Growing a lab: How a young scientist makes leap from postdoc to principal investigator

A young scientist makes the leap from postdoc to principal investigator
Dr. Justin Taylor
Dr. Justin Taylor, at work in his lab at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Justin Taylor had been running his own laboratory at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center for only a year when he tried something few scientists attempt:

He gave a talk free of jargon, power-point slides or even — the horror — a podium.

Nominated by his division head to take part in Fred Hutch’s first-ever “Fast Pitch” competition, Taylor joined five other early-career researchers last spring in making short presentations on his research to a luncheon audience of donors. The audience would rank the talks, with the winner getting research funds.

What drew Taylor to take part was the training he would receive. In today’s hypercompetitive world of shrinking federal funding for research, fundraising is an essential skill. And even beyond pitching for dollars, “Presentations are an underappreciated part of being a scientist,” he said. 

During the training, he learned to distill his complex research on finding specific infection-fighting cells into five minutes of clear, Hemingwayesque prose.

“You have to write the script, practice the script, then go off the script a little bit so you sound natural and not scripted,” he said.

Taylor did not walk away with the top prize that day. Science is nothing if not a lesson in resilience. But a month later, he was at an event where someone asked him about his research. He was ready with a concise, jargon-free reply. Shortly after that, he learned that person was donating to Fred Hutch.

Welcome to the world of a newly-minted principal investigator, where there is so much more to science than science.  

At 34, Taylor is on the young side for a principal investigator, or P.I. — the lead researcher of a project or lab. Top scientists at Fred Hutch’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division, or VIDD, already considered him a rising star in immunology when they recruited him in the spring of 2014 to open his own lab. This is the story of how a young scientist makes the leap from being a postdoctoral fellow in someone else’s lab to being the P.I. of his own at a time when science itself is facing funding hurdles.

‘You want to set the course a little broader’

A lot of people go to graduate school in the sciences knowing they want to someday run their own lab. Taylor wasn’t one of them.

The second-oldest of six, he grew up in New York state, the son of a truck driver who moved bales of hay between farms and a nurse who, when her kids got older, went back to work on the overnight shift at the local emergency room. His father taught him to sweat — and advised him: “Stay in college.” His mother, as unflappable tending her son’s broken arm at a baseball game as she was in the ER, modeled calm.

He didn’t know what he wanted to do until his junior year at New Jersey’s Rider University when his biology professor turned a small class of just five students into an immunology lab running real research experiments. Taylor was hooked.

“I’d never thought about science as a means to learn things because it was never taught that way,” he said. “When thinking about a question, you do reading, see if anybody knows the answer, and if not, you design an experiment.”

Over the next six years as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and then five more as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota, Taylor spent most of his time in a lab — coming up with questions, designing experiments, and developing powerful techniques that led to publication in two top scientific journals and a job at Fred Hutch.

By the time he was wrapping up his postdoc, he decided that he had more ideas — more questions — than he could answer alone. That’s when he started to think about his own lab.

“You want to take on the responsibility, to set the course a little broader,” he said.

Taylor’s research focuses on B-cell immunology, a type of white blood cell responsible for producing antibodies. He works with so-called naïve B cells — ones that haven’t yet been exposed to, and thus triggered by, the foreign or abnormal molecule for which they are specific. A few of these naïve B cells, so elusive he calls them “a kind of dark matter of cells,” are capable of protecting a person against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Rare as they are, everybody has them. They just have to be “trained” by a vaccine to protect against HIV. And to be trained, they have to first bind to the vaccine.

As a postdoc, Taylor developed an innovative laboratory technique using metallic additives and magnets to test experimental vaccines to see which B cells bind to them. His approach allows researchers to quickly screen dozens, even hundreds, of vaccine candidates in the lab and — without having to inject a single person — throw out the ones that don’t have a chance of working. Since coming to Fred Hutch, he has been working with Dr. Leo Stamatatos and other top researchers on HIV, but as his small, four-person lab grows, he wants to expand to include other infections for which a vaccine doesn’t exist.

“He is doing great, exciting work,” said VIDD Director Dr. Julie McElrath, who is a top HIV researcher herself and who recruited Taylor. “The HIV field has been looking to apply concepts of basic immunology, particularly B-cell immunology, because B cells bring the antibodies. The tools he has and the insights he has are really important.”

On a recent afternoon in his laboratory looking out at the I-5 freeway pillars, Taylor had arranged everything he needed to do that day’s experiment: test tubes in pink and blue plastic racks or nestled in a plastic bucket of ice to keep the cells inside them cold; five pipettes, in different sizes to deliver varying volumes; a plastic bucket to dispose of pipette tips. The protocol — essentially the recipe for the experiment, the product of careful design and testing — was clipped to the hood of the biosafety cabinet.

Calm, focused, confident, Taylor is a natural at the bench. But these days, he’s lucky to be in the lab doing experiments one day a week — a goal he doesn’t always make. He has other responsibilities — like ordering all those test tubes and pipettes, for starters.

Test tubes
Test tubes in Dr. Justin Taylor's lab. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

A scientific shopping list

One of the surprises in making the transition from postdoc to principal investigator is “you don’t just get to do the science,” said Dr. Rhoda Morrow, head of VIDD’s Faculty Affairs Office. “There’s so much more to it. And it all takes so much of your time.”

Morrow helps junior and new faculty navigate their careers. She serves as a self-described “safe house” for newcomers “to ask dumb or problematic questions.” Across the division, other researchers, administrators, and long-time lab workers stand ready to offer advice on such chores as filling out stacks of regulatory paperwork and documenting which chemicals, drugs, and viruses they’ll be using.

Or ordering lab supplies and equipment.

For help there, Taylor turned to Tisha Graham, the lab manager from the next lab over. Ask Graham what you need for a four-person lab like Taylor’s and she produces an impressive shopping list:

  • Three freezers, with temperatures varying from 4 degrees to -80.
  • 28 single-channel pipettes and 4-6 multi-channeled pipettes.
  • 5 cases each of three sizes of disposable pipette tips
  • Pipette holders
  • 2-3 cases of gloves in small, medium and large
  • 10 cases of 15 mL sterile conical tubes
  • 3 cases of 50mL sterile conical tubes
  • Bottles, flasks and beakers
  • Tissue culture plates
  • Incubators
  • Chemicals
  • Antibodies

There’s more. Much more. But you get the picture.

And then there’s hiring the people to work with all of this equipment.

‘Someone you can have conversations with’

Postdocs, said Morrow, are very sheltered in many ways.

“Somebody’s paying your paycheck, and all you have to do is the science. It’s a wonderful time,” she said. “As the P.I., you don’t have to just do your own stuff, you have to lead other people. You are responsible for all of it.”

Taylor had never hired anyone before, but he always enjoyed teaching people. And he was still close enough to his own time in the lab to appreciate how hard technicians and postdocs work — and how key their work is. With his own hours doing bench science now limited, they will do the bulk of the experiments.

“If people in your lab aren’t doing good work, you don’t succeed,” he said. “You really have to get good people because you become more and more dependent on them.”

In addition to talking with Morrow and taking a management course on hiring through Fred Hutch’s Human Resources Department, Taylor relied a lot on his own experiences as a graduate student and postdoc and what he learned from his mentors.

“You read their papers and presentations — the science — to know how they think on their feet,” he said. “But you also look for someone you can have conversations with because that’s what the next five years are going to be.”

Dr. Blair DeBuysscher
Dr. Blair DeBuysscher started working as a postdoc in Dr. Justin Taylor's lab last November. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

So far, he’s hired two lab technicians and a postdoctoral fellow. Dr. Blair DeBuysscher started as his postdoc last November. She did her graduate program in infectious diseases and virology at the University of Montana, working in a large, Level 4 lab that required protective suits. She wanted to add immunology to her toolbox and liked that Taylor is an immunologist who works with viruses.

Working at a smaller lab has its advantages: Her P.I. is always available.

“You have time to talk to Justin,” she said. “He gives you lots of independence, but he’s very invested in every single project.”

Said Taylor, “We sit down and talk about an idea, then she takes it in her own direction. At the end, it should be 90 percent her, 10 percent me.”

For now, Taylor wants to grow the lab slowly so that he knows what everyone is doing and can pay attention to their work.  

Newly hired scientists at academic research centers generally are offered start-up packages from the hiring institution to give them time to set up a lab, run experiments, collect data and publish. Packages are negotiated, but biology start-ups average around $600,000 to $900,000. The funding must cover materials and equipment, salaries for lab staff and graduate students, costs of conference travel and time spent on expensive shared equipment such as flow cytometers — the last step in Taylor’s vaccine binding experiments — which use lasers to analyze, sort and count cells.

The start-up package is considered an investment in a young scientist’s career. At Fred Hutch, start-up funding is designed to cover about three years. After that, new researchers are expected to bring in their first big grant to keep the enterprise going.

“That’s the biggest surprise — the pressure,” Morrow said. “They have three years to be fully funded. They’re funded for a lab tech, lab space, equipment. But boy, you better roll in those grants.”

The long haul

When Taylor started graduate school in immunology in 2002, it was almost the best possible time to enter science. Congressional support for the National Institutes of Health was robust, and around a quarter of proposals for so-called sustaining grants — large,  multi-year research grants known as R01s — won approval. Since then, NIH funding has flattened and, under sequestration, fallen. Today, the success rate is just 13 percent for the large grants, even with preferential consideration for new investigators. The average age to get a first R01 is 42 – seven years older than Taylor is now.

“Am I scared about funding?” Taylor said. “I’m absolutely terrified. You’d be crazy not to be. We all talk about that. But that said, you can’t sit around thinking about it. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have confidence I could do it.”

The same hard work and calm persistence that he applies to his lab experiments goes into writing the grant proposals to support the research. An application has to be flawless, and even then it may not win approval. So scientists are spending more time perfecting each application and also submitting more of them.

Taylor is still getting used to being alone in an office, around the corner and down the hall from his lab, where he spends more than half his time writing grant proposals. On the walls are a huge painting by his father of a ship sinking in a stormy sea — he jokingly hopes it’s not a metaphor for his career — and an antique microscope in a shadowbox, a gift from his wife of six months, Dr. Kristin Anderson, a postdoc in Dr. Phil Greenberg’s immunology lab. (Defying nerdy science stereotypes, Taylor surprised her with a marriage proposal during a walk on a Jersey beach, where he had arranged a heart of candles.)

That same kind of planning — and determination — goes into his work, whether trying and retrying experiments or writing and rewriting grant proposals. 

“I’m a basic immunologist,” he said. “The goal is to make a contribution along with hundreds of thousands of other scientists to reach a solution. You’re chipping away at the problem and eventually the people will put all the pieces together and it will be like it happened overnight — but it didn’t.”

McElrath is pleased at the progress Taylor is making.

“It’s fun to watch how he approached building his lab, very methodical and meticulous,” she said. “He’s very open and easy to talk to, and he’s hired good people. The key, last experiments that he needed to get [a recent Science paper] published were done here, with his new lab and his new people. That’s a real accomplishment.”

Even as he starts up his lab, Taylor is taking his research in new directions. Before, he’d worked only with mouse cells. One of the attractions of working at Fred Hutch was the chance to translate what he’d learned more directly to human disease by working with the Hutch’s trove of human cells, donated by cancer patients and others. Believing that “you shouldn’t work on stuff if you’re not willing to contribute,” both he and his postdoc, DeBuysscher, regularly donate blood cells for other researchers. 

All labs have a personality. Taylor’s young lab is still evolving, but he knows what he wants it be.

“We work hard, and we enjoy what we are doing,” he said. “What I want is a comfortable place where we talk about science. That’s where I’ve always worked — around smart people who have the confidence to share off-the-wall ideas.”

Taylor will be submitting a proposal for a big research grant — for a second time — in January. He is pacing for the haul.

“If you’re operating on the fringes of what’s known, you don’t always go down a straight path,” he said. “A good scientist has great ideas and even better experiments that will invalidate that idea as soon as possible. You’re wrong more than you’re right. You’ve got to get used to that.”

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Mary Engel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She was also a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @Engel140.

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