Derek Pociask’s unofficial immunology lab rules, scrawled on a glass cabinet above one of the desks, may elicit odd looks from passers-by:
Figures or did not happen!
And very specific: all cytokines/chemokines + anything important must be aliquoted and LABELED with date/concentration.
While he’s not a rules guy, Pociask says, the principles have been expounded for years (see go.nature.com/3omjvcy) in his lab at the University of Tulane School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana. The idea is to stimulate critical thinking among its students and staff and to help structure and guide the experiments. Some rules advocate bold ideas and encourage students to push boundaries; others deal with the practical aspects of bench work and writing up the results. Nobody has to read them, but at some point we end up going to them because in the end, [a mistake] it happens, he says. They are a bit funny, but if they stick in the mind, we have to visit them less often.
Such adages, enshrined on lab T-shirts or even trending as Twitter hashtags, may be silly, but they can convey serious truths about what it means to think critically and succeed in academia. Indeed, these sometimes corny sayings often stem from years of hard-earned wisdom amassed by principal investigators (PIs), hoping to spare their students the pain of lessons learned the hard way. Sharing advice through humor, it seems, can keep it fresh in students’ minds long after they’ve embarked on careers of their own.
Collection: Life in the laboratory
For Michelle Galeas-Pea, a former PhD student in Pociask’s lab, one mistake was enough to prompt a career worth remembering. Just weeks after starting lab work in 2015, she botched a delicate and expensive essay that she was left to perform unsupervised. By not reading the protocol, she had missed an important step and had accidentally thrown away her samples. Pociask laughs at her now, but at first, when she told him, her face turned red and she buried her head in her hands. Next, she directed her to the rules, including the fourth (Make new mistakes.) and the seventh (Protocols are NOT suggestions!). I spent three or four years later in that lab seeing those rules every day and thinking about them when I was working on something, she says.
Now a postdoc at another lab in Tulane, Galeas-Pea still uses a photo of the rules in his presentations and communicates them to the students he works with. It’s interesting, Pociask says, to see what he resonates with people, and it’s also nice to see a payoff for one of the things I really care about, which is student mentorship. That’s a bit of validation in a system that does a terrible job of giving validation.
The voice goes around
Word of mouth is perhaps the most common way for PI-isms to make their way around the world, moving from lab to lab as students progress in their careers, eventually starting research groups of their own. But the wise sayings of scientists are sometimes shared in other ways as well, such as on bracelets, hats or coffee mugs in tribute to members.
Sunil Hingorani, an oncologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, has so many maxims that his staff have created a bingo card for lab meetings (although no one has yet won five sunilisms in a row; see go. nature.com/3modowy). One of his mottos, Stop doing stupid things, it eventually made its way onto a rubber bracelet which was distributed during a pancreatic cancer fundraising walk in 2021. Shelley Thorsen, Hingoranis program manager when she worked at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, Washington, says the expression comes from the group’s mission to rigorously develop new treatments for cancer. Hingorani has been annoyed when researchers have failed to test treatments in animal models that fully recapitulate the disease, for example. He felt we needed to really move on this disease, says Thorsen, who still works at the cancer center. I took the bracelet to my new office and it’s on my desk as a reminder to stay focused.
Social media is another channel where recommendations can spread far beyond the confines of individual labs. Jesse Lee, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, often finds himself laughing at the things his advisor, pancreatic oncologist Gregory Beatty, says in lab meetings. He’ll have a really great idea, and then he’ll say, “Oh, it’s relatively simple,” Lee says. That sentence generally follows some of his craziest ideas that no one can actually put into action. For example, Beatty once asked him to devise a way to keep slices of cancerous mouse liver alive in a petri dish to study the effects of drug combinations. The idea was thrown around casually, yet Lee spent a few years developing a system that kept livers alive for two weeks.
Lee started a Twitter account for the lab during the COVID-19 pandemic and started using the hashtag #ShitGregory says to document Beatty’s bizarre statements alongside the group’s new work and camp highlights. Beatty, who doesn’t use social media much, was slightly alarmed by the teasing at first, he says, but has since become surprisingly tolerant. It’s flattering that your students are listening to you and you get a chance to see what’s actually resonating with them, he says, adding that the account definitely creates a certain level of attention for the lab. Members of the Hingoranis group were among those to notice the posts, prompting the creation of their own hashtag, #StuffSunilSays.
While this hasn’t yet led to an increase in students wanting to join the Beatty lab, it does make the group a hit at conferences, with students approaching the group as fans of the Twitter account. And Beatty says even more visibility could be useful for recruiting graduate students and postdocs. They might think, Oh, Beatty’s lab looks like a fun lab, she says. You can imagine that might be the case, so I haven’t seen any negatives.
Laugh together, stay together
There are other practical reasons private detectives choose to embrace humor, although many have noted the need to strike a balance between the silliness and serious nature of their work. In Hingorani’s lab, for example, they are developing treatments for a deadly cancer and often work with patients. In those cases, lab members approach their interactions with intention, saving jokes for labmates.
So, when appropriate, what benefits does comic relief bring?
For some, the answer is a degree of egalitarianism. Although academia is hierarchical, science increasingly progresses through teamwork. Some private detectives use humor and wisdom to make themselves more approachable. Melissa Bates, a physiologist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, oversees a tight-knit group who spend time together outside the lab, often riding their bikes and joking around. Bates once received a plaque from a graduating student of some of his most memorable sayings, many of which came from weekend trips. Examples include, Always underpromise and overdeliver and, when asked about strange maladaptive physiology: Why? I don’t know, I’m not the Lord.
In the lab, this jovial dynamic manifests itself in what she calls star-shaped mentoring, where students are empowered to solicit feedback from everyone in the group. We have a rule that I’m never the first person to see anything, she says, adding that this has led to a culture where the feedback you get from a college student is as valuable as the feedback you get from a faculty member.
For others, it’s about authenticity. Andr Isaacs, an organic chemist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, has used humor, fashion, cosplay and dance to create hundreds of viral videos on the TikTok platform about chemistry and teaching. Isaacs, a self-described extrovert, first downloaded TikTok during lockdown. At the time, sharing videos was about maintaining a connection to his community, but now, he says, it’s about cultivating a space where people can be themselves and think creatively about science.
TikTok’s dancing chemist catalyzes joy in students
She tells her students to be strong and wrong and to embrace vulnerability, which is often easier to do through humor. For example, if people feel supported by their peers, they may be more likely to try out-of-the-box ideas that result in failure but teach important lessons about the scientific process. I think stupidity is critical to the success of any lab space, she says. The only way to do creative work is to bring your authentic self.
And then, sometimes, a bizarre or amusing analogy is one that sticks. The science behind humor and memory is fragmented, but neuroimaging studies have shown that information conveyed through humor activates more brain regions than information shared without humor (JC Coronel et al. J. Common. 71, 129161; 2021). Beatty works in off-the-wall analogies that he tailors to each student. Recently, while explaining how the tumor microenvironment can influence the behavior of cancer cells, Beatty referred to Lee’s dog Maggie and how her behavior might be different at her house than at a house party down the street. It’s these kinds of analogies I like to teach, because they’re less about the nitty gritty of science, she says. You can relate to them in real life and think about the problem in a different way.
At the end of the day, Beatty adds, science is supposed to be fun, noting that he often works long hours by choice because of the pleasure he gets from his work. If you’re doing it as a job, chances are you’re not really doing it for the right reasons, she says. It should feel like you’re advancing science and making a difference in the world because that’s really what you want to do, it’s fun. I want my students to feel that way too, to enjoy this process.
And if they tease him a little while doing it? I am happy to help in any way potentially possible.