When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois, I worked in a science lab that was researching the effects of an altered gene in mice. This type of novel research is common for furthering the understanding of the biology of mice and, eventually, humans. The results of such research experiments lead to magnificent discoveries especially in the prevention and treatment of disease. But the efforts leading up to these discoveries may go unnoticed, and I want to share with you the struggle of academic/novel research.
In the world of academic research, the Principal Investigator (PI) is King (or Queen). In a biological science lab, the PI is an established PhD, or MD, or both. He or she typically works as a professor at the university in which he or she is conducting research. And, the PI is a damn good project manager.
PIs have the near impossible tasks of developing experiments, overseeing the execution of such experiments, analyzing data, publishing results, and – worst of all – submitting requests for grant money. In order to balance this workload, which is on top of teaching, PIs exemplify all the necessary characteristics of project managers.
I recall the workflow of the lab in which I worked: using a work breakdown structure, Dr. Boppart assigned three different PhD students concepts of differing experiments. She then assigned Masters students to work with the PhD students and eventually Undergrads to work with the Masters students. It was our job to perform the experiments, but it was Dr. Boppart’s job to do the “write ups”. There were ultimately two main goals: get the data published and use the data to secure more funding for future experiments. The third, and obvious, goal was to apply a discovery toward a greater good.
As I look back on my experiences in Dr. Boppart’s lab, one thing sticks out above all: we were a broke lab. And considering that our experiments failed (much) more often than not, the small amount of grant money we received always seemed to drain away quickly. When I came across this article, (http://www.forbes.com/sites/larrymyler/2015/09/24/healthcare-innovation-show-me-the-grant-money/) I was reminded that grant money is still one of the biggest challenges scientists face today. The article discusses how “…grant funding has created its own ecosystem…” In healthcare, hospitals are seeking grant writers and using grant management software in order to receive and effectively utilize grant money. Dr. Boppart’s experiments were small potatoes compared to the 2,000 projects (worth $300M) that University Hospitals (Cleveland, OH) oversees on its own. Yet, UH has to do all the same grant requesting tasks that Dr. Boppart had to do.
Obtaining grant money is one of the most difficult aspects of performing research. But when using project management skills effectively, labs as small as Dr. Boppart’s and systems as large as UH are much more likely to produce high quality results. Have you ever submitted a request for money? Maybe a scholarship application? Or funding for a project? How did you ensure the money you received was utilized efficiently?