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Case Three: Power Struggles in the Lab

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RCR Casebook: Mentor and Trainee Relationships

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Dr. Ho’s lab is like a little United Nations. The scientists working there are from all over the world where everyone speaks English but mostly as a second language. They bring multiple cultures and perspectives, and, while interesting, the results of all of this cultural diversity are not always easy for Dr. Ho’s lab manager, Nick.

Nick’s current challenge is a scientist named Mohamed who works in Dr. Ho’s lab as a research technician. Mohamed is eager to move up in the scientific world, or at least in Dr. Ho’s lab, but he feels he is doing all the work for Dr. Ho and getting no credit. He is burning with resentment and is already working on moving to a better research position somewhere else.  

Multidisciplinary research is a form of collaborative research that involves researchers working across disciplines, within an institution or in different institutions. Interactions among collaborators require various modes of communication to ensure that expectations and goals are met.

-Steneck NH, 2007

Dr. Ho has no interest in patting people on the back or rewarding them for work they should be doing anyway. He makes it clear that he is in charge and that those below work for him, not with him. When Dr. Ho describes the experiments he wants done, he gives a clear description of what the results are likely to be and why he has advanced that hypothesis. He doesn’t expect anything less than success, and Mohamed isn’t sure how to please him.

Nick, the lab manager, tells Mohamed that it’s in his best interests to do whatever Dr. Ho asks. Mohamed interprets this to mean something else entirely. It seems to him that, in order to prove his boss’s intuition correct, he must make the data conform to what he thinks Dr. Ho wants to appear.

When Nick and Dr. Ho realize that Mohammed is reporting questionable positive results, they condemn Mohamed for falsifying data. Mohamed is outraged at their insinuation that he is committing fraud, and he soon leaves the organization in a huff for his new job, muttering a few threats to anyone who will listen.  

At first, Nick feels justice has been done, so he simply destroys the paperwork that partially documented what had happened. But then Nick gets a call from someone at another university wanting a reference for Mohamed. Nick is asked if he would employ Mohamed again. Nick is unsure what to say.


How should Nick respond? 

Discussion Questions for the Facilitator

  • How might communication styles have contributed to this lab’s conflict?
  • What responsibilities do principal investigators and coordinators have regarding job placement of individuals who trained in the lab?
  • What might be some of the things that could happen if Nick simply told the caller what had happened as he had perceived those events?
  • How should he go about learning what he should report to the caller under these circumstances? Do you think his institution has a policy on providing job references for trainees?
  • Was it a mistake when Nick threw out the paper trail that showed what had happened?
  • How much of Mohammed’s problematic behavior was due to Dr. Ho’s own statements and demands? Is it plausible that Mohammed really thought Dr. Ho and Nick wanted him to fabricate data?
  • To what extent is mentoring a responsibility of the principal investigator versus others within a lab? Can a PI delegate mentoring responsibilities?
  • What is the distinction between being a mentor and an advisor?
  • How often do you think just one person is to blame for questionable research practices or research misconduct that occur in a lab? *