UCSF Decision Lab Handbook
Early in medical school I received a piece of advice that I have been trying to follow since: Do what you uniquely can do. This of course has different implications for me personally than it does for you as a lab member. Let’s talk about what it means overall, then about what it means for me (since I use this thought to focus our lab’s work), and then what it means for you individually.
Overall. In science there are many questions worth investigating–you can’t try to study them all or develop expertise in all the relevant methods. If you choose questions that everyone else is just as well-positioned to answer (i.e., that you’re not uniquely positioned to answer), then the only way to succeed is to work harder and be luckier than everyone else. This is not a sustainable path for a career or a life, and probably contributes to the temptations of scientific misconduct and non-reproducible practices. We all can probably contribute more to science by thinking about what questions we’re uniquely positioned to answer, whether because of our unique backgrounds/skills, temperament and interests, or special resources for which we have access that others don’t.
Me and the lab. Given my interdisciplinary background in neurology and philosophy, and given our varied collaborations and the especially open culture of the MAC, I believe that our lab is uniquely positioned to address questions in neuroscience that also involve contributions, methods and insights from the humanities and social sciences. So more specifically: decision neuroscience of aging and disorders of aging, and neuroethics, and perhaps most of all questions that involve both topics together.
You. If you’re developing an independent research project during your time here, I will keep asking you: does this project make effective use of methods, populations, resources and frameworks that our lab and the MAC are uniquely positioned to utilize? Your time here is a brief window during your career, and you should make use of special research and learning opportunities you have now that you may not have again. More broadly, in preparing for your career after this lab, think about where your own particular background, skills and interests are most needed and can contribute the most, and use this to evaluate what other skills you need to pick up along the way to maximize your unique contribution.
In 2018 during the lab’s first big hiring wave, Ali Zahir and I tried to articulate the essentials of lab culture that we wanted to preserve and replicate in our hiring. (So you’re all here because we thought you fit the following description.) What we decided we were looking for follows from the principle above. While we think that diversity of experiences and perspectives is valuable for all science, it is particularly important to our work, and it is also essential that lab members value and respect such diversity. We’re looking for lab members with potential to make unique contributions to lab culture and our work–whether in neuroethics, clinical work with patients, neuroscience, computation, or logistics. And we are looking for people who, wherever they come from, have a track record of making the most of the learning and research opportunities available to them.
In our work, we remain particularly mindful of our obligations to:
Our funders. Most of the work in our lab is funded by the National Institutes of Health, and of course our infrastructure is provided by the University of California. This pays my salary, your salary, travel funds, research expenses, equipment, basically everything. This ultimately comes from taxes paid by everyone, and thus reflects a tremendous public investment in our work–work that should be creative, rigorous, and ethical. We strive to be prudent in our management of resources, but also aggressive in taking advantage of special opportunities to advance science.
Research participants (and their families). Our research participants, many of whom have serious, stigmatized and/or ultimately fatal neurological disorders, expose themselves to research-related risks and inconveniences in order to contribute to knowledge that benefits society. Ultimately, unproductive (unanalyzed datasets, research products that are never shared with the broader scientific community) and non-rigorous (sloppy, poorly documented, error-prone) research is unethical, as it undermines the social purpose for which participants’ effort and time are contributed. We also honor participants’ contributions by treating them with respect, by maintaining our training in clinical competence (see below) and safety, by responding promptly to emails and other inquiries, and by safeguarding the confidentiality of research records.
The scientific community (particularly our readers). We aim to contribute to a broader project of understanding the brain and the ethical issues raised by neuroscience. People who read our papers should find their own understanding enhanced by our work. So we use reliable and rigorous methods, back up our work to guard against data loss, double-check our own work and other lab members’ work, identify and acknowledge our mistakes, and carefully document what we do. When we make discoveries, we help people understand them by placing them in appropriate context, avoiding undue hype, acknowledging limitations and counterarguments, and writing clearly. We use social media, our website, press and other tools to help others (including nonspecialists) find our work and so contribute to a broader public conversation.
Colleagues (both in the lab and at MAC/UCSF broadly). We strive for a lab environment in which all members can be successful. Discrimination and harassment of all forms are not tolerated–please speak with me directly if you are treated in a manner that makes you uncomfortable or hinders your ability to work and learn, or observe another lab member treated in such a way. We support each other and share our knowledge. When there are disagreements or other sources of tension, we need to be able to communicate openly about them (please again come see me for help with this). We are respectful of one another’s time and that of our collaborators and research participants, so we’re punctual and reliable about meetings and appointments. That said, please do not come in to work sick. Please promote your own health and others’ by taking time to recover, making arrangements for me and your colleagues to cover for you if necessary (they’ll be happier doing so than being exposed to whatever you’ve got, and you can return the favor later), and if you absolutely need to work doing so remotely.
Ourselves. Each of us should feel that we are doing work that we’re proud of on topics that we’re excited about, that we have appropriate support, learning opportunities and mentoring to take the next steps in our careers, and that we have enough space for the people and pursuits that are important to us outside of lab. We also should acknowledge that science is inherently hard (we’re literally trying to do things no one has ever done before), and that you all are in particularly vulnerable and stressful parts of your careers. Struggling is not a sign of weakness, but is also not something you’re expected to suffer through by yourself. Please come talk to me so we can strategize together about resources, about our mutual expectations, about how your work here fits into your broader career goals, and about how lab work is structured. (I’ve had many more of these conversations with lab members than you probably realize.) Nothing we do in lab is worth doing if it doesn’t also contribute to your health and happiness.