Scientific identity crisis


Well, all right, maybe identity crisis is a little overly dramatic.

identity crisis

However, I have been mulling over my science identity for a while now even if I’m not confused about what kind of science I want to be doing. It often comes up when you need to apply for grants or have that brief introduction at a conference and the like. But for me building that departmental webpage is a real act of defining who you are and what you do.

I remember having a conversation with a colleague in Uppsala a few years ago about how we define lab groups. Their point was that we should move away from lab groups identified by PI names (my lab page is listed as the Parachnowitsch group, for example) and instead choose research themes. It would be more equalizing was the idea and less about the ego of the PIs.

While I can see the point, I also have a tough time coming up with what our research theme would be. All the people who work with me by default have a connection to me so ‘Parachnowitsch group’ pretty much covers any kind of work that they might do without having to fit it into a research category. In trying to define what my research group is all about (including into the future), I have a really hard time picking a good theme. You see, I study plants (mostly) and specifically the flowers on those plants (mostly) but also study insects that are the pollinators of those flowers (mostly) but we also study herbivores and leaves sometimes, and I am moving into working with hummingbird pollinated plants, which could mean we might do some work with vertebrates in the future and on and on it goes. Some of the work I do involves chemical ecology (mostly floral scents) but others don’t touch on that at all. And I mostly identify with being an evolutionary ecologist myself (hence the @EvoEcoAmy) but students in my group have worked on pure ecology and I expect there will be more evolutionary types in the future too. Plus we’ve worked a bit on the behavioural ecology part of understanding why pollinators choose flowers and we’re moving into doing more with plant behaviour too. There are also all those research themes that are connected that someone in my group might explore in the future. Indeed I would hope that new topics and themes that I haven’t even thought of yet get added on to this list of what people in my group are doing. I’m sure many scientists could list a similarly broad range of thematically related topics that those in their group work on and I’m not suggesting it is a bad thing. Basically this run-on paragraph is to say that I’m not sure I can or want to settle on one research theme to define my lab group.

Mostly I wonder about future students and lab members. If for example I were to call my lab “The Pollination Lab” could that mean a student studying the effects of floral volatiles on herbivory would feel excluded? Sure the research is linked but they wouldn’t be studying pollination. And that is just one off the cuff example I can imagine for future projects that would be very relevant to my research theme but wouldn’t directly come under the umbrella of pollination. I’m not sure how important this sense of belonging will be to my future lab members but I don’t want to unconsciously make anyone feel like they or their work are marginal in some way.

There is another piece to the puzzle as to what you can call your research group, it all depends on the context in which you find your lab. It matters what university, what department and who else is there. Within the Plant Ecology and Evolution department where I currently work at Uppsala University, general themes like the “Plant Ecology group” or “Plant evolution group” would be so vague as to be useless and would apply to many groups. Similarly if you said “The Pollination Lab at Uppsala” it would likely lead to confusion as to what group you were talking about since at least three of us study aspects of pollination. In other departments with a broad range of biologists the “Pollination group” might be immediately recognizable because there is only one.

But just because choosing a theme might be difficult, that doesn’t by default mean that identifying by last name of the PI is a good thing. Does it put too much emphasis on the identity of the people rather than the science?* I don’t have any good answers here but there are all kinds of contexts that show names make a difference to the perception of the quality of the work and usually not in a good way.

I have my own challenges with the last name approach. You might have noticed that I have a long one. I like my last name and it is a strong part of my identity but my name has its complications. While I am the only scientist publishing with my last name, it is also one that people have a hard time with. Especially growing up in Canada and North American context, people struggle with my name. They can’t say it or spell it and maybe they can’t find my work because of it. The last 8 years living in Sweden have been strange because people are not only not afraid of my name but they most often pronounce it correctly without needed to hear it first. But it is still a heck of a long name…

Finally there is one last niggling doubt I have about research theme vs. last name of the PI naming of research groups. I wonder about whether removing PI names from labs really does help to equalize the scientists. Maybe it wouldn’t effect the perception and it probably wouldn’t do much to the prestige of white/cis/heterosexual males but what happens when we don’t prominently display that the minorities in science are actually the heads of their research groups? Of course the information would still be available within the lab pages but might there be some who look at one of those nice research group pictures and assume the white male grad student or post doc is in charge? I’d like to think it wouldn’t happen but I wonder.

After my own mulling I haven’t come to a conclusion about how I’d prefer to call my lab group. It is simplified where I work now because there is a convention in place but that is really the easy way out. I would love to hear from you about the culture of where you are. Is this a thing? Should it be?

A quick poll on how research groups are identified at your institution.


*Science vs the scientists is also the foundation of the idea that removing author lists from publications is the way to go.


4 thoughts on “Scientific identity crisis

  1. You know, it’s not necessary to have one’s lab or research group have a formal “name.” I’ve succeeded, and so have my students/trainees, for almost 20 years without ever giving my lab/group a “name.” Frankly, I find the concept rather egotistical and presumptuous. Your mileage may vary, as they say.

  2. I happened to discover this post right after telling our building superintendent I didn’t have a lab group name yet because I was having an identity crisis (she was inquiring about ordering a sign for my lab door). Coincidence??

    I was recently hired in an entomology department where the status quo is to have an identified research area/lab group theme. Here the lab group names are very general (insect ecology, field crops, forest entomology, chemical ecology) but I am still struggling to find the right theme/name that represents the vision I have for a diverse research program. I was hired as an insect physiologist specializing in insect-microbe interactions, but I am far from a physiologist and identify more as an evolutionary biologist. Projects I am involved in currently span insect-plant interactions, insect vectors of plant pathogens, evolution of resistance to GMO’s and development of molecular tools for identifying insect pests of turfgrass. I don’t think “Jack of All Entomology Trades” lab group would go over well. Identifying something to call my lab group is mostly important for me to develop a lab website, as it seems science branding is becoming a real thing. Not sure how I feel about that either.

    Although I have no clue what to do about a lab group name, I really appreciated reading this post and not feeling like I was the only one having an identity crisis. For now, I guess I will go against the norm in my department and not brand myself or my research group.

  3. Great post. I’ve been thinking about this too. I always thought the surname lab group thing was more of a North American practice? In Australia, I think lab group names seem to have only become common recently. Most unis have research themes or clusters, and within those themes individual PIs might have their own group of students/postdocs. However, most lab group names here seem to be topic-related. Personally, I think topic is more descriptive and inclusive than surname, but agree it has to be broad enough to encompass all the different projects!

  4. Naming a lab and/or research group after the PI seems rather American. My observations of practices in Canadian universities suggest that when this occurs, the PI is either American, or has a U.S. Ph.D.

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