To specialize or to branch out as an ecology lab?

As soon as I know how to best run a research lab I’ll be sure to let you know (for a small fee of course). One of the questions I have been thinking about is the level of specialization an ecology lab should ideally be striving for, and the pros and cons of specialization vs. being rather broad.

Model 1 is the specialized research lab, driven by a particular system and a top-priority overarching question. I have always thought this would be the way to go, because the benefits are obvious:

  • Everything going on in the lab matters for everybody in the lab, because of the programmatic coherence – everything fits together nicely like pieces in a puzzle, and therefore one can make better and faster progress on a particular question;
  • The lab, and with it, the principal investigator, is becoming increasingly well known for a specific topic, with all the important ripple-on benefits that come with that: invitation to conferences, special journal issues, better shot at grants, fewer paper rejections because of street credibility and more in-depth knowledge,….

Um yes. This sounds great, actually; and I admire labs that work like this a lot. Well, model 2 is a research lab that contains a bunch of people that rather loosely work on quite a number of questions and a couple of study systems as well. That’s my situation. So why was this a good idea again? I don’t know, this kind of developed with great people arriving, who brought their own cool ideas, and with me finding all kinds of things very interesting. It was certainly not planned. But there are also advantages:

  • Unexpected links can occur, because we still all talk to each other, for example during our 2 weekly meetings;
  • It is really fun and challenging to think about a lot of different stuff, but to stay loosely within the soil-theme;
  • It leads to potential availability of a number of study systems for testing different, new ideas (we work on saprobic, parasitic, root-colonizing, and mycorrhizal fungi, and some are better for some ideas than others);
  • There are mini-groups forming along the lines of model 1 within the larger lab (for example, the “endophyte gang”), and so one can potentially cultivate some advantages of the other version at a smaller scale;
  • Greater versatility in terms of topics for funding acquisition (but lower chances perhaps).

But the costs are also clear (see above).

What would I recommend, now with the benefit of hindsight? I am not sure. But I would probably do it the same way again, despite the sometimes terrible costs of this path. I could have had a lab on the role of fungi in soil aggregation and could have made a lot more progress on this very question (which would have been excellent!) – but then I would have missed out on all the other great things going on.

Anybody else thinking about this sort of stuff?

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