The Grand Locus / Life for statistical sciences

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Pro recruitment tip: ask your mum!

The key of success is to choose the right people for your team. That’s what everybody will tell you. But if you ask “how?”, things will get a little more complicated. Practitioners admit that this is a tough problem, and you cannot expect to win all the time. Google attempted to answer the question with the so-called Project Aristotle. After sifting a huge amount of data through the best algorithms, they concluded that you can ignore gender, age, culture, education and pretty much everything else... What makes a good team is not good people, it is good interactions.

This is great news, but it does not really answer the question of how to choose the right people for your team. How does one know that a candidate will nicely interact with the team? Those were the questions I had in mind when I had to assemble my scientific team. Like almost everyone, I did not have any kind of training in this regard and I was not really prepared. So I sought advice from everybody who would care to give me their opinion, may they be colleagues, friends or family members. In the process, I did...






Three lessons from peer coaching

For a little more than a year, my colleagues and me have been organizing peer coaching sessions for junior group leaders. A typical session consists of four to six of us, and we meet for one morning to discuss the most pressing issues. After a start-up training and some trial and error, we settled for a group coaching method that gave the best result. To give an idea, the “coachee” tells the chairman what he/she wants to solve, then follows a discussion where he/she explains the facts to the coaches who ask as many question as possible. Then the coaches analyze the situation, suggest solutions and make comments meanwhile the coachee has to remain silent and listen. Finally, the coachee summarizes what he/she heard and what steps he/she will take.

With this exercise, we learned a great deal about how to organize such peer coaching sessions in the academia and how to make the best of them, but this is not what this post is about. Instead, I would like to share more important lessons I have learned about working together and using the group as support and source of motivation.

If you...






How to teach research?

One of my students once asked me how to become a better researcher. “Great question!” I thought. Instead of a straight and clear answer, I heard myself babbling, as happens when you have no idea what you are talking about. Somewhat disappointed by my non answer, I turned to my colleagues and asked how they teach research. The answer ranged from embarrassed silence to politely switching topic. Strange, I thought, it is our responsibility as principal investigators to educate the junior researchers of our group, so we’d better have some idea of what we are doing.

We have a fairly good idea of how to teach skills, like mathematics, molecular biology etc. But I would argue that research is not a skill. I would argue that it is an attitude. So the real question is how to teach an attitude. There is no foolproof recipe, but here goes a subjective view that I gathered from reading, from discussions and from personal experience.

1. Motivate the change

Most students and junior scientists enter the lab with an open mind, ready to learn as many new things as possible. But most of them focus on learning technical skills (at...






Four illusions

Optical illusions come in two flavors. The one shown on the left is a classical example of a “false” perception. It looks like the grey lines are curved, but they are actually perfectly horizontal. Even if we know that the lines are horizontal, we cannot force ourselves to see them this way. I find it somewhat of a miracle that reason is strong enough to tell that the eyes are lying, but still, however long you stare at the picture, you will never see it the right way. The brain cannot learn to see this picture.

The second flavor of optical illusions is shown on the right. This picture may either represent the face of a woman, or a saxophone player. Most people immediately see one of those, and it may take them some time to see the other. But once they see it, there is no way to “unsee” it. The brain has completely forgotten how it feels to not see it and cannot unlearn to see the picture.

Vision is not the only sense that can be fooled. As a matter of fact, what is so special about optical illusions is that we realize that something...






So you want to be a group leader

People often ask me whether it is difficult to be a group leader. I usually answer “No that’s easy. Being a good group leader... that’s another story.” It is one of these jobs for which there is no training. It is also one of these jobs about which there is no information. As the leader of a team of scientists, you will have to face your problems alone, because scientific leadership is...

The best kept secret in the world

The need for solid leadership skills is fully acknowledged in the civilized world, but in academic research this culture is lagging behind. So far behind that we have to admit the plain truth: leadership in science is a taboo. Understandably, academic researchers are reluctant to share their experience because they have little authority to do so, and because the information is often confidential. I could tell how I solved “the case of a post-doc of mine who put his music too loud in the lab”, but since all my colleagues would identify this person, I would end up with a serious issue in my team.

There are also systemic reasons for this lack of culture. Academic...






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