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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Recent study finds how principal investigators influence lab culture

Successful principal investigators communicate, are transparent, exhibit inclusivity, stabilize group member size
Clint Thayer/Department of Medicine

University of Wisconsin Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis director Brian Burt, UW doctoral student Blayne Stone and other university affiliates recently published a study titled “How a Principal Investigator Supervises a Student Research Group: An Autoethnographic Longitudinal Examination.”

The study’s findings examine how a PI, or the person in charge of research, can influence culture, learning, cohesion and productivity in the lab. Practices PIs can implement include transparency, appreciation of effort, proactive communication, inclusivity measures and a balanced ratio of faculty and staff, the study found. These practices can, however, have beneficial or adverse effects if not implemented correctly, according to the study.

Current Schomaker Research Group PI and chemistry professor Jennifer Schomaker said her position includes writing grants, reading a multitude of research papers, overseeing the peer review process, attending colleague meetings and teaching. She completes these tasks all while mentoring students in her lab.


Schomaker said since she’s now leading a research lab, she spends less time in the lab where she first found her passion for research. Instead, she spends her time directing the group in cultivating research topics into the principal research question.

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Schomaker’s essential advice to aspiring researchers is to not fixate on mistakes. Instead, they should choose to learn from them, move on and laugh. Communication is also key, Schomaker said.

“You don’t have to take everybody’s advice, but in this field, listen, evaluate and try to incorporate whatever advice is necessary,” Schomaker said.

Schomaker said it’s important to note that being a PI is strenuous and busy but it’s a flexible career with freedom.

Another PI and associate professor of integrative biology, Prashant Sharma of Sharma Lab, said the productivity of a group influences the atmosphere.

“It’s not enough to have a good atmosphere if the group isn’t productive,” Sharma said. “It’s not enough to have a productive group of people who are burning out.”

Though drawing the exact line between research and teaching is difficult because much of the teaching occurs in the lab through mentoring, Sharma said.

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Sharma said there are two critical aspects of a study — materials and resources as well as good personnel. By instructing relatively small groups, Sharma keeps his resource-to-personnel ratio high. This helps him keep close to students who travel to different parts of the world for projects.

“There are graduates in the lab who started out as undergrads and were just looking for a paid summer opportunity,” Sharma said. “And they just fall in love with it. And next thing you know, they’re in caves, going to New Zealand or Australia or what have you looking for bugs.”

Undergraduates having genuine enjoyment in research pushes the field forward and is another way they initially get drawn into research, Sharma said. Sharma considers undergraduate and graduate students as “the pioneers” of research because they come up with new ideas, want to take things in a new direction and challenge dogmas or principal beliefs.

PI of Andes Research and Chief of the Division of Infectious Disease within the Department of Medicine David Andes said out of the many research programs he has, the one trait they share is multidisciplinarity.

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“So our approach is a team science approach, which we find is a lot more effective or impactful because I cannot do everything [independently],” Andes said.

Andes said he developed a passion for research “later in the game” while in clinical training after medical school. Along the way, he had a number of very supportive mentors.

Andes also said UW fosters a very collaborative environment. The individuals involved want to help each other and see collective success rather than receiving individual credit for accomplishments. The positive lab culture Andes said UW creates a type of learning that teaches how to troubleshoot and take advantage of unexpected results.

“That’s usually where the biggest discoveries come is when you find something you weren’t expecting to find,” Andes said.

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Burt’s study findings show that PIs who encourage communication, transparency, inclusivity and group size stability cultivates efficiency in lab environments. For Schomaker, Sharma and Andes this includes communication, a balanced ratio of team members to resources and collaboration from diverse perspectives.

“I found if I had to go back and do it over again, I would be much better about setting clear expectations, doing my homework, making sure that I’m being ambitious, high-performing and I’m giving the people the resources they need to do so without being unreasonable,” said Schomaker.

Schomaker said PIs can be forgetful to provide appreciation as much as research criticism, which she will be implementing as she continues leading her lab.

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