Challenge of the week: synthesizing research ideas

I’ve been working as a research engineer in my new job for a little over a month. It’s been a bit of a crazy transition, as the only coworker physically located in my lab left the week before last to continue a medical career and my other colleagues are both long-distance employees. I’ve suddenly found myself alone in the lab in a new field, with new protocols to understand and names to learn and hospital-maze hallways to navigate. My colleagues are only available by email…and in different time zones for added fun. My boss, RadPI, is generally busy with clinical work and isn’t really available for small-detail chit chat/questions.

Overall, very exciting but also anxiety inducing. Last week my anxiety levels got another boost when RadPI casually mentioned that I should be coming up with some research ideas, as the lab work is now kind of my ‘baby’. My initial reaction was panic – oh dear lord, what if I fail and my metaphorical baby DIES!!!! Aaaaahhhhh!

Guess what’s not really helpful for systematically reviewing the literature in order to identify and analyze gaps in the field? Utter panic! So, I (sort of) calmed down and came up with a little more of a plan. 

First, I would look at the current protocols that we were considering utilizing and see how others had used them and whether they might be applicable to areas that our lab has been focusing on. Next, I would discuss any ideas that I had with my colleagues and see what ideas they had for future projects. 

I spent the next couple days absolutely buried in PDFs, sorting through new material and trying to gain a better understanding of the benefits and limitations of the various cutting-edge techniques.this let me develop a few ideas of my own and a bit more technical knowledge before switching over to looking at future work that had been proposed by previous members of the lab.

I was delighted to find a giant file folder stuffed with notes, annotated PDFs, and proposed project outlines. After getting partway through it and realizing several projects were half done or completed, I realized that I needed to be more systematic and actually go through and organize the notes to correspond to completed, in progress, and future work. 

This crazy organizing process, which took a full day of paper-cut risking work, made me realize that running or working in a lab with short-term staff, such as grad students, could be an absolute nightmare in terms of continuity if notes weren’t well-managed and projects to place in many lengthy stages. From my past experiences, the PI/head of the lab generally knows the big picture for each project, but passing down details/what worked or didn’t/cool side project ideas is extremely tough once the lead on that specific project leaves the lab…

I was lucky enough to stumble on the folderand its valuable cache of notes, which gave me much more insight than the electronic file that just listed the projects by title with no details as to the inspiration, potential pitfalls, or tangents. Fortunately I was able to whittle the hard-copy and electronic work down to a single, but more detailed, list while incorporating my ideas and some suggestions from my lab mates.

Now I just need to pull myself out of my nest of PDF pages and discuss all these fabulous ideas with my PI and long-distance lab mates! Interestingly my last few days of article reading and idea synthesis have been some of my most exhausting work days thus far…time to crawl in bed and give my brain some much needed rest.

*Tomorrow I’ll discuss a few specific challenges and field/lab-specific difficulties that I faced when trying to come up with the research questions themselves*


2 thoughts on “Challenge of the week: synthesizing research ideas

  1. When you figure out how to run the lab, let me know; in theory I’m supposed to be doing that, too!

    It’s humbling and panic-inducing to have a lab at your disposal πŸ™‚

    • I won’t lie, the thought of actually being in charge is a bit nausea-inducing. I’m grateful to still have someone else higher up to actually run things, even if I’m having to take charge of lots of the details. I’ll definitely keep posting on things that work/don’t work from observation, always good to have for future reference πŸ™‚ Or for when I get my own unfortunate lab minions in the form of summer researchers/interns ha ha.
      I’m sure you’re going to kick butt with your own lab, but I imagine the learning curve for running ALL THE THINGS/making ALL THE IDEAS is insane! Good luck πŸ™‚

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