Laboratory work is not the most conducive for interacting with others. For the most part, lab staff keep to their benches to run the necessary tests and conduct research, and reaching out to others outside the lab is not often required for the job. Further, many prefer taking on their tasks by themselves. However, working and learning from others is a necessity in advancing not just a lab or a group but also the science—an example of this can be observed as laboratories and researchers around the world are working on creating and running tests related to the COVID-19 crisis. Through networking, researchers and technicians can create meaningful relationships, learn from one another, and brainstorm ideas and come up with solutions to complex issues. Because at the heart of it, science is a collaborative endeavor.
When working within a close group of individuals to develop projects or methods, ideas can run dry, says Jeremy Runyan, business development at Alliance Analytical Laboratories, Inc, a full-service microbiology and chemical analytical testing laboratory in Grand Rapids, MI. “Having multiple ports of influence allows for new ideas, or perhaps just a new view of a current situation, which allows you to tackle a project in a different manner.”
In addition to better approaching the science aspect, networking allows talent to be seen and understood and aids in being moved through the ranks, either within an organization or amongst them. This is especially important because industry success is not always just merit based. To that end, it’s important for managers to engage in networking themselves, but to also encourage their employees to make connections with others in their field.
To post or not to post
Traditionally, networking was often achieved through seminars, meetings, and tradeshows. Once social media was introduced and moved from being just an avenue for fun to being utilized for professional development, those platforms have added more ways for people to meet individuals and learn of organizations and stay abreast of their work and research. In one estimate, LinkedIn—a platform geared toward professional development—is reported to have 303 million users and 30 million company pages, allowing anyone with an account to access a myriad of resources. Similarly, Twitter, with its approximately 330 million users, provides access to a plethora of status updates, which if users curate to their professional interests, could allow them to find up-to-the-minute information that others share. This helps professionals discover new ideas, bring more eyes to their work, and build an audience and curate their brands. To that end, many companies even hire social media specialists to help them navigate and optimize the use of these platforms. It should be noted, however, that because of its power to democratize information, there needs to be some scrutiny when utilizing social media.
“Social media has made the availability of misinterpreted information readily available,” Runyan says. “On the reverse side, social media has made great impacts for some, such as allowing great and pertinent information to be spread quite rapidly.”
Still, social media should be considered an addition, not a replacement, to the traditional way of expanding one’s professional networks. Often, meeting people in person is still the most effective way of making connections. Further, in-person collaborations are still key for many who believe that online tools, while important, have the potential to lead to confusion.
“If I am working with other industry professionals, such as laboratories, universities, or higher management clients, I prefer in-person meetings,” says Runyan, who explains social media is not his approach, as personal conversations lead to much greater and more in-depth conversations. “Especially if we are working on project design, as emails can lead to a tone loss. By this, I mean the importance of some areas may be lost without personal expression.”
For Runyan, the ability to relate to others in an in-person conversation allows for a humility that he doesn’t consider a staple of social media, which tends to be more self focused and a platform in which words can be interpreted differently than intended. “When communicating in person, both parties have the ability to represent themselves while truly capturing the other’s passion on the subject,” he says.
Conferences, professional meetings, and tradeshows provide opportunities to build one’s professional network, be it meeting others in the field or potential and existing clients. They can, however, be daunting as one roams the rooms looking for others to connect with. Organizers, however, come up with ways to facilitate meetings for attendants through happy hours and meet and greet sessions.
Due to budgets, scheduling, and time constraints, lab personnel and managers may not always have the opportunity to attend events. So, in many cases, managers may opt to attend meetings and pass down that information to their personnel or select a person or two to represent the lab. They can also directly reach out to a person or another lab to make a connection.
“Depending on the scenario or my need for reaching out, there are many ways to go about [approaching others],” Runyan says. “A phone call is the first approach and in the instance scheduling does not line up, whether it be projects or time zones, emails have always worked as a great back-up plan.”
It’s also important to note that while the need to reach out to another may be great on one person’s end, the other person may not have the opportunity to accommodate such a response in a timely manner. Managers might need to take into account the availability of others is not a measure of their interest, or lack thereof.
“I like to approach it as understanding how busy this field can become and having an understanding that sometimes, patience is honestly the best answer,” explains Runyan. “If the other individual [or] group is interested in the discussion, in due time they will make the connection.”
Value of networking
In addition to personal career advancement, networking is important because in the sciences, much of the research being conducted is through collaboration and idea sharing. At times, during meetings or conferences, scientists will actively seek each other out to collaborate. Other times, ideas may be sparked from joining in, or overhearing, a conversation. No matter how it occurs, in the lab sector, being in touch with others can often help run tests more efficiently or solve issues when a team is stuck trying to work out a problem.
“Having the option to work with another laboratory may aid in completing projects in a more efficient manner,” says Runyan. “Learning from others is great; again going back to having the different viewpoints on subjects or even discussing with an individual who came across a similar barrier somewhere can save time and effort by discussing how they overcame such obstacles—specifically with complex matrices and determining what the best approach is.”
Further, while networking with other companies or individuals, a manager, lab technician, or scientist may have the opportunity to explore and aid in the other organization or individual’s needs.
To that end, while discussing with another laboratory how their services differ from theirs and how they complement each other, Runyan’s Alliance Analytical Laboratories, Inc has now built a trusted relationship with another laboratory, which allows both labs to better serve clients and merge some services. “The business relationship allows for our clients to use a single laboratory for all of their needs. Efficiency is the greatest achievement from networking.”
Lab managers can also use networking to keep track of the direction in which a competitive lab is headed and thus learn from their approach.
“Oftentimes, competition is the main motivator, but I prefer to grow by exploring what my competitors’ needs are and fulfill them,” Runyan explains. “This [can] allow for larger scaled projects and more consistent workflow.”
All of these benefits highlight that no matter the quality of bench work and research conducted in a lab, no one lab can conduct good science in a vacuum, and reaching out to others is not just important but a vital aspect of running a successful laboratory.