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Group Characterization

The molecular biology laboratory is a mono-disciplinary research group, integrated into university structures as part of a section dedicated to structural biology in the department of molecular biology. The molecular biology laboratory comprises about 35 people whose work is dedicated to revealing the structure of a set of proteins which perform specific functions in bacterial, animal or human cells. The research that the laboratory carries out is laborious and resource-intensive, and it comes with a high risk of experimental failure and progresses through trial and error— challenges that the group tackles with concerted collaborative effort, grounded in a clear hierarchy among its members. In this respect, the laboratory resonates well with existing research on collaborative scientific practice in the field of molecular biology and the life sciences more generally, strands of research I will refer to below.

The group is organized hierarchically, which mirrors the levels of professional seniority that are present within the laboratory. Holding a full professorship, Johan presides over the lab. One tenured associate professor, three senior researchers with non-tenured positions and six to nine postdoctoral fellows constitute a medium level of hierarchy. The laboratory also comprises about 20 graduate students and undergraduate students. At doctoral student level and below, the laboratory features an equal gender balance, but fewer women are in evidence at the post-doctoral level and above. Three technicians take care of the laboratory and another three employees assist Johan in administrative tasks such as budgeting and internal communication. Johan also functions as managing director of a research center that comprises his own group as well as other research groups.

Given the importance of group leadership, the molecular biology laboratory is referred to by its members as “Johan’s group" or “Johan’s lab." As the group leader, Johan sets the scientific agenda. He formulates the research directions for his lab for the next couple of years and oversees the organization of financial, material, social and “human" resources in the lab. He acquires funding and hires people; he schedules and chairs group meetings. The purchase of new laboratory infrastructure and the use of experimental techniques have to be approved by him. He coordinates the group’s research activity, publishing strategy and dissemination activity. Post-docs are, within a certain framework, free to choose their research subject. PhD students, however, pick a predefined project or are assigned one. Moreover, Johan is a gatekeeper for the group. Managing outside contacts, he ultimately decides with whom in the field his laboratory is competing and with whom it is collaborating.

Since much of Johan’s time is accounted for by research management and administrative tasks, he has been forced to set limits to his “open door" policy. During the week that I interviewed him he announced at the lab meeting that if group members needed to speak with him it would be best if they only came to his office in the afternoons, and that if they felt they needed a longer conversation, they should book time via the online calendar system.

Johan himself does not perform laboratory work anymore. Over the last decade, his laboratory has grown constantly and he has gradually withdrawn himself from the work bench. With respect to the day-to-day supervision of undergraduates and graduate students in the laboratory, he delegates substantial parts of his supervisory role to the more experienced post-docs and senior researchers in his group, who are overseeing groups of three to four graduate students and undergraduates. These subgroups collaborate closely on a cluster of related, that is, structurally similar, proteins. Each subgroup holds a meeting once a week, often with Johan present, to take stock of their experimental progress and coordinate their efforts for the coming days.

As a group leader, Johan likes to emphasize the common theme around which all members of the laboratory work, namely the structural determination of a family of complex proteins that perform specific cell functions. Yet, there is no one shared research object. Typically, every group member pursues his or her distinct, individual project, which usually consists of an attempt to determine the molecular structure of a particular protein by crystallographic methods. From the molecular structure, then, conclusions may be drawn concerning the protein’s molecular functions.

In general, all proteins are subjected to the same biochemical procedures. First, cells containing the protein are selected or manufactured and vast cell colonies are grown. Then, in various steps, the protein is isolated. This isolation process is called “purification." When a sufficiently large and pure sample of the protein is obtained, it is subjected to conditions that ideally induce its crystallization. In crystallized form, the protein can be analyzed with the help of laser beams in a high tech facility called a synchrotron. Some group members travel to synchrotrons all over Europe, up to three or four times a year. In synchrotrons, laser light will be directed at the crystal. When hitting the crystal, the light is scattered in different directions. If one can detect patterns in the way the crystal diffracts the laser light, one can model the structure of the protein.

Unfortunately, although all the proteins studied in Johan’s lab belong to one family and thus resemble each other in both their structure and function, different proteins are very particular in their biochemical features. The dilution that works for one protein may or may not work for another. Thus, the purification and crystallization of proteins is to a large extent a time-consuming (and often frustrating) process of trial and error. Knorr-Cetina hence describes the dominant experimental approach in molecular biology as “blind variation" (Knorr-Cetina, 1999, p. 79ff-). Every minuscule step in the purification of a protein can be performed with a number of different chemicals, at different temperatures, at different times and with varying speed and length. A thorough literature review can give ideas, but will hardly provide the researcher with a successful “recipe" right away. Personal experience and informal access to the practical experience of other group members is vital. The questions are: What would be worth trying? What worked for others and is likely to work in the case at hand? The scientific insights generated by research in this area must, to a large degree, be described as knowledge concerning the technical manipulation of biological objects such as cells, cell parts and single molecular structures (Leonelli, 2009).

All scientists in the laboratory have an education in molecular biology or pursue a degree in this field. This implies that most group members have either roughly the same experimental skills and expertise or seek to acquire them. Yet, the fact that the molecular biology laboratory is a mono-disciplinary team should not veil the diversity of academic biographies. All scientists working in this group can be regarded as molecular biologists, but there is variation in expertise. Some PhD students have a background in programs other than molecular biology, such as medicinal chemistry or even theoretical chemistry, and some of them have chosen to take courses in neighboring fields such as bioinformatics. The variation in expertise continues at higher levels of seniority, although differences in individual specialization tend to be more subtle here. Post-doctoral researchers may, for example, specialize in proteins with a particular molecular function that have to be cultivated in particular cell environments.

It is essential for members of the laboratory to learn from one another, acquiring tacit knowledge while working side by side at the bench in the laboratory space they share. More than half of the group members are students and PhD students who, under the immediate supervision of a post-doctoral fellow, carry out large fractions of the experimental labor. Not only students but all lab members have a permanent interest in acquiring and improving the skill to master new experimental techniques. Technological innovation in the field of molecular biology moves fast, so that experienced as well as young researchers face the challenge of keeping up with the state of the art in experimental techniques. Students start by learning generic experimental routines; later on they proceed to complex, highly technology-vested procedures.

Only through learning-by-doing in the laboratory can junior scientists achieve the professional autonomy of an experienced researcher. To achieve and maintain this autonomy is the learning goal of all group members. Yet, laboratory practice is necessarily collaborative as it is practically impossible for any one person to handle all experimental procedures required in the pursuit of a specific project alone. These procedures are extremely time-consuming and knowledge-intensive. For the laboratory to run smoothly, group members need to help each other with the planning, set-up and monitoring of their experiments, thereby offering advice and counsel to one another.

But while scientific practice in the laboratory is highly collaborative, it also features competition, both among group members as well as between the group as a whole and other research groups elsewhere. First, it is not unusual for several groups in one research community to work on the same protein independently. The crystallographic determination of protein structures is often perceived as a “race" in which scientists compete with one another. While the discovery of a new protein structure allows for a publication in the highest ranking journals, the confirmation of a discovered structure receives substantially less attention. Therefore, information about ongoing research given on university websites is often outdated or intentionally vague. Research meetings are confidential and unpublished information or material samples are only exchanged within the laboratory or with collaborating groups whose research is complementary, not competing.[1]

Second, there is a palpable element of competitiveness in relations among fellow group members, particularly among junior scientists. The ratio of junior and senior researchers suggests clearly that only some, not all, junior scientists will be able to stay within academia. Consequently, PhD students try to distinguish themselves with high-ranking publications. Journal articles have a high chance of being published in a high- ranking journal if they report a hitherto undiscovered protein structure, a finding that is usually the result of many months, if not years of research. Since graduate funding is limited to a fixed period of time—either three, four or five years, depending on previous qualification—junior careers are a risky business.

In his study on research groups within the life sciences, Edward Hackett has singled out the management ofepistemic risks as a particular challenge for groups and group leaders. The pursuit of “risky" research projects is associated with reputation and fame. Investments in promising, but highly uncertain, research tracks are appreciated. Therefore, “[...] it is risky not to take risks" (Hackett, 2005, p. 805). Research groups can be a way to address the risky character of experimental research. Collaborative research practice allows group members to engage in more than one research endeavor at once, thereby balancing the risk of failure.

Given the highly collaborative, yet competitive, character of scientific practice in the life sciences, sociologist Ulrike Felt and collaborators observe “the tensions emerging from the requests of being simultaneously individually excellent and part of a collective" (Felt, Sigl, & Wohrer, 2010, p. 4). Their study shows how young scientists are “carving out a ‘self"’ from the collaborative relations they engage in when they create a professional profile (Felt et al., 2010, p. 17). From a sociological perspective, thus, Felt and collaborators raise issues that reach into the core of my philosophical interest, namely issues of dependence and autonomy, and they argue that the collaborative character oflife science research poses a challenge for scientists who need to establish independent careers—an argument that, as we will see, underlies my interviews with members of the molecular biology laboratory.

  • [1] For an empirical study on the balance between collaboration and competition in the Danish lifesciences see Poulsen (2001).
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