Lab Culture and Expectations

Table of Contents

The purpose of this document is to serve future members of our group about its professional inner dynamics, and offer a resource for its current members to remember the important professional things we care about.

Study hard what interests you the most, in the most undisciplined, irreverent, and original manner possible.
Richard Feynman

We let the following principles guide us when we think about who we are as a group, or whether something we are doing is worth our time. There is an intentional order to the list:

  • We try to study rigorously what excites us without cutting corners.

  • We strive to serve the community. This includes writing extensive tutorials, giving lectures or workshops, and responding to messages that are coming from our colleagues near and far. We assume that one of the best ways to spend our time is to make it easier for others to learn what they wish to learn from us.

  • We maintain a critical outlook. We are most critical of our own work, and genuinely try to first understand what others are trying to accomplish before being critical of theirs.

In addition to these guiding principles that define our work ethic, we absolutely denounce any form of discrimination. We will not tolerate racist or sexist inclinations of any kind, or any form of arrogance or contempt towards any member of our community in public or in private. We hope and believe that the members of our group will go out of their way to make others feel welcome, and be brave to raise their concerns when they witness a mistake. We expect every member of our group to be prepared to participate our ongoing efforts to educate ourselves in issues that affect minorities in the United States, Germany, and beyond (see some blog posts here and here).

Group Culture

The purpose of this section is to establish best practices for our frequent endeavors and make suggestions.

Data analysis

The thing that doesn't fit is the thing that's the most interesting.
Richard Feynman
  • Reproducibility and transparency. Be prepared to redo everything from scratch yourself, and document everything in such a way that someone else inside or outside of our group can do it without needing you, too. Do your best to avoid ad hoc solutions, AWK one-liners, or anything you can’t clearly describe formally in a conventional methods section of a hypothetical manuscript.

  • Robustness. Make sure you discuss the technical details of your work with at least one more person in the group regularly (at least once, but as many times as possible). Even the most seemingly rudimentary analytical decisions can have profound impacts on your findings downstream, and others may be able to see what you have not. If you are going through someone else’s analysis, be as critical as you can while being considerate and compassionate.

  • Mindfulness. If something that should be working is not working, do not move on to trying another way to make it work without first letting others know. If you don’t have time or experience to take a look at the code, that’s OK –writing up an issue on GitHub, or sending a quick note to people who may have an idea about it would also be sufficient.


In a way, writing is all we do. We often understand better as we write, and sometimes we write just to understand. See “Wishes and Expectations” section for more on writing.

  • Continuity. Everyone is expected to write something. It can be a research article, a piece of code, a blog post, or a tutorial. No day should go by without writing anything.

  • Clarity. Science is hard, science writing is harder, and reading science written by someone else is the hardest. Especially for those of us who are not native in English. We try to make our writing more accessible by avoiding lazy or vague sentences. We avoid passive voice whenever possible. Really. No passive voice (with the same spirit as “No Capes” in Edna’s voice)!

  • Meaning. We pay attention to words and statements. We avoid flashy but blank sentences or common but inaccurate, boilerplate statements (such as “most microbes cannot be cultivated”). We avoid poorly-thought analogies or empty buzzwords (such as microbial dark matter).

Group discussions

Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.
Richard Feynman

Doing science in a social setting requires a delicate balance of things that often point to different directions. While the best science emerges from minds that defy all rules and boundaries, social environments are most functional when all members of a group recognize and observe common sense. So here are a couple of reminders for group discussions:

  • Efficiency. It is best if at any given time only one person is talking, especially during official lab meetings or spontaneous discussions in the lab. Getting excited is a part of our daily routine and the definition of our job, but starting multiple discussions at a given moment can be very inefficient since both parties will be missing out others’ ideas.

  • Criticism. It is our responsibility to be tough on ideas during group discussions yet it is not easy to criticize an idea while making sure that the owner of the idea does not feel as if they are not appreciated as a member. Ideas can be torn apart, thrown away, and improved. But it is not acceptable to not be careful to find the delicate balance. If you are delivering a criticism, please be mindful. If you are at the receiving end of it and you are upset with the mode of delivery, please speak up. If you are the observer of a tough situation, please consider taking action. That said, the absolute respect and compassion we expect from each other when we are among ourselves is a luxury that we may not expect from our colleagues elsewhere. Others will criticize us, and we must be welcoming of such external criticism, too. In addition we must be prepared that they can be harsh, and we must learn to respect those opinions regardless. But also we should be able to move on when it feels necessary without slowing down and without being cynical or dismissive of outside criticism.

  • Mindfulness. No one interrupts anyone else. Body language can be as interruptive as spoken words, so we should strive to encourage the speaker’s attempt to speak up their mind by making sure they are not dealing with our verbal or physical reactions. Delivering an idea is already hard enough and we can all do without additional stress. Some days are worse than others for each one of us. If you feel that it is one of those days, you should feel free to not attend a group discussion.

  • Cleanliness. We strive (and often fail, but still try very hard) to keep our professional language clean when it comes to daily language used for interactions between members of the lab by avoiding words that would have been bleeped out if they appeared in any public broadcast in the United States (if you are not a native speaker of English language and must know exactly which words are included in this list you can search online for “seven dirty words wikipedia”). We welcome creative attempts to replace unpleasant words with non-offensive alternatives to overcome strong emotions that require strong expressions.

Lab Meetings

It is extremely important to us that we keep in touch with one another, and everyone knows about everyone else’s projects (and struggles). Lab meetings play a very important role to achieve this goal, and the purpose of this section is to shed some light on how these meetings look like.

The general structure. We meet as a group once every week to keep everyone in the loop with what is going on, and to report to each other what happened last week and what we hope to see happening the next. Lab meetings are by default scheduled for 2 hours with the intention that the first hour is used for 5-minute updates and the next hour is used for a presentation. Even though we schedule our meetings for 2 hours, please try to keep the next 30 minutes free in case things run longer.

The scriber role. Every meeting has a scriber who takes notes and stores them on our lab fiesta. The scriber role rotates among each member, and the scriber for a given meeting is by default the person who is scheduled to give a presentation the week after. The scriber is responsible for the time management of the meeting. If we are on Zoom, the scriber is expected to share the order of names to give their 5-minute updates in the chat window. If we are all in person, then we go clockwise starting with the person who sits on the left of the scriber. We expect the scriber to make sure people will keep their 5-minute updates to 5 minutes. Admittedly it is a very difficult mission, but so is every important mission in the world (we thank you for your service).

The following two sections list some guidelines for the two major parts of our lab meetings.

5-minute updates

The purpose of the first hour of the meeting is to make sure everyone says something about their professional endeavors or important life events so everyone hears how they are doing, what they have done, technical problems or intellectual challenges they have run into, and what they hope to accomplish the next week. If you just came back from a break or vacation with no professional updates, we encourage you to share some photos from your trip so everyone remembers how important it is to take an effective break from work ;) Here are some additional points to consider:

  • Try to fit your uptdates into 5 minutes and try not to go over. Achieving this can be difficult, and preparation can help. A best practice is to itemize your updates in a written form prior to the meeting if you can, and stick to the plan.

  • Some participants in some weeks may need more than 5-minutes as group discussions transpire around critical or timely topics. It is OK, but we should still be vigilant in maintaining the 5-minute rule as much as possible to respect everyone’s time and opportunity to speak. If you anticipate that you will need more than 5 minutes, please let everyone know prior to the meeting.

  • Start your updates with a short introduction for context so people can appreciate your update by remembering your project. This practice helps new members of the group to start appreciating what you are doing much better in the long run and be able to engage in conversations quicker to make suggestions.

  • If someone is going over 5 minutes please be patient and understanding. It is the scriber’s responsibility to interfere if it is necessary as they are responsible to keep us on track regarding the meeting time.


We have a rotation system and a script that assigns a presenter to our lab meeting events on the lab calendar. The person whose name is listed as the ‘presenter’ of the week is expected to use the second hour of the meeting to present something. That something can be detailed updates of their ongoing work, a technical or intellectual problem they’ve been thinking about, or even a review of a paper they read recently. Here are some points to consider:

  • Please try to prepare a presentation even if you think you don’t have much to present. It is quite often that someone thinks their presentation will take no more than 15 minutes, and with all the discussions we end up going over time. Your work, your thoughts, your perspectives matter, and it will be interesting when they are brought forward for everyone to think about them. Plus, presentations, formal or informal, offer opportunties to practice your science communication skills and develop them further.

  • Make sure your presentations have a clear start (during which you offer some solid and original background information for the topic so even a new member of the group can learn something new), middle (during which you share your analyses, results, and thoughts along with technical details), and end (during which you have some concluding remarks and future outlook).

  • Make sure your presentation requires no more than 30 minutes to deliver without questions.

  • We don’t have any formatting guidelines for presentations – feel free to not use PowerPoint or Beamer if you don’t want to. We would welcome mindmaps, drawings, monologues, or any other form of communication as well.

  • We don’t have any formatting guidelines for presentations – but if you are using computer fonts, we expect you to be merciful and use the only acceptable font there is for such purposes.

Member Roles and Specifics

The purpose of this section is to clarify general expectations of our group.

Meren’s Promises

This list may not include some of my implicit promises. If you see a topic that needs to be covered in this section, please let me know.

  • My main role and responsibility in this group is to keep everyone happy, productive, and funded. I promise to work with everyone to deliver this. If a member is systematically lacking either of them despite our best efforts, I also promise to do my best to help them find a better place. Throughout my career in science I saw many PhD students and post-docs lost years before they realized they were at the wrong place, and I am determined to not let that happen to anyone in our group.

  • Besides the group meetings, every member will at least have a 1-hour slot per week to have a private meeting with me. Unless I am traveling or sick. During the times of travel, I will do my best to meet you through Zoom, but most likely I will fail.

  • You will be free to walk into my office anytime if you have a question. If I am coding or writing something that takes lots of concentration and should not be interrupted, I will close my door or will not come in to work at all. If my door is open, you are welcome to come in and ask me anything.

  • I will do my best to find exciting projects for each one of you, and involve you with outside projects that you may contribute based on your skill set and level of interest. That said, I promise to not enlist anyone for any project without first probing their level of interest and availability.

  • I will do my best to make sure you have a high-end laptop, an external monitor, a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, an ergonomic keyboard, an ergonomic mouse, and an optional standing desk solution when you start in our group. And somewhere to sit, hopefully.

  • PhD students: you are my top priority. I will always have time for you, regardless of where I am. You can even interrupt me while I am having a meeting with someone. I would turn to my guest and be like “excuse me, emergency”. Seriously.

  • I will make sure that the lab has coffee, some semi-healthy snacks, and chocolate available at all times (and I expect you to let me know when our snack storage shrinks and/or gets boring, and help me with what to select for the next order).

  • I am not a micro-manager, and I will never micro-manage anyone, even if they specifically ask for it. This may sound like a blessing, but it is not as it means that you will need to micro-manage yourself, and it is a lot of work. I expect you to recognize and accept that responsibility to push yourself and projects forward. If you are planning to join our group, I would like you to consider this carefully.

  • I am not a micro-manager, but I would like to know when you’re stuck and not making progress, and I would like to know if you’re doing well and making great progress. Send me short notes, memos, updates through Slack. And please know that I will find it very upsetting if I meet you and you tell me “I knew you were busy and I didn’t want to bother you”. Unfortunately it is a reality that I am often extremely busy, and you know it simply because you can see my calendar, but not bothering me with lab business just because you knew I was busy is not a nice thing to do as how I manage my time is my responsibility. The success of the lab and each one of you is my priority, and I promise that I will always find time to at least read your messages and think about them. You can’t believe all the magic that happens when people communicate about complex problems.

  • The synergy in the lab is more critical to me than our productivity. Therefore I will take everyone’s opinion into consideration before accepting a new member to the group (except rotation students, interns, and visiting scientists with short planned stays, or researchers with their own funding).

  • We do not wish to grow into a very big group. This decision has advantages and disadvantages. If you are planning to join our group, I would like you to take a moment and consider the potential implications of this on your journey (or remember to discuss this topic with me).

Wishes and Expectations

Many things in this section are open to discussion. We can modify them, or there can be exceptions. We just need to talk about them first. It is our best interest to avoid not delivering something from this list systematically and quietly.

  • Vacation is very important, and we must pay attention to beauties of life outside work as often as we can. Germany is an excellent country to work in for an appropriate work-life balance with long paid breaks. You have that in your pocket and we all wish you to use it wisely and frequently.

  • Regular attendance is critical for the group synergy and for the personal development of everyone. As we strive to stay small in size, each member represents a significant fraction of our group. For this reason alone, we aspire to be around in the lab regularly to maximize our time together. Family must come first and life events should take priority. There are always exceptions and these times are not written on stone.

  • I expect you to follow and efficiently use the Lab Calendar, Lab Slack, and Lab Fiesta.

  • I wish you to present something everytime it is your turn during our lab meeting, and try to attend to each presentation to listen to others.

  • I expect you to reach out to me when you need help. Please remember that it is not your job to try to protect my time.

  • In addition to technical and intellectual difficulties, science life can have steep ups and downs. Even when you are excellent at what you are doing and on the right right track, doubts can be quite challenging to overcome. I wish you to let me know if you are going through a rough patch.

  • It is important for you to attend to talks at the HIFMB and the ICBM. Even at AWI and MPI, when you have time and energy. Regardless whether you think it is relevant and worth for your time, especially if you are a PhD student or a postdoc. Even the talks that seem to be least relevant to you will play a role in your progress by helping you develop a broader vision. This will also make you a good citizen of our institution.

  • You represent the lab and its members when you are at meetings inside and outside of the UOL and HIFMB. Make your fellow labmates proud with your excellence. It is OK to be critical, and in fact I expect you to be, but doing it with absolute respect, accuracy, and compassion is key. You may not initially realize it, but science is a small world, our field is even smaller. Your social mistakes will linger much longer than you wish, and affect more people than just yourself. Assume that everything you will say about someone else will be heard by them sooner or later. I think the best strategy is to compliment people from their backs, and criticize them to their faces. If you are unable to do the latter, don’t do it at all.

  • I wish every Postdoc and PhD student to read at least one paper from other groups each week. Please consider setting aside a two-hour block for this activity during your week and put it on your calendar and stick with it. It would contribute to everyone’s journey if you were to post the PDF to Slack, and include one- or two-sentence summary of why you were interested in that work and what you have learned from it. Please please please. Do this regularly as not only understanding what is out there is a requirement of science but also it is one of the best ways to develop as a writer and thinker.

  • We are a data-crunching lab. We design new algorithms, implement new software, and have access to reasonable computational resources to run them. Most of our significant contributions include reanalyses of public datasets. I wish you to use this power. Find interesting research, bring it to the lab and share with others.

  • Become an expert of our own literature. I expect you to know everything the lab has published. Yes. Unfortunately this will require you to read all those papers in which Meren is the first or the last author until you fully understand them (especially those that were published in 2015 or after). Lucky for you, there aren’t many of them hahaha (starts sobbing).

  • Be aware of everyone else’s project. I expect you to be able to articulate in one sentence what each person is working on. If you don’t know what someone else is doing in the lab, meet with them for a discussion. Those exchanges will not only help you to keep up-to-date with what is going on in the lab, but they will help others to figure out the best way to explain what they are doing.

  • Writing papers is a necessary and difficult process, and it may be more difficult or demanding in our lab compared to your previous experiences. Please be prepared that anything we write with the intention to communicate our science or perspectives to the world will demand a lot of time and attention. I expect everyone to come up with their first draft of their first-author paper. But I expect you to also consider that the final form of that work that is ready for submission may be very different than your first draft. If I am the senior author of a paper, I will edit it intensely. I wish you to mentally prepare yourself for this journey, so you do not run out of steam too early. Even if you dislike me while we are writing papers together, I hope that will be temporary as I will be able to convince you that I am an enthusiastic member of team YOU.

  • You are welcome to take part in collaborations inside or outside of our institution. But if you are interested in collaborating with an outside group on a project, please ask me first. If someone is asking you to do something outside of the lab, tell them to ask me first. These measures are there not only to protect you, but also to protect the lab and its intellectual mojo.

Thank you very much for everything.