Case Studies, Session on Problems and Solutions in Scientific
Management, 2005 BWF-HHMI Course in Scientific Management
Case 1. Joe Smith and BigMac
Summary: Two independent labs, one headed by Dr. Fries and the other by Dr.
Hamburger, collaborate on a research project. A graduate student from Dr.
Hamburger’s lab has clearly made a less important contribution to the resulting
manuscript than a student in Dr. Fries lab, but his supervisor is demanding that the two
students share first authorship.
Joe Smith is a fourth-year Ph.D. student working on the maintenance of stem cell
pluripotency. The field is hot. It has just been shown that the key step in the
pluripotency/differentiation pathway is the activation of an unknown protease with an
unusual target site specificity. Cleavage of a particular cellular protein substrate, known
as BigMac, is mediated by this uncharacterized protein activity. Thus, many groups are
racing to identify the protease.
By putting together diverse observations in the literature and scanning the genome for
predicted proteases, Smith has identified what he thinks is the likely protease. Now he
has to see if his candidate protease can cleave BigMac. To do this, he needs an antibody
that can distinguish the cleaved and uncleaved forms of BigMac. A group working in a
completely different field had made an excellent monoclonal antibody against BigMac
several years ago and published it in a relatively obscure journal.
Smith and his mentor, Dr. Fries, contact this group, which is led by Dr. Hamburger. Dr.
Hamburger agrees to help, but in a “collaborative” setting, even though they note that the
antibody has been published and its use should not require a collaborative relationship.
Dr. Fries and Smith agree to collaborate since another group is hot on their trail.
Dr. Hamburger insists that one of his students run the Western blots for them if Smith
sends the protein extracts to be analyzed. Smith and Dr. Fries would have rather that he
sent an aliquot of the antibody to them so that they could do the experiments, but they
agree to this arrangement because they are worried that if they start arguing they will get
Smith sends the extracts and Dr. Hamburger’s student runs the blots. Everyone is excited
to see that they have indeed identified the key protease that controls stem cell
pluripotency. Dr. Fries and Smith prepare a manuscript to send to the journal HighImpact
and send a copy to Dr. Hamburger to review. Dr. Hamburger immediately insists that his
student and Smith share first authorship, saying that his student has contributed the key
figures in the paper. Dr. Fries argues that Smith has done most of the work in identifying,
expressing, and purifying the protease and performing the proper controlled experiments
for subsequent analyses.
It is clear to Dr. Fries that Dr. Hamburger’s request is not fair, but he is worried that a
disagreement over authorship could compromise the publication of a high-profile paper
that is critical to getting his grant renewed, as well as to Smith’s future career.
Points to discuss:
What should Dr. Fries do at this point?
How could he have handled this collaboration from the beginning to avoid this
Case 2. Susie Square and Interdisciplinary Science
Topic(s): Leadership Styles, Interdisciplinary Training, Mentoring
Case Summary: Susie Square, a postdoctoral fellow in her first year of an
interdisciplinary training program, is not getting the recognition she deserves from her
current mentor, Dr. Round. Part of the problem may be that she comes from a theoretical
science background, while Dr. Round is an experimental scientist.
Dr. Susie Square is a third-year postdoctoral fellow. Her background and degrees are in a
theoretical discipline. She is highly trained and eager to apply her expertise to research
problems in the experimental sciences. As a result, she successfully applies to an
interdisciplinary training program on campus and joins the laboratory of Dr. Jeff Round.
When Dr. Square first approached Dr. Round, he was enthusiastic and excited about
working with her. From their discussions, Dr. Square had expected to work
collaboratively with Dr. Round as near-equals, as she does with faculty members in her
own discipline. But now that she is a postdoc in Dr. Round’s lab, she is treated as the
lowest member in the lab hierarchy. Dr. Round has offered her only limited resources,
which are inadequate for her research, and has explicitly asked her to do work that would
be suitable for an advanced undergraduate or beginning graduate student.
Since her position is funded by the interdisciplinary training program and not by Dr.
Round, Dr. Square is reluctant to ask him for better resources, especially since she is not
willing to work on the analyses he has asked her to do (although she did offer to structure
and supervise the work so that a student could do it). Dr. Square believes that Dr. Round
is trying to be a good mentor, but that he doesn't understand her discipline well enough to
know what the expectations and standards are. This is somewhat surprising since Dr.
Round has had collaborations with faculty from the theoretical sciences.
Because of institutional politics, Dr. Square cannot find a substitute mentor to replace Dr.
Round. Instead, she has developed a number of interesting research questions that relate
to projects in Dr. Round’s lab and is working on them independently.
She has also found other ways to get the necessary resources and works at home or
elsewhere on campus. Dr. Round is not happy with this arrangement. He occasionally
comments that Dr. Square doesn't spend enough time in the lab, and he seems frustrated
that she isn't working on what he wants her to do. Overall, their interactions seem to be
going from bad to worse.
Points to discuss:
Given that Dr. Square’s position is funded by the interdisciplinary training
program, and not by Dr. Round, how should they treat each other?
What steps need to be taken to improve the current situation?
What actions could have been taken to avoid this situation?
What do both sides need to learn from this experience?
Compare and contrast (at least a couple aspects of) the culture, expectations, and
standards between experimental disciplines, such as biology and chemistry, and
theoretical disciplines, such as computer science and mathematics. For instance, Dr.
Square is the sole author on all publications resulting from her dissertation research.
Would that happen with a typical graduate student or postdoc in Dr. Round’s
laboratory? Should Dr. Square be evaluated according to her discipline or his?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of interdisciplinary training and
collaborations? What can be done to enhance the former and mitigate the later?
Case 3. Postdocs and Pregnancy
Topic(s): Gender Issues, Mentoring
Case Summary: Sally Smart is just about to start a postdoctoral fellowship in a
prestigious lab, and she finds out she is pregnant. She does not know when she should tell
Sally Smart finished her Ph.D. with first-author publications in top journals and secured a
postdoctoral fellowship in a prestigious lab. Before starting her postdoc, she got married
and purchased a home close to her new job. When she arrived at the new lab, she met
with the PI to discuss potential projects, but the conversation also touched on Smart’s
personal life. The PI congratulated Smart on her recent wedding and home ownership,
and asked if she was planning to start a family soon. Smart was unsure what to answer
since she had just found out that she was pregnant. She had not yet had the chance to
inquire about the maternity leave policy at her new job. She was concerned that the news
of her pregnancy would jeopardize her career options. Specifically, she was concerned
that the high-profile project she was hoping to begin working on would be offered to one
of the other postdocs in the lab, who happened to be all men.
Points to discuss:
How should Smart answer?
Is it appropriate for her to defer informing the PI until at least past the first
trimester, making sure the pregnancy is progressing normally? If she does not inform
the PI at this time, and starts working on the high-profile project, does Smart need to
accept that she may need to turn the project over to someone else if she is unable to
maintain consistent work hours?
Is it fair for the PI to make such an inquiry (this is not an interview, but a friendly
conversation after she accepted the position)?
Does the PI have the right not to offer Smart the project they had previously
discussed based on the new information?
Is the PI obligated to Smart’s career, or to the progress of science?
Case 4. Heathcliff and His Future
Topic(s): Negotiating a Faculty Position, Mentoring
Summary: A physician-scientist encounters difficulties while trying to negotiate a faculty
Heathcliff, M.D., Ph.D., trained as a neurologist at a medical center and served as chief
resident in his final year of medical training. He then obtained a fellowship to pursue
postdoctoral training in the laboratory of a structural biologist, Dr. Hughes, in the same
medical center. At the same time, he continues to have a supervisory role in the
department of neurology, where he is required to see patients with the residents in the
general neurology community clinic one afternoon per week.
After spending two years in the laboratory, Heathcliff published his first paper
concerning the structure of a protein involved in a hereditary spinocerebellar ataxia and
submitted a K08 Career Award to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He faced a
problem when he had to come up with a salary figure for the award.
The chair of the neurology department explained that he needed to submit a salary based
on that of his peers but was otherwise unhelpful. In the end, Heathcliff submitted the
grant with his proposed salary figure with 90% effort—meaning that the department
would be responsible for 10% of the salary.
Based on the grant score, it was clear that the grant will be funded. Heathcliff thus
decides to discuss his possible appointment as an assistant professor in the department of
neurology with the chairman, who is quite pleased with the comments from the study
section. But when Heathcliff brings up the issue of departmental support for 10% of his
salary, the chairman starts talking about moonlighting activities. When Heathcliff
inquires about future lab space, the chairman says that for the next five years, all of the
lab space dedicated to neurology faculty will be occupied. Heathcliff meets again with
the chairman and is eventually able to obtain commitment to 10% salary support.
However, this time the chairman says the salary was too low and asks whether the grant
can be revised upward for subsequent years.
Heathcliff also discusses his future plans with his laboratory mentor, Dr. Hughes. He
suggests that Heathcliff should obtain a joint appointment with one of the stronger basic
science departments, but that the clinical department should be the one providing the
laboratory space, given that Heathcliff’s primary appointment would be in the clinical
department. In the meantime, Dr. Hughes has offered to obtain a technician to support
Heathcliff’s research in the lab, but no advertisement has gone out and no candidates
have even been interviewed.
Points to discuss:
Given that Heathcliff would like to stay at the medical center, what should he do to
obtain tenure in the next seven years?
Should Heathcliff view his current situation as a glorified postdoc and plan on
going on the job trail next year? What kinds of jobs should he be looking for? Given
his program in structural biology, should it be in a basic science department or should
he contact other neurology departments at academic medical centers?
What should Heathcliff have done differently in negotiating a position as assistant
professor in his clinical department?
Case 5. Ruby Tuesday and Her Referee
Topic(s): Collaboration, Publishing, Ethics
Summary: A junior faculty member reviews a manuscript by a scientist with whom she is
starting to collaborate. The manuscript author asks the reviewer to help her address
some of the referees’ comments, not knowing that one of the referees is her collaborator.
Postdoctoral fellow Ruby Tuesday recently accepted an assistant professor position at a
university. After meeting at two international conferences over the past year, Tuesday
and Lucy Diamonds, a junior faculty at another university, discovered that they shared
some research interests and slowly attempted to work out a collaboration. The two
scientists discussed integrating a mathematical model developed by Diamonds in a
software program that Tuesday provides to researchers.
About two months ago, an editor of a prestigious journal in the bioinformatics field asked
Diamonds to review a manuscript that has Tuesday as a single author. Since the
manuscript does not involve the collaborative work, Diamonds agrees to review it. The
manuscript was innovative, and after providing several critiques about the analysis
techniques, Diamonds recommends its publication.
Tuesday then sends an e-mail to Diamonds saying that she has received three reviews on
her manuscript, all of which raised some analysis technique issues that she could use
some help answering. She asks Diamonds if she would be interested in providing that
help in exchange for coauthorship on the manuscript.
Points to discuss:
Even though Tuesday’s manuscript was unrelated to the work that Tuesdays
and Diamonds were trying to start together, was it reasonable for Diamonds to agree
to review the manuscript?
Would it be right for Diamonds to help Tuesday respond to the referees’
Diamonds does not think she can refuse to help Tuesday without giving her a
truthful explanation. Should Diamonds break the anonymity of the review process to
save the collaboration?
What role, if any, should the journal editor have in these decisions?
Case 6. Steve Sizzle’s Problem with Plagiarism
Topic(s): Publishing, Ethics
Case Summary: Postdoc Steve Sizzle directly copies several sentences from a research
proposal of another postdoc in a review that is then published in Nature. The second
postdoc is not an author on the review.
Steve Sizzle and Dennis Doe are postdocs in the laboratory of Horatio Hornblower at Big
Midwestern University. Sizzle has been in the lab for several years, since he was a
graduate student, and enjoys an easy, informal camaraderie with Hornblower.
Hornblower speaks in glowing terms of Sizzle’s accomplishments, which include a first-
authored Science paper. Doe, on the other hand, joined the lab a few months ago, but had
done stellar work as a graduate student. He wrote a detailed project proposal for his
fellowship committee, including a comprehensive literature review. Hornblower was
impressed by the writing, and told Doe he would pass the proposal to Sizzle as a model of
a good literature review. Several months later, a review paper was published in Nature,
with Sizzle and Hornblower as coauthors. When Doe read the review, he realized that the
first several sentences are almost identical to his project proposal. Doe was annoyed, and
sent an e-mail to Sizzle (copying Hornblower) pointing out the similarities. In the e-mail
he asked Sizzle to be more careful in the future. Sizzle did not reply, but the next day,
Hornblower sent Doe an e-mail warning that he would lose his job if he continued to
“make trouble” with allegations of plagiarism. In a face-to-face meeting several weeks
later, Hornblower apologized to Doe and admitted that he hadn’t examined the text that
Doe alleged was plagiarized. Hornblower explained that he was just trying to “nip the
problem in the bud,” before it escalated into a lab feud.
Points to discuss:
Did Sizzle do anything wrong by borrowing a few sentences from Doe’s
proposal? (After all, he said he only copied summaries of the published literature and
not research results, and the copying had been unintentional.)
Should Doe have spoken to Hornblower about his concerns before sending an e-
mail? In general, is it better to avoid e-mail for sensitive communications?
Was it appropriate for Hornblower to share Doe’s proposal with other lab
members without first obtaining permission?
How should Hornblower have responded to Doe’s allegations of plagiarism?
What was his responsibility as Sizzle’s mentor in this situation?
Case 7. Teresa’s Depression and Lab Work
Topic(s): Mentoring, Firing
Case Summary: Teresa, a second year graduate student, experiences severe depression
that leaves her unable to work in the lab for an extended period of time. Her supervisor is
frustrated and wants Teresa to leave .
Teresa is in her second year of graduate school; she is the first graduate student of a
young principal investigator, Buddy Bunsen. During her rotation in the Bunsen lab,
Teresa was bright and enthusiastic and had good “lab hands.” Bunsen was happy when
Teresa expressed an interest in doing a Ph.D. in his lab. Teresa told Bunsen that in the
past she had experienced a bout of severe depression, triggered by family problems.
However, by the time Teresa started graduate school, she and her doctors believed that
the problems were resolved. After a year in the lab it became clear that the depression
had returned. Teresa stopped coming to the lab in person and communicated mainly by e-
mail, screening her phone calls to prevent a confrontation. She promised Bunsen to meet
with him to discuss her situation, but she did not show up at the meetings. Her no-show
was followed by “I’m sorry” e-mails, but the pattern continued. Bunsen is frustrated and
wants to lay down some strict rules for Teresa to get her to come back to the lab. If not,
he’s prepared to ask her to leave his lab.
Bunsen went to the graduate committee to discuss Teresa’s case and presented evidence,
in the form of e-mails and correspondences, of Teresa’s behavior. The committee agreed
that Teresa’s behavior was unacceptable. At that point, Teresa had not set foot in the
department in four months, but was still receiving her stipend. Because of the rules
protecting the rights of graduate students, Bunsen couldn’t simply get rid of Teresa
because she hadn’t done any work. At the meeting, the committee decided that Teresa’s
progress would be monitored by the university counseling services, in conjunction with
her doctors. Teresa’s case would have to be treated as a medical situation.
Points to discuss:
Would the circumstances surrounding this case be different if Teresa had broken
her leg rather than experienced incapacitating depression?
Does Teresa deserve to collect her stipend when she isn’t showing up at the lab?
Bunsen feels entitled to know more about the medical details of Teresa’s
psychiatric problems. How much information should he be given by the doctors and
counselors without infringing on Teresa’s privacy?
What would be a reasonable plan for the graduate committee to suggest to help
Teresa get back on her feet?
How long can Teresa remain absent from the lab before Bunsen can dismiss her?
Case 8. Ace Struggles to Protect Research Time
Topic(s): Tenure, University Structure, Time Management
Case Summary: Dr. Ace, a junior faculty physician-scientist with a Career Transition
Award was not able to maintain the protected research time that his department had
promised him. As a result, he is unable to obtain independent funding.
Dr. Ace is a promising physician-scientist with several years of postdoctoral research
training. He received a KO8 grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and
decided to remain at the institution where he had completed his cardiology fellowship.
His initial appointment was as an assistant professor in the Division of Cardiology, with
75% full-time equivalent protected to establish his research program. Over the
subsequent five years, his clinical service requirements were increased to the point that
they interfered with his ability to perform his research project. Initially, these clinical
encroachments were classified as temporary and were justified by assurances of future
payback to his protected research time. These promises never materialized, and the
“temporary” clinical duties became permanent. By the final year of his transition award,
the clinical duties consumed more than 50% of his time.
Dr. Ace’s project involved utilization of specialized animal imaging technology, which
was available only at a few institutions at that time. Dr. Ace was concerned with
repercussions if he were to contact the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and inform it
of the lack of promised research time. In addition, he was unable to find a position at an
institution that had the technology to complete his research proposal, and he couldn’t use
the equipment at his current institution if he were to move to another. He attempted to the
best of his ability to complete his research proposal but was subsequently unable to
obtain established investigator funding and remains on faculty as a clinician.
Points to discuss:
What are some of the time infringements experienced by physician-scientists?
How are time infringements to be handled when they are requested by individuals
in a supervisory position within your department or division?
What are the best ways to approach requests of service with accompanied verbal
Are there ways to say no without concern for professional repercussions? If so,
which work better than others?
What is NIH’s role if notified of “breach of contract” for protected time on
transition awards? How are these instances handled?
Are there mechanisms to resolve this type of situation without searching for a
position at another institution?
Case 9. Susanbee Anthony Rewrites History
Topic(s): Collaboration, Publishing, Ethics
Case Summary: Susanbee Anthony, a postdoctoral fellow in her second year of training,
finds that some of the data published many years ago by one of her collaborators is
incorrect. The collaborator does not want to make this known.
Susanbee Anthony is a postdoc on the rise. She has a prestigious fellowship to study with
a well-known leader in her field, Benhameen Franklin, and is working collaboratively
with researchers at other institutes in a subfield where she is considered one of the
world’s brightest minds. In particular, Anthony is collaborating with another well-known
PI, Mallard Fillmore, to extend some of his published results dating back to 1983. The
data were world shaking at the time and have made it into textbooks. Using funds
provided by Fillmore, Anthony has tried to repeat and extend his work with new
technology that allows more discrete analysis than ever previously imagined.
When the new data are compared to a larger set of controls, Anthony finds that the
original conclusions were incorrect. In fact, everything Fillmore published in 1983 is
insignificant. Since Anthony and Franklin were collaborating with Fillmore, they
repeated the experiments as many times as possible with every variation they could
conceive, but every time they found the same result: the original results were not
significant. Given the technology available in 1983, Fillmore clearly had done the best he
could, but now that that technology is obsolete, so is his data.
Fillmore has two choices: 1) publish the new data and take the hit in the press, or 2) try to
bury them by intimidating Anthony and her mentor. Fillmore chooses the second option.
Points to discuss:
What should Franklin do as Anthony’s adviser?
Assume that Anthony and Franklin have appealed to Fillmore in every way and
no argument has been effective. What is their recourse considering the work was
Does the fact that Fillmore supported the work financially affect their recourse?
If Fillmore continues to write grants using his 1983 work as proof of concept,
what responsibility do Anthony and Franklin have as colleagues and/or grant
What should Anthony and Franklin do if Fillmore continues to write articles
referring to the 1983 results?
How could Anthony and Franklin have avoided this predicament?
Case 10. Gee Nome
Topic(s): Mentoring, Lab Leadership
Case Summary: The morale in Dr. Nome’s lab is plummeting because the postdocs in
his lab have not been successful and they are fighting with the technician.
Dr. Gee Nome is an assistant professor at a major medical research institution in the
Midwest. Although he has only been faculty for a short while, his academic star is rising.
Nome maintains a traditional biomedical research laboratory (consisting of two
postdoctoral fellows, one graduate student, and one research technician), and he has also
established a satellite group whose primary focus is genomics. The genomics efforts have
resulted in several high-profile publications over the past three years. As a result, he now
travels extensively and devotes an increasing amount of time to the genomics side of his
Morale in the traditional lab has dropped. One postdoc, Puddle, has been in the lab for
nearly three years but has not yet had a publication, nor is she close to completing her
project. Others in the department have quietly noted that Puddle tends to drift from crisis
to crisis in her scientific and personal life, and other members of Nome’s lab have shied
away from interacting with her. The other postdoc, Marsh, has been in the lab for nearly a
year and a half. She is working on an interesting but risky project and has yet to generate
meaningful data to test her central hypothesis. The technician, Muffet, is a pleasant
person, but both Puddle and Marsh have complained that she doesn’t work very hard.
The situation came to a head a few months after Nome hired a new lab manager,
Prunella. Prunella was hard working and efficient; she made a huge impact almost
immediately in terms of facilitating Nome’s increasingly hectic schedule, and she
generally interacted well with Nome’s genomics group. However, her strong personality
caused some in the lab to consider her arrogant. Prunella’s personality frequently clashed
with Puddle and Marsh. In a particularly nasty exchange, Puddle, Marsh, and Muffet
accused Prunella of bad-mouthing each of them behind their backs. Prunella accused
them of being incompetent, dishonest, and lazy. Shortly thereafter, Prunella resigned.
Nome has met with Puddle, Marsh, and Muffet to address the specifics of this conflict,
but morale in his traditional lab remains low.
Points to discuss:
What are some of the challenges PIs face in balancing mentorship of those in their
lab with the need to increase their own visibility?
It seems inevitable that over time, certain projects may become highly interesting
and exciting to a PI and would require increased attention and resources. How does a
PI maintain the motivation and morale of everyone in the lab when such imbalances
To what extent is it the responsibility of a PI to manage the personalities and
interpersonal relationships amongst the members of her or his lab?
What are some strategies for maintaining morale?