Case Study: DAVID GRAINGER'S LAB
David Grainger, Ph.D., is a busy guy. He just finished co-editing the most comprehensive treatise on biomaterials, is the editor of several leading journals, chair of a national institutes of health panel and several international research center advisory boards, and principal investigator on several active research grants.He also has a travel and speaking schedule that rivals Hillary Clinton's.
But he's not too busy for students. He's also quick to give them credit. "The first author on my most highly cited paper is an undergrad," says Grainger, who has spent his career mentoring students such as University of Utah alum Kenneth Hinds, Ph.D. As an undergrad, Hinds had the ambition and the patience to take a project Grainger suggested to the corner of the lab. He figured out how to analyze gold surfaces decorated with protective films for quality control. His findings were published in a widely cited article in the American Chemical Society"s publication, Langmuir. "If undergrads are courageous and they work hard, they'll do real science." But Grainger doesn't just invite students into his lab so he can be a good academic citizen. He invites them for their ideas. "When students dump a new, perhaps naive, idea onto the table, rather than just brushing it into the trash can, I try to say, ‘Let me indulge you for a moment and see how this might actually work.’ " He purposely brings together a diverse mix of bioengineering and pharmaceutical researchers, and then eschews traditional lab hierarchy for a more organic mentoring system. That philosophy has helped shepherd high school students all the way to the national Intel Science Talent Search. And much of the research generated in his lab results in invention disclosures and patent applications. "Anyone who works here can have the next big idea," says Grainger.
Grainger acknowledges that youthful energy isn"t always easy to harness. "Students can be loose cannons in the lab," says Grainger. "They're reputed to break things, cause accidents and divulge lab secrets, which can make the effort/reward gap feel too wide. Having to tow an inexperienced high school or undergrad student around the lab can feel like a boat anchor to a grad student." Grainger thinks small things can make a big difference. "A thousand dollars per student pays for meaningful supplies or rewards a graduate student to dedicate time to an undergrad. This makes the effort and opportunity worthwhile and more attractive to all. It takes so little to change the game."
In addition to enjoying pizza and donuts at lab meetings, Grainger's students organize holiday events, work together on community service projects, and get some opportunities to enjoy Utah's great outdoors and famed powder, especially on the annual lab ski day when Grainger foots the bill. "Work hard, play hard is a great rule," he says. "I tell my group, ‘If it's a powder day and you can't go skiing, I feel sorry for you.’ But then I expect to see them in the lab on Saturday." These extracurricular activities help create a community where students aren't afraid to share their ideas, professors make time to listen, and innovation is an open, collaborative process. "Our lab is built on trust," says Grainger. "And fun."