A man is a wolf to another man, said the Romans and later Hobbes. Maybe they didn’t study Canis lupus as carefully as they should have, says Naturejobs journalism competition winner Sofia Otero.
In an article last year from The New York Times, Rick McIntyre, a biological technician at the Yellowstone Wolf Project, explains that wolves are civil to each other — the alpha male is confident, self-assured, non-aggressive to the pack. He’s a champion with nothing to prove; a leader with a calming effect.
Every lab is a pack of wolves, with a hierarchy determined by your position and the time you’ve belonged in the group. I think we can all learn something from them.
The alpha wolf is tough at the right moment: he fights to protect the territory and the group. In the lab, a good principle investigator (PI) is the alpha male (or female — here the wolves could learn something from us) who defends the research: the scientific territory.
Luckily, humans don’t solve our conflicts with bites and scratches (often), but you have to play smart and fair when there are competing interests with other groups. I only have glimpses of how this is done, but I think as important as defending your work and future research plans is, establishing collaborations and alliances is even more so. Juggling these balls must be a matter of wit and practice.
Even if fierce with strangers, the alpha wolf is generous with other members of the family. A PI who cares about their fellows and helps them achieve their goals will be appreciated as a reliable leader. In addition to this, if a PI is generous and promotes the interests of team members first, respect is guaranteed. Indeed the alpha wolf is ambitious but not greedy: they’ve already got it all.
But the pack is formed by many members; postdocs, Ph.D. students, technicians and others who all work to push the research forward. As postdocs, we might become alpha members one day or we may not, but if we’re given the trust and space to lead our own group within the pack then we can learn how to get started.
Getting the best out of each student is not always an easy task, but with a mix of psychology and goodwill you can establish a relationship of mutual benefit: you get help and they get experience. Undergraduates still need to discover what they want to do next and teaching them is an important cog in the academic machine.
Students are not only learning science, but also how to interact in the working space — a whole world of new relationships with people of different ages and personalities, completely out of the usual comfort zone. The experience is about growing as a scientist, but also about developing confidence and maturity. Be patient, and give your students the time to learn on their own.
Students will usually be thankful if you help them and in the end, if you become a good team, your research will go faster, the world might get a new scientist, and you’ll get good practice on what leading really means.
Is leadership a male characteristic? Even wolves know this is not the case. According to Rick, there are two hierarchies. The alpha female in each pack rules female wolves and takes strategic decisions for the whole group, like where to go or when to hunt.
In the end, research is a collaborative effort where each member of the group can contribute. Even if behaving “alpha” is not always a simple task, wolves lead by example. If you want alpha attitudes around, start with yourself: remember your inner wolf!
Sofia Otero is a postdoc at The Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University, where she studies phloem development in Arabidopsis. She has sown and harvested hundreds of plants. She likes travelling, trying new restaurants, hiking, reading, writing, chocolate and talking.