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How to manage a top research group

Is there a secret recipe for a successful research group? How do you recruit the best scientists? And how do you ensure that people in your team can excel? I asked three Oncode Investigators who are in different stages of their scientific careers: Miao-Ping Chien, Linde Meyaard, and René Bernards.

Linda van den Berg

Focus on translation

Let me start at the beginning: what is the definition of a successful research group? Professor René Bernards is a senior group leader at the NKI (Netherlands Cancer Institute) and one of Oncode’s founding scientists. He has an outspoken opinion about this. “For me, successful research is research that matters to patients,” he says. “Until the millennium change, my main goal was to publish in high impact scientific journals. At a certain point, I thought, ‘we have been promising patients that our research will benefit them for so long; it is time to live up to our promises’. So, my priorities shifted and I started to address research questions with a strong translational character. This has been one of the best decisions that I have ever made. Ironically, I have published in high impact journals more than ever before.”

Successful research is what matters to patients -René Bernards

Linde Meyaard has a slightly different view. She is an experienced group leader at UMC Utrecht. Her research is strongly translational as well, but she argues against limiting the definition of success to research that matters to patients. “Until recently, publishing in Nature or another top journal was the measure of success. Now, the emphasis has shifted to impact on patient care. I think we should move away from this either/or discussion. We need both basic and translational research groups. We need excellence in both, but it is not essential that these two flavours of research are performed by the same group.”

We need both basic and translational research groups. We need excellence in both - Linde Meyaard

Collaborate

Meyaard and Bernards do agree that collaboration is a crucial prerequisite for successful research, ranging from research group members helping each other, to scientists seeking international collaboration, to basic and clinical scientists joining forces. Meyaard: “To me, it is essential to be in close proximity to clever clinicians. They can help me ask the right research questions. In addition, I purposely recruit scientists with a clinical training into my team. They have a different way of thinking, which has great added value.” Bernards agrees: “At the Netherlands Cancer Institute, basic scientists and clinicians are under one roof. The clinicians can identify urgent clinical problems and they can help translate basic findings into clinical practice.”

Select team players

For Miao-Ping Chien, a person’s willingness to collaborate is an important factor to consider in job interviews. She is a starting group leader at Erasmus MC in Rotterdam. “As a group leader, I define the research goal and assign projects to individuals. It is important that the team works towards this common goal. In job interviews, I try to select people that are excited about the project as well as the common goal. They should be self-motivated and have a ‘high five mentality’. In my experience, these are also the people that are excited about each other’s work and help each other excel. I think I have learnt to recognize this quality in job candidates over the years; I look for this special spark.”

Ensure complementary expertise

Chien is also keen on compiling a team with complementary expertise. “In my own career, I deliberately jumped fields of science several times. I find it very powerful to approach a research question from different angles. So, I purposely recruit people from different disciplinary backgrounds, such as molecular biologists, computational experts, and engineers. I consider it very important that they help each other and learn from each other.”

I find it very powerful to approach a research question from different angles - Miao Ping-Chien

Select for drive and diversity

Meyaard: “Drive is by far the most important selection criterium for me. I try to select people that are driven and smart. In addition, I search for complementary expertise within my team. The rest depends on the project. For some projects, I need people with certain technical skills and for others, conceptual thinking is more important. I do try to foster a diverse team in terms of gender and country of origin. I believe that any group will benefit from diversity; it creates fun dynamics.”

I believe that any group will benefit from diversity; it creates fun dynamics - Linde Meyaard

Consult the team

The three Oncode Investigators ask their team’s opinion about job candidates. Bernards: “Selecting the most promising candidates may be the most difficult part of my job. It is very hard to predict who will excel. A top scientist should be smart and able to collaborate. I always invite candidates to give a scientific presentation for the group and I let them have a chat with multiple team members. Then, I ask my team if they think that the candidate fits in. But in the end, it is a gamble; it is not an exact science. For instance, I recently met a guy from Brazil at a conference in Croatia. He stood next to his poster by himself and I started a conversation because I pitied him a little. After half an hour, I was heavily impressed by this person. I invited him to come to Amsterdam and give a presentation about his work. My team was very enthusiastic, so I hired him to do a postdoc in my group.”

A top scientist should be smart and able to collaborate. - René Bernards

Live the example

What about the atmosphere in the group? How do these investigators encourage their employees to excel? Chien: “I deliberately set the example of a positive attitude and I frequently give positive feedback. Stimulation is also very important. I encourage people to attend presentations that are not directly related to their own research and to keep track of what is going on in science in other countries. I also encourage them to give a mini presentation during the last five-to-ten minutes of our group meeting; this can be about any topic that caught their attention, even if it is not directly related to the research in the lab.”

Meyaard: “It is like raising children: good parenting is living the example. I am very enthusiastic myself and I give many compliments. There is a lot of ‘science talk’ in my group. For instance, we have a group app where we share science news, in addition to a lot of nonsense. I have a very nice group. We will be going on a two-day retreat next week and I am truly looking forward to that.”

Encourage counter-pressure

A 2015 Google investigation identified ‘psychological safety’ (i.e., team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other) as the key to a successful Google team. The three Oncode Investigators agree that it is important encourage people to ask critical questions, pursue their own ideas, and think out of the box.

Bernards is passionate about this: “It is very important to me that my employees feel free to speak their minds. To give an example, I really enjoy working with Chinese PhD students because they are often excellent and highly motivated scientists. However, the Chinese culture discourages contradicting the boss. As a matter of speaking, if I tell some Chinese students that their brown shoes are blue, their culture may encourage them to answer ‘yes, boss’. That is not what I want; I need counter-pressure. Hence, I deliberately select students that dare to contradict me with good arguments.” Meyaard agrees: “I enjoy being wrong”.

Ask the big questions

Meyaard: “I have worked with several great scientists during my career. I try to apply the things that I admire in these persons in my own work. For instance, I was a postdoc in the group of Joseph Phillips and Lewis Lanier at the DNAX research institute in California. This laboratory was organized very efficiently. I have strived for such efficient organization ever since. So, when I returned to the Netherlands, I started numbering constructs. At that time, my colleagues laughed at me, but now we have more than 600 constructs in the lab, so the system has proven its value. And I recently did a sabbatical in the laboratory of Ruslan Medzhitov at Yale School of Medicine. He is a great conceptual thinker and his group truly is at the world top in immunology. The main message that I took home from this sabbatical is to ask the big questions and pursue unconventional concepts to bring cancer research to the next level,” concludes Meyaard.

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