How I run a lab and work as a PhD student simultaneously
I am a PhD candidate in molecular neuroscience at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, and I co-lead a molecular-neuroscience team at the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative (PNI) at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem. So, I am a student and mentor at the same time: I am working towards a PhD in one country while managing researchers in another.
Geographically, I am based in the United States, and my team of five researchers works in Abu Dis. Before the coronavirus pandemic, I visited them around once per year, and helped to build scientific-research infrastructure in the Palestinian territories, my home.
I started volunteering for the PNI in 2014, after completing my master’s programme in molecular medicine at the University of Manchester, UK. I’d tried unsuccessfully to join Palestinian laboratories, but couldn’t because of funding challenges and the limited number of research groups there. I became a research associate at the PNI later in 2014, and left to start my PhD programme at Rutgers in 2016.
As a new PhD student, it took me a significant amount of time to adjust. I was always busy between courses, teaching, thesis research and proposal writing. But I maintained a connection with the PNI, and remained keen to start a lab there in collaboration with the director, Mohammad Herzallah, and a colleague, Hussain Khdour — both neuroscientists. With the support of small funding grants from Palestinian and regional agencies, we started the molecular-neuroscience unit a year ago, after my PhD project’s direction had become more established.
Rutgers has a long-running collaborative relationship with the PNI, which made it easier to split my time and balance my commitments between the two. Out of ten people involved in management positions at the PNI, four are also affiliated with Rutgers, mainly through the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience. Day to day, many of the PNI-management responsibilities fall to Herzallah, who is based between Rutgers and the PNI. He introduced me to my PhD supervisor at Rutgers, neurobiologist Tracy Tran.
My master’s-degree training in molecular medicine and cancer biology, alongside my interest in neuroscience and mental health, shaped my first project at the PNI, which focused on the effects of chemotherapy on cognitive functions. Since then, my research projects there have expanded to address the molecular and genetic basis of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress. These projects have led to one published scientific article, with two more in review; I have also given research presentations on these works at national and international conferences, and have trained several junior researchers to assist with data collection.
My PhD research at Rutgers centres on another aspect of neuroscience: neurodevelopmental disorders. I mainly focus on the molecular and genetic mechanisms governing neural-circuit development and the implications of atypical wiring in neuronal connections that manifests in a variety of neurological conditions, such as autism-spectrum disorders and epilepsy. This work has led to a number of poster presentations at national conferences, and I will soon publish a scientific article.
Juggling the duties of my two positions would not be feasible without these three key habits.
A continuous line of communication and commitments to follow up with team members at the PNI have been crucial to ensuring that work progresses in my lab, and has sharpened my negotiation, management and leadership skills. My co-leader and I manage the PNI team through regular e-mails and virtual meetings.
Our five team members are young, ambitious medical and biology undergraduate students. Most of them joined the PNI by applying for a research-shadowing programme aimed at Palestinian university students. After gaining solid experience and getting acquainted with the workload of both university courses and PNI research, they received permanent appointments on the team.
Individual team members provide a weekly report of their accomplishments through e-mail, including experiments, results, a summary of the articles they read, the technical problems that they faced and plans for the following week. We hold a lab meeting once every two weeks, at which members present their data or discuss scientific papers or new research that they are interested in.
Each member also has regular meetings with me and my co-leader, during which we follow up on projects, proposals and manuscripts. This virtual experience proves that you can successfully lead a research team remotely — which is especially important during the pandemic.
To improve as a team leader, I have incorporated reading time into my work routine, to research the skills and practices needed to succeed in this position. I also constantly discuss leadership with more-experienced team leaders at the PNI and the PNI director to learn from them. My first-hand experience managing day-to-day work and communication with team members has been a challenge at times: taking on management responsibility for five researchers with different needs, goals and personalities was very difficult at first. With time and experience, I’ve improved at dealing with and adapting to different personalities, work styles and career goals — which is reflected in team and individual achievements. The communication skills I have developed while managing the PNI research team have also helped me in my PhD programme.
Although I have always had a good grasp on my schedule, it took me a while to develop a routine for juggling my weekly duties in both positions. Every weekend, I spend a couple of hours creating lists of the tasks I need to accomplish during the following week. I then allocate a time slot for each task during my week, and create weekly digital reminders for the meetings so they become part of my routine.
My weekdays start early. Before I work on my PhD research, I spend an hour in the morning managing lab matters for the PNI research team. In the evening, I spend another hour following up with them.
The biggest chunk of my day, around eight or nine hours, is spent working on my PhD — doing experiments, attending lab meetings and staying up to date on research. I spend two or three more hours each week managing the PNI team: attending lab and one-on-one meetings, and following up on research progress through lab reports.
Without planning, organization and flexibility, keeping up with the duties of both positions while having any work–life balance would be impossible.
Leaning on my mentors
Having experienced mentors serves as a quality check for my performance in managing my lab and training my team members. Fortunately, my two managers, Herzallah and Tran, both provide invaluable support, and collaborate in mentoring me as my career develops.
Simultaneously managing relationships with two mentors and supervisors — and having two bosses — can be challenging, but overall is positive.
Keeping communication channels open throughout the mentorship has helped me to improve my abilities both as a scientist and as a mentor. My mentors and I have continuous discussions about their experiences in managing academic labs, grant writing, dealing with different trainee personalities, writing manuscripts and overcoming day-to-day challenges. Moreover, observing multiple examples of mentorship in real time has opened my eyes to different approaches — allowing me to craft my own mentorship style.
Managing a team of researchers at this early stage of my career has been tough, but rewarding. It has accentuated the maturity of my scientific thinking, improved my project-management and multitasking skills and bettered my interactions with other junior researchers.
It has also inspired me to collaborate more with other scientists. Establishing a scientific bridge between international labs gives young researchers the chance to have unparalleled experiences, in research and beyond, and to widen their horizons.
I encourage every young, ambitious researcher from a lower-income country to embark on an unusual training route, such as mine, to contribute to developing scientific research in their home country while pursuing their career aspirations abroad.