Creating a Healthy Research Environment

The Frederickson Lab studies mutualism. As such, we recognize and appreciate the value of reciprocally beneficial interactions, especially among individuals with distinct histories and ‘niches.’ As a lab, our primary goal is excellence in research, but we are guided by the belief that we do our best research when we work in a healthy and safe lab environment, when we recruit and support a diverse group of researchers, when we treat one another with respect and consideration, and when we achieve work-life balance. We expect all lab members to help establish and maintain a healthy, safe, diverse, inclusive, and considerate research environment. This mission statement provides more details about how we hope to work towards this goal. 

Please note that this is not a legal document, and does not replace or supersede departmental and universities policies. 

Personal & Interpersonal Conduct

•    How to treat one another

•    Equity, diversity, & inclusion

•    Sexual harassment, violence, etc.

•    Lab communications & social media

•    Power imbalances

All lab members are expected to treat others with respect and kindness. Putdowns, offensive jokes, physical or sexual violence or harassment of any kind are not acceptable, either in person or via digital/online communication. 

The Frederickson Lab is deeply committed to the fair and equitable treatment of all current and prospective lab members. Harrassment or other forms of discrimination based on gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, immigration status, physical appearance, etc. will not be tolerated. Making everyone feel supported and included is necessary to develop a collaborative and productive lab. A diverse research group brings a greater breadth of lived experiences and skills, which helps promote diversity of thought within the group. This generates a research atmosphere more conducive to the kind of critical thinking and unbiased reasoning that is fundamental to doing good science. 

We expect respectful conduct to extend to your life off campus, because you represent the lab, the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, and the University of Toronto more broadly. That said, we also recognize and respect your individual agency in making choices about how to live your life. 

Mental Health & Wellness

Mental Health

We are all painfully aware of the growing mental health crisis on university campuses, including the University of Toronto. Rates of anxiety and depression among the student body have seen marked increases within the last ten years, despite increased investment in mental health resources. We at the Frederickson Lab are determined not to be a contributor to this problem. We hope that your time in the lab is fruitful and fulfilling, but if keeping up with your work ever becomes antithetical to preserving your mental health, please please please prioritize your mental health. No school deadline, grant application, conference presentation, etc. is worth sacrificing your mental health.

Burnout

Burnout is a state of mental and emotional exhaustion brought on by extended periods of mental stress. It often results in a depressed mood and feelings of cynicism towards one’s work. If you’re feeling over-worked—you’re feeling down or apathetic about a project for which you once had enthusiasm—let Megan know and accommodations can be made. Maybe you’re spending more time on a task than is expected of you. Or maybe the task is requiring much more effort than initially expected and the timeline just needs adjusting. Maybe you just need to take a break. If you are burnt out, trying to work through it will only make things worse, and you won’t produce your best work anyway.

Work-life balance

The above paragraphs notwithstanding, research also shows that performing meaningful work, and adopting a sense of ownership over that work is a fundamental component of well-being. Presumably you are in the lab because you are genuinely interested in the work we (you) do, and we do expect lab members to be responsible and dedicated to their work. The key is striving to achieve a healthy balance between your work life and all of the other things you wish to do. Below are some general tips for doing so, and for helping improve and maintain your mental health, generally:

  • Schedule your time and keep healthy routines
    • This helps you make time for the things that are important to you, and also to recognize and intervene when work starts encroaching too much into your non-work time
  • Think ahead and stay organized
    • Most people are natural procrastinators, but this often only increases stress in the long run
  • Be deliberate in taking your mind off your work
    • Hobbies, socializing, mindfulness practice, etc. give your mind a chance to rest and recharge
  • Work to maintain social connections
    • It’s tempting to seek seclusion under a heavy workload and prolonged stress—try to resist this urge, it often makes things worse
  • Eat well and exercise regularly
    • Healthy habits, including regular exercise and time outdoors have been shown time and again to have profound mental health benefits
  • If you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to seek help
    • Approach Megan about accommodations, talk things through with your friends and family, or make use of some of the resources below

Mental Health Resources:

Lab Safety

You should never feel unsafe while working in the lab. Your research may require that you work with potentially hazardous materials or equipment, but these can all be handled safely if proper precautions are taken and if you receive the proper training. All lab members are required to take online training modules before working in the lab, specifically Biosafety Training and WHMIS. These trainings are offered online through Environmental Health & Safety, but access is available only when connected to the university network (e.g., when using wifi on campus, or through the U of T VPN). 

Before performing an unfamiliar task in the lab, ensure that you are properly trained and have read any applicable SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures)—these can be found in the Lab Biosafety Manual. If you are working with hazardous materials, you should also read the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for each material in use. If you are unsure where to find these resources, or what training might be required for a particular task, please ask Megan or a senior lab member for help.

If after obtaining help and receiving proper training, you still don’t feel totally comfortable performing a given task, ask an experienced lab mate or colleague to supervise you performing the task until you feel comfortable doing it on your own. This rule applies even to work on projects that do not pose any significant safety risk. Many projects in the lab are collaborative efforts that involve repetitive tasks performed by multiple people, or measurements made by multiple observers. Maintaining consistency in the methods and observations amongst collaborators is key to producing high quality research.

Academic Conduct

Scientific Misconduct

There are many actions that may fall under scientific misconduct, including plagiarism (even self-plagiarism), misrepresenting the contributions of authors, and failing to report conflicts of interest. Yet, when people talk of scientific misconduct, they often think of data falsification or fabrication. Perhaps this is because making up data is in direct opposition to the principles of unbiased inquiry that are fundamental to science. 

Why is Academic Integrity Important?

Hopefully the answer to this question is obvious: the fundamental goal of any scientist should be to advance humanity’s collective understanding of the natural world, not merely to grow one’s own CV. Good scientists go where the evidence leads them, not the other way around. And though an artificial positive result published in a higher impact journal may minimally advance your academic career, accusations of scientific fraud could very abruptly end your career entirely. Moreover, you never know when a negative result might actually prove more interesting than the “expected” positive one. Not only does falsifying data obscure the truth, it could close the door to a new area of inquiry that may be interesting in its own right. It’s also an unfortunate reality that the perpetrators of scientific misconduct are rarely the only ones to suffer the fallout. Accusations of misconduct may tarnish the reputations of frequent collaborators through guilt by association. Subsequent retractions of papers negatively impact innocent co-authors. Faculty guilty of misconduct leave students without a supervisor, and students leave behind unfinished projects that many other people likely also invested their time in. It is for all of these reasons, and more, that we must take academic integrity very seriously. Academic misconduct of any form will not be tolerated in the Frederickson Lab.

Good Research Practices

Even if we do not intentionally engage in misconduct ourselves, there are still things we can do to protect ourselves in the event that a collaborator is accused of misconduct or our research comes under scrutiny. First, use a lab/field notebook, and take detailed notes of everything you do relating to your research, including methods, irregularities, mistakes, etc., in addition to primary data collection. Take care when transcribing handwritten data/notes into digital format, and always keep the original copies for reference. When data is in digital format, ensure it is organized in a logical manner, and include notes describing in detail the meaning of row and column headers. It is surprisingly easy to forget the details of methods or difficulties faced a few months or years removed from data collection. These days, nearly all journals require data and meta-data to be archived and available publicly, through repositories such as Dryad or Figshare, etc., and having well organized data and meticulous meta-data make it easy to archive datasets when the time comes. Increasingly, journals also require authors to publish their code. Writing clear, comprehensible code is a skill in and of itself, and a skill worth honing: our advice is to keep it simple, be consistent (e.g., when naming variables), comment extensively, and debug thoroughly. Megan currently encourages using R markdown documents to keep code, figures, and model results in one place, and using Git for version control and GitHub for sharing code, but best practices in this area may change rapidly. Beyond just protecting ourselves from accusations of scientific misconduct, these practices will make it easier for ourselves or others to re-visit and potentially build on old projects in the future.

Participation & Support

Collaboration

Science is a collaborative endeavour, and we strive to foster a sense of community and mutual support within the Frederickson Lab. Our research draws upon many subfields within ecology and evolutionary biology, and our lab members have a breadth of skills and expertise. We encourage lab members to take advantage of this, by teaching each other skills, sharing resources, and collaborating on projects. Building supportive and productive relationships with colleagues and potential collaborators is key to a successful academic career, and doing so within the lab will make everyone’s experience more rewarding. Having a frank, open discussion about co-authorship and author order on papers early-on is encouraged, as it leads to clear expectations for how individual contributions to collaborative projects will be recognized. Err on the side of being generous with co-authorships, when possible. 

Lab Meetings

The Frederickson Lab holds weekly lab meetings to keep up-to-date on lab business, share our own research, discuss interesting papers, etc. All lab members are expected to attend lab meetings, unless it conflicts with other academic events. Lab meetings provide opportunities to think out loud, discuss ideas with your peers, and receive feedback on your own research. Asking questions and responding well to feedback are fundamental to the scientific endeavour, and lab meetings will help you develop these skills.

Other Events

We encourage lab members to support each other outside the lab as well. If you can, attend each other’s practice talks, student-run workshops, appraisal and exit seminars, etc. These are opportunities to learn more about each other’s work, and support each other’s academic pursuits—seeing friendly faces in an audience can help settle nerves during a presentation. The lab also hosts occasional lab social events—all lab members are encouraged to attend these as well, as they are good opportunities to unwind and chat about things other than work!

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Frederickson Lab alum Chris Reid, who wrote the first draft of this document. We were inspired to write this by, and borrowed ideas from, Meghan Duffy’s lab guidelines and Davide Oppo’s code of conduct. We expect the document to evolve over the years and from feedback from current and future Frederickson Lab members.