FAQ: Science at TEELAB

These questions are based on my students’ inputs and typical questions that I get from prospective students. Do write to me if you have more questions.

1) Your lab is called the “Theoretical Ecology and Evolution” lab. Does that mean you do only theoretical research?

No, we also do empirical work on systems ranging from fish to blackbuck to vegetation on large scales.  The system we pick depends on the question, and therefore, we are not limited to a model system. This also poses challenges due to lots of new learning associated with new systems. Therefore, when we work on new systems we seek collaborations with empirical folks who are experts on those systems.


2) Why do you then call it the Theoretical lab?

That is because even when we work on empirical systems, theory is at the heart of most of the questions we ask in the lab.


3) Can a student who has no experience in doing theoretical work join the lab?

YES, I welcome students and postdocs with diverse training, background and interests. Training in mathematical theory is not a pre-requisite to join the lab. We do indeed look for students/postdocs skilled in experimental and field work, and mathematical training is not necessary for everyone/every project. It has been typically the case that those who join with a stronger empirical focus already have prior experience and show independence in their thinking and ability to do research. We have also has non-math/physics majors learn all necessary theory, and in fact more than what I know, during their PhD.  


4) Does a person joining the lab have to work on already running research projects or can I develop and work on an independent project?

Many students, especially short-term students, work on ongoing projects. Even PhD students typically work within broad themes of lab (collective behaviour, tipping points, etc) and start off with ongoing projects to familiarise with techniques and to gain some preliminary research experience. But you (esp as a PhD student or a postdoc) are most welcome and in fact strongly encouraged to develop an independent project, as long as there is some reasonable overlap with the lab’s broad goals and my research interests.

Independent projects where I am not even involved are fine too (also see response to #5 below). In such cases, of course, it makes sense for you to chose our lab as host if there is a broad overlap in our interests and if we mutually agree that it helps you intellectually to be in our lab. As an extreme example, it may not make sense to chose our lab if you want to work on molecular mechanisms of serotonin production in naked mole rats :-). On the other hand, if you want to work on interesting problems on cooperation in bacterial biofilms or budding yeast, and have an experimental collaborator, that may be possible. So, discuss! 

5) How is the level of interaction and collaborations within lab members? Do you also collaborate with other labs?

Work in my lab is highly interdisciplinary. Approaches vary from highly theoretical to a mix of theory and field data collection or laboratory experiments as well as satellite imagery analysis. Learning, appreciating and critiquing different ways of doing science is an important part of being in this lab.

Although each phd student and postdoc has their own independent projects, we learn and research collectively and collaboratively within the lab. Some of our PhD students have written papers collaboratively on each other students’ thesis papers. Some of our PhD students, project assistants and postdocs have developed collaborations with students of other labs, even international collaborations, without even involving me. You are encouraged to look for independent pursuits apart from main focus of your work, as long as you don’t too distracted from the main focus. 

All PhD students have a thesis committee which has other faculty members. Some students also have other faculty as joint/co-advisers. We also collaborate with various other labs within and outside India.

6) Apart from research, what other skills can a student joining your lab pick up?

I strongly encourage students to learn a whole range of skills apart from research techniques specific to their project. We have lab meetings at least once a week that run for at least half a day. While one motivation of the lab meetings is to discuss progress of projects  and relevant research papers, we also use these meetings to  learn various skills such as how to write scientific papers, how to read scientific papers, how to come up with research ideas, how to make presentations, career choices, scientific ethics, improving diversity in lab, etc.

In addition, I also involve students in reviewing journal papers that I often get asked to review. I also involve students in my grant proposal writing — this will involve some boring work (formatting!) as well as intellectually demanding work (putting together ideas, writing some drafts/sections, making figures, etc).

7) In what ways do you contribute towards the student’s growth as a scientist and his or her career planning?

I find out from my students what are their long-term plans. To the extent possible, we plan projects keeping long-term interests of the student/postdoc in mind. I offer them critical feedback on their progress towards their long-term plan. In addition, students are encouraged to start planning early for future career path, to seek counseling and advice from other professors, former students, etc. Also, see response to #6.

8) If I join your lab and work with you on a research topic, would it be okay for me to continue to work on the same topic if/when I leave the lab?

You can work on whatever you want after you leave lab. If you think that it’s too close to some ideas we have already discussed in the lab, it is a good idea to discuss those ideas with me; there may be possibilities for future collaborations. To the extent possible, for PhD students/postdocs who have invested a lot in certain direction of research, my aim is to give them priority on what they want to do next after leaving lab. Some of it may, however, be contingent on expectations from grant proposals that we may have submitted or other ongoing projects of students. So feel free to discuss.

9) What are your authorship (first, last, corresponding) policies?

See this: https://github.com/guttal/tee-tools/blob/master/guidelines-for-authorship.Rmd

10) What is your policy on data and code arising from research in your lab?

Barring special scenarios and issues of feasibility, we put data and codes on Github or other open access repositories soon after publication. Anyone is welcome to use them for their own research, replicating our results, etc, as long as the original source is cited.

11) How do you choose which journal to submit a paper to?

Based on the perceived importance of results and our estimated feasibility of acceptance in potential target journals. Of recently, I think that we should limit our submissions to non-profit journals and those that provide fee-waiver (because we have very limited research funding). But all these decisions are made in consultation with the student/lead author — with their say having a higher weightage. I also encourage that students put the preprints of manuscripts on preprint servers like bioRxiv or arxiv.

12) Now that we know what to expect from you, tell us what are your general expectations from your students 

[Answer to this has been prepared based on Masters and Kreeger, 2017, Ten simple rules for developing a mentor-mentee expectations document, PloS Computational Biology,13(9): e1005709]

It varies from student to student, depending on their level of preparation, current position (intern vs phd vs postdocs), funding, their long-term career plans, etc. Nevertheless, there are some common expectations of all students. You must discuss these or any other that you are not clear about:

Take ownership of your research project and research experience:

  1. Strive to become independent and productive academic/professional.
  2. Take initiatives to achieve the above goal. This requires that students are self-motivated and driven, with excitement and passion for conducting scientific research and to learn new science.
  3. Familiarise yourself with all formal requirements of your program/fellowship, etc.
  4. Read and keep up with scientific literature. Present papers in lab journal clubs.
  5. Develop all necessary soft-skills: scientific writing, how to read and critique papers, how to prepare good presentations, mentoring interns/ug students, etc.
  6. Do not expect that I will do your thesis work. My job is to mentor you. The amount of effort I put in on you/your work is directly proportional to how much effort you put in towards your own work as well as how much feedback you seek from me. So both the work you do and its regular communication to me is important.
  7. Scientific research involves very fascinating (& often challenging) curve of learning and research outcomes but remember that there are also many many many hours (and months) of boring tasks. Therefore, your initiative, perseverance and developing a perspective of what it is to do PhD are important. 

Goals, meetings and punctuality: 

  1. Set goals: short-term (1 day, 1 week), medium-term (1 – 3 months)and long-term goals (6 months – 1 year).
  2. Assess progress towards your goals. By yourself, by the adviser, by lab-members, thesis-committee members, etc.
  3. Present your progress in lab meetings at least twice a year, but preferably more. 
  4. Seek regular meetings with me on progress towards each of these. 
  5. Frequency of meetings varies a lot from student to student. Once a week is strongly recommended. Not every meeting need to be long; even 5-10 minute meetings are fine.  If you haven’t met with goals, progress and plan for more than a month — do it now! 
  6. Seek critical feedback on your progress from me – once in three months in the initial stages for a PhD student, later on, it can be more spread out. But do it at least once a year. You should also talk anyone else you deem fit — for example with your committee members. If you do not ask for critical feedback, no one will offer you.
  7. You are expected to attend all lab activities – most importantly weekly lab meetings. In addition, you are expected to attend department events like seminars, thesis presentations by other lab students, department symposium, etc.
  8. Respond to emails promptly, Many discussions of lab matters happen over email. So even when they are addressed to the entire lab,and not specifically to you, respond to emails promptly.  
  9. Be prompt and punctual to meetings. Come prepared if you know what the meeting is going to be about. 
  10. You are expected to participate in routine or non-research tasks as well. For example, these may range from taking turns to cleaning lab, organise seminars/symposium, volunteer in open day/outreach programs, doing lab presentations for visitors, formatting of lab documents, etc. Keep aside around 10-15% of your time for such service activities.

Enhance the workplace experience for yourself and others:

  1. You are an important member of the lab. Your academic performance and general behaviour have an impact not only on you but also on your peers and even your adviser. So try to make the best of your experience as well adding value to the lab by your presence.
  2. Treat all other lab members, junior or senior, with respect even when you disagree. Disagreements are common among lab members when discussions happen, but dissent, disagreements should not lead to personal conflicts and disrespecting other members. 
  3. Be helpful and be kind to everyone around.
  4. Follow our lab/institutes policies on Academic integrity, IISc code of conduct, Sexual harassment, Workplace harassment, Field ethics, Field safety, etc. Be aware of various avenues for conflict resolution and complaints.
  5. Take note of leave policy and working hours. While it is flexible, in general, you are expected to be available during work-hours in the lab. Discuss if you prefer something else with me if they help your style and productivity.
  6. Take initiatives to make the lab fun and a better place for everyone.
  7. Take care of your health. Seek doctors/professionals’ help to improve your physical health and mental well-being. Talk to me if you need contacts.