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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lab life: Battle zone

Published online
This article was originally published in the journal Nature
Disputes are bound to happen in high-pressure research environments. The key is knowing how to respond when they do.
Erica Sparkenbaugh was apprehensive when her principal investigator (PI) asked her to finish a paper that a more senior postdoc had started. But, as a recent arrival to the lab, she did not want to seem uncooperative. “I was kind of embarrassed, and I felt bad,” remembers Sparkenbaugh, who researches inflammation and coagulation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I didn't want this to be the start of my new postdoc.” Soon, she started hearing whispers that her colleague was upset about having his project snatched away. Worried about the future of their working relationship and about lab camaraderie, Sparkenbaugh approached her miffed lab-mate on a quiet evening at the campus postdoctoral office. She explained that she had not intended to step on his toes. “I walked up to him and asked if he was OK with my finishing the paper,” she says. “I wanted him to know that our PI had asked me to finish things up because he knew [the colleague] was busy with other projects.”
The conversation proved fruitful. Her colleague's vexation evaporated, and he agreed that they should talk to their supervisor about a more collaborative approach. The three settled on a timeline for the postdocs to finish the paper together and submit it to a journal, and all went according to plan: the paper is now under review. “I think it was really helpful that I went to him directly,” says Sparkenbaugh. “He and I have a really good working relationship now — it was worth those 10 minutes of sweating.”
All sorts of discord can arise in the lab, tripping up the most well-meaning postdocs and graduate students. Differing expectations and ineffective or insufficient exchange of information are at the root of many clashes, say conflict-resolution experts. Younger researchers might be unclear about their own or their lab-mates' responsibilities, or might not fully understand how the lab functions. They might also communicate poorly, and unwittingly come across as truculent or confrontational.

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