One way to run a successful research center is buying in what Pelham terms “empire builders” — established scientists already running large research groups elsewhere. But most of LMB’s recruits are promising young researchers. “Ideally, we’d like to hire people in their early 30s or occasionally even younger,” Pelham says. Some new heads of research teams have come straight from earning a Ph.D.
Chin is just one example of the lab’s successful, and early, talent spotting. The lab often identifies promising young scientists through personal recommendations or first-hand observation, at conferences, for example. “We listen to them at talks, have them visit to talk about their goals and ideas, and get a feel for whether they’re good,” Ramakrishnan says. “Talking to them is very important. Smart people stand out,” Pelham says, then adds that they don’t get it right every time.
To be of interest to LMB, young scientists should have done important or original work in more than one scientific setting. But important research doesn’t necessarily mean a paper in Cell. “We don’t really care if they’ve had a high-profile paper,” Ramakrishnan says. “We go less by publications and are more willing to use our own criteria, of which an important component is that they should be interested in a long-term, challenging goal.”
Also important is inspiring and guiding younger researchers to do great work. One way this is done is through LMB’s collaborative, informal culture. The tea breaks are a good example. “There are senior investigators sitting with first-year graduate students,” Ramakrishnan says.
Another reason for LMB’s success may be the risky, hard-to-solve problems the researchers are encouraged to tackle. “At the LMB, you can approach big questions, like how is gene expression controlled?” says Lori Passmore, an LMB group leader studying the function and assembly of protein complexes. Passmore was a postdoc in Ramakrishnan’s lab.
LMB researchers can afford to ask big questions: They don’t have to teach, and they are free to do whatever research interests them. “There’s a tradition of trying to hire smart people and then basically leaving them to it,” says Leo James, a group leader in the Protein and Nucleic Acid Chemistry Division. There’s less pressure to constantly publish papers. “It’s an environment where you’re encouraged to go after the big thing instead of having to have a publication every 3 months,” James says.
Still, you don’t have to be at LMB to profit from its example. “Doing work of high quality and lasting importance is usually a good strategy” for those with high scientific aspirations, Pelham says. “Think of the big questions and try to answer them.” Another part of the recipe: “Start small and preferably stay small if you can,” Ramakrishnan adds. “If you look at the seminal papers in a big breakthrough and think, ‘What was the situation of the scientist when they published this paper?’ More often than not, it was when they were small.”
The key: looking out for those with intrinsic motivation and then providing a relax environment for them to do things they love to do!