Lab culture expectations

Just as diversity is critical for evolution, diversity in science is critical for making new discoveries. The interdisciplinary nature of research in our lab requires a diversity of scientific backgrounds, and we believe it is also enriched by a diversity of life experiences (especially those that are underrepresented elsewhere in science). To build and maintain a diverse lab, it is important that everyone feels welcome, regardless of race, gender, gender history, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status or background, nationality, age, religious affiliation, pregnancy status, health status (physical or mental), text editor of choice, experience level, etc. To make this possible, we ask two things of every lab member:

  • Treat all other lab members with respect. This includes refraining from making unwelcome sexual advances or unwelcome comments about other people’s bodies, lifestyles, or backgrounds. Constructive criticism about other people’s science is appropriate and encouraged, but please keep it constructive and recognize that we’re all coming at this from different backgrounds. It also includes comments (even in jest) that suggest that someone in the lab is not a “real” programmer or scientist because they are not familiar with a given topic (e.g. “you’re not a real programmer if you don’t use Vim or Emacs”). Some lab members may be new to programming or science, and such comments may slow their learning by making them feel uncomfortable asking questions. By definition, everyone in the lab is a scientist, because being in the lab means they are doing science!

    If these rules are violated in a minor way (we are all human beings who occasionally make mistakes or speak without thinking), I will gently point it out (or if I am unaware, someone else can). For issues that go beyond a poorly-thought-out comment (or for long patterns of poorly-thought-out comments that do not seem to be improving), we’ll have a conversation about what isn’t working and how we can fix it. Hopefully it will never come to this, but if anyone continues to create an unwelcoming environment for others beyond this point, they will be asked to leave the lab.

  • If something that I might have influence over is presenting an obstacle to you, please tell me about it (please feel free to tell me about obstacles I don’t have control over as well, but don’t feel obligated to if you aren’t comfortable). This includes structural obstacles imposed by the university (e.g. not receiving your pay-check) and social obstacles within the lab (e.g. someone making you feel unwelcome). Importantly, this includes the case where I am the one doing something that is making you feel unwelcome. I recognize that there is a substantial power differential between a student and their advisor (I think the magnitude of this differential is dangerous for academia as a whole, but that’s a whole other topic), and that can make it scary to bring these things to my attention. However, I really hope that you will consider doing so anyway, because this power differential also means that even relatively small mistakes on my part could have an outsized impact on you (and all my future students). I’m still new at this, so, as much as I’m going to try to avoid making mistakes, I will probably make some.

Advice about how to contribute to a positive community culture

Constructive Criticism

This section is adapted from the BEACON Congress 2020 code of conduct.

Disagreements about science are normal and healthy parts of being in a lab together. If you see a potential methodological flaw or misinterpretation of results in someone’s work, it is important to point it out so they can fix it. However, you should present these criticisms in a constructive manner. In particular, they should focus on the research itself; ad hominem attacks against the person doing the research are inappropriate.

If you receive constructive criticism, please remember that it is given with the intention of helping you. Doing science is a team endeavor precisely because it’s hard to see flaws in your own thinking. Someone else dedicating the time and mental energy to understanding your work well enough to see its flaws is a gift and shows that they care.

Professional Courtesy

This section is adapted from the BEACON Congress 2020 code of conduct.

We expect lab members to extend professional courtesy to one another. Examples of unacceptable and unprofessional behavior include:

  • Name-calling and patronizing language

  • Interrupting presenters or those asking questions

Note that expectations of professional behavior do NOT mean that participants must regulate their language or tone to conform to common academic standards, so long as they are extending appropriate professional courtesy. We recognize that academic tone-policing upholds racist and sexist structures in academic settings, and encourage people to voice their science and their concerns authentically.

Lab members should also be aware of the power dynamics between each other and recognize that unequal power dynamics often increase the effect of words and behaviors. For example, a senior graduate student should be especially aware of how criticism of the work of an undergraduate student may affect that student’s experience in the lab. We reject the idea that it is necessary to have a ‘thick skin’ to be a scientist (while simultaneously acknowledging that there is great value in developing resilience and coping mechanisms, and aiming to help lab members do so to the extent possible during their time in the lab).

Social Norms

Check out the Recurse Center’s social rules. The first (“no feigning surprise”) and last (“no subtle isms”) are the most relevant to our lab. The “no well-actuallys” rule is also good to think about, but in the context of science, there is a little more nuance to it. For instance, if we are writing a paper that includes a statement that is mostly but not completely correct, it is important to point out the issue. Similarly, if someone is practicing a talk, it is worth warning them if they’re saying something subtly wrong, so that they can add caveats. However, in less formal contexts, ask yourself whether your “well actually” is really advancing the conversation/contributing to others’ learning before you say it.

How to apologize when you screw up

This section is paraphrased from and inspired by the CLEAR Lab manual’s Apology Protocol (CLEAR, 2021). Note that the type of “screw up” we’re referring to here is something a little bigger than forgetting one of the social norms in the previous section - for those it’s really okay to just say “sorry” and try to do better in the future.

In any kind of diverse and collaborative environment where people work together for many years, there are going to be mistakes. Often, our instinctual responses emphasize self-preservation or demands for other people’s apologies rather than focusing on our own accountability. This section is provided to help give a road map for us all on how to apologize in a way that actually repairs our relationship with those we’ve wronged. “Apologizing has two steps: 1) the articulation of wrongs done and taking ownership of those wrongs, and 2) making reparations. Sometimes, though not always, the second step is accomplished through the first one.” (CLEAR, 2021)

Mingus (Mingus, 2019) describes the five parts to an apology as:

  1. Say “I’m sorry.”
  2. Name the harm/hurt
  3. Name the impact (not the intention)
  4. Name the actions
  5. Commit to not doing the harm again

For more detail on these steps and the motivation behind them, read Mia Mingus’s article, “How to give a good apology” part 1 and part 2.

When someone points out a way your behavior is not ideal, it can sometimes bring up a lot of emotions that make actually fixing the problem hard. Here are some helpful ideas for how to handles this and move forward (by; note that the author of that page named has some caveats about applying these ideas in an overly broad context):

  • “Center yourself. You’re not being attacked. You’re still a good person. This is about your behaviour, not about who you are.
  • Listen. Don’t interrupt or think of ways to defend yourself or skirt accountability. Focus on learning what was harmful and being empathetic, compassionate, and humble.
  • Acknowledge/Apologize. Instead of explaining why you did something, acknowledge what happened and apologize for its effects. [See the five steps above]
  • Inquire. If the other person consents and has the time and resources, ask what you could have done instead and learn to how to make amends
  • Move forward. ‘The best apology is changed behaviour.’ If they gave you reasonable recommendations and amends, do them. Don’t do the harm again. Use this experience to help others learn, too.”

“Finally, it is important that apologies do not entail setting up the apology-ee do emotional labour to comfort or deal with the guilt of the apologizer. Apologize, take accountability, move on when the apology is accepted.” (CLEAR, 2021).

Reporting problems

If someone makes you or anyone else in the lab feel unsafe or unwelcome, please report it as soon as possible so that we can work on fixing the situation. See below for avenues for reporting.

Harassment and other code of conduct violations reduce the value of our community for everyone. We want you to be happy in our lab. People like you make our lab a better place. If you do not feel comfortable immediately reporting harassment or other code of conduct violations, we are also happy to accept reports later on.

How to report a problem

For most problems, the best person to talk to about them is me (i.e. Emily Dolson, the principle investigator of the lab). Note: one thing to be aware of is that if the problem you are reporting relates to sexual harrassment/assualt and happened within the MSU community, I may be legally mandated to report that it happened to the Office of Inclusion and Equity.

Of course, this isn’t a great solution if I am the one acting in a way that makes you uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the hierarchical structure of academia can make holding your professor accountable really hard. I personally find this terrifying, because I really want to know if I screw up so that I can improve. Obviously I always do my best to get this stuff right, but I know that the odds that I will always handle every interaction within the lab perfectly for my entire career are near 0%.

With that in mind, the two options I can think of for what to do if I act in a not great way are (I welcome suggestions to add to this list):

  • Ideally, tell me. Please know that I will be really grateful that you felt comfortable doing so. If I, for some reason, do not react well, feel free to refer me back to this document.

  • If you don’t feel comfortable reporting to it to me (which is completely understandable), you’ve got a few options. If it is serious, consider talking to Katy Colbry, the University Ombudsperson, or the department chair about it. For more minor concerns, you could ask another lab member to raise the concern with me on your behalf (keeping you anonymous, if possible).


This Code of Conduct was adapted from the BEACON Congress Code of Conduct, the Evolution Conference Code of Conduct, the Software Carpentry Code of Conduct, and the CLEAR Lab manual


  1. CLEAR. (2021). CLEAR Lab Book: A living manual of our values, guidelines, and protocols, V.03. St. John’s, NL: Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador.
  2. Mingus, M. (2019). How To Give A Genuine Apology Part 2: The Apology – The What and The How. In Leaving Evidence.