivity.

Rule 8: Be mindful and present

Lab meetings are more productive when group members are present, engaged, and mindful, whether in person or on video. This includes being an active listener, moderating the frequency and extent of one’s own participation during meetings to allow space for others, while actively contributing to the discussion. Eliminating distractions, such as closing unrelated laptop/browser windows or leaving the phone silent/off when possible, can enable members to be fully present during lab meetings and to more effectively engage in (or lead) the conversation.

Rule 9: Be aware of biases

In academic settings (including lab meetings), there are identity-based biases that create hostile environments, impact individual productivity, and thus hinder success. These biases are informed both by an individual’s social environment (e.g., political contexts, social norms and values) and their personality traits. This includes perceptions of aspects of identity that include disabilities, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. Extensive research shows that these perceptions affect our interactions and how we receive information; for example, faculty (regardless of gender identity) are often biased against female-identified students.

Rule 10: Be flexible and adaptable

Life can be unpredictable, which leads us to the last rule. As noted, the design and implementation of lab meetings should allow for flexibility and adaptability. As participants rotate in and out of lab meetings and as their needs change, it will be useful, and indeed beneficial for the culture of the lab group, to occasionally or even systematically (e.g., at the start of each academic year) assess what works and what could be improved. Thus, roles and rules might change as members achieve different stages, or biases might be revealed as new members join.

Working remotely has now become integral to our professional lives. This has resulted in unusual work scenarios that required modifying and adjusting our lab meetings, including changing the meeting time to accommodate multiple time zones and holding meetings throughout the summer to increase intellectual and emotional support during these challenging times. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how important it is to be flexible and adaptive, for the physical, emotional, and professional well-being of the lab community.