Neil is a former PI in GRE and is now a Professor at Newcastle University, UK.
The first 3 years of running your own research group are probably among the most stressful of your life: the pressure to get funding, the pressure to publish and suddenly finding out that the buck now stops with you. My development over this period was greatly assisted by our 6 monthly PI retreats, where we’d all head off for a day out to a hotel in the countryside, have informal talks and constructively critical discussions. Then, crucially, we’d have dinner together at the end of the day. We organised a PhD student/postdoc seminar series, which for a number of years I ran. Importantly, our goal was to create a supportive and helpful environment during these talks (so no aggressive questioning or posturing), after which there was beer, wine and sandwiches.
The environment we created in GRE was very important. The open plan nature of the labs, combined with the other activities I’ve described above, resulted in a very interactive workplace. The design of the Wellcome Trust Building meant that you were always bumping into colleagues on the stairs (‘Oh I was meaning to speak to you…’). Importantly, this was not something that applied only to the PIs! There is always a lot of attention paid to getting the group leaders to interact but just as important is finding ways for postdocs and PhD students to socialise and speak to each other. So many great ideas come about and technical problems are solved when members of different labs are familiar with each other’s work and communicate with each other.