The Physiologist
Hamilton Karyn L. Hamilton

Miller Benjamin F. Miller

Co-Principal Investigators And Co-Directors: Benefits of a Scientific Copilot

Karyn L. Hamilton and Benjamin F. Miller
Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado

"Life's better with company. Everybody needs a copilot."
From the movie Up in the Air, 2009

Ever since we combined our laboratories and began serving as scientific and academic "copilots," we have been entertaining questions and comments about our unique working arrangement. Although our relationship is somewhat unique, for us it was such a logical decision that we wonder, "Why don't more academic researchers run programs this way?" Indeed, others have used this strategy, and often to great success. For example, Drs. Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein merged their research programs in 1972 and produced countless important contributions to the area of cardiovascular physiology and discoveries that earned them the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1985 (Goldstein J, Brown M. Joseph Goldstein and Michael Brown: demoting egos, promoting success. Interview by Ruth Williams. Circ Res 106: 1006-1010, 2010). In fact, most refer to Brown and Goldstein as if they are a single entity rather than individuals. While we are in no way comparing our success to that of Brown and Goldstein, we do share their experiences and can identify with their "practicalities of partnership." Our intent with this article is to address some of the questions we frequently receive and, in the process, highlight the benefits of co-directing a research program. It is our hope that this information will be valuable for others who are considering a similar working arrangement and for those who evaluate individuals in a co-directed research program.

Q: Why did you combine your labs?
At first, combining our lab seemed practical. One of us had substantial expertise with in vivo human studies, and the other was proficient in methods and approaches employing tissue culture and animal models. Furthermore, we shared an interest in aging and chronic disease, and by combining our expertise we were able to take a translational approach to addressing our aims. However, sustaining the partnership requires more than just practicality. We believe that our collective productivity far exceeds the sum of our individual contributions. For example, if one of us has an idea, that idea can be turned over several times verbally between the two of us so that by the time it reaches paper, the idea has evolved to the point where it might be unrecognizable and therefore not attributed to an individual. That kind of process improves an idea substantially and is far more enjoyable and effective with a "copilot" than it was alone.

Q: How do you decide who is the principal investigator or senior author?
We view one another's intellectual contribution to be equal. As mentioned above, ideas that arise from discussions cannot be attributed to an individual. Therefore, all grants are written as co-principal investigators and published papers as co-senior authors—this happens as the default and without discussion. Inevitably, we are questioned about our experience with multiple PI plans in our grant proposals. Simply stated, we very clearly identify for the reviewers our roles, responsibilities, communication, and plan for conflict resolution should it be needed (it hasn't!), and we have not had any reviewer concerns. As we have progressed, it is likely that some peers understand our arrangement so that it is the lab being evaluated rather than our multiple PI plan.

Q: What about mentoring trainees?
Mentoring students and fellows is by far one of our favorite aspects of academic research. We co-mentor all of the trainees in our lab, and, importantly, we make this co-mentorship very clear before prospective trainees join the lab. We are very committed to holding at least weekly meetings with all students, during which time the students learn from both our individual and our collective strengths as well as our weaknesses. Furthermore, when one of us is occupied with other responsibilities, the students still have the copilot available to help guide them. We do not try to have the same mentoring style since there is little added benefit to the student from both of us being the same. Sometimes a student simultaneously requires a nudge from one mentor and a pat on the back from the other. Importantly, these are not in conflict and are both beneficial. Through others, we have heard the positive impact our co-mentorship has had on students, and we interpret the placement of our trainees in postdoctoral fellowships and subsequent career success as indicators that the dual mentorship model works well. Perhaps the greatest reflection of the success of our "copilot" approach to directing trainees is the decision of two former departmental trainees to co-direct a lab together. In this case, imitation was the best form of flattery.

Q: What do your administrators think?
A very important point to make is that support from administration at both the department and college levels has been critical to the success of our scientific copilot approach. Our department heads and deans have completely supported our approach, which is particularly important when working toward tenure and promotion. Recently in a promotion discussion, the comment arose that it was difficult to parse the individual contributions to collective success. Thankfully, our department head recognized that collective effort led to collective success and that there was no need for parsing. Our department also has a shared resource philosophy, which complements a codirected laboratory approach by fostering collaborative, multidisciplinary research both within the lab and with other labs. It benefits the department and college to have successful research programs because of the money and prestige that those labs bring. If having a co-PI approach increases the chance of success, why would the administration not want to support that effort? It is more of a benefit to have one successful program with two PIs than two unsuccessful programs with individual PIs.

Q: How do you identify the right person, and how do you make it work?
This question is probably the most difficult one to answer, and we can merely share our opinion on what qualities and characteristics have aided our scientific copilot. The partnership should be born from a shared set of research interests and different but complementary approaches to pursuing them. The complementarity extends beyond research approaches to those that bolster personal strengths while mitigating personal weaknesses. In Co-Principal Investigators And Co-Directors: Benefits of a Scientific Copilot that sense, it helps for personalities to be different but compatible with dedication to the "greater good" of the research program.

We believe that three attributes are critical for the success and longevity of a co-directed research program: selflessness, respect, and trust. Selflessness is demonstrated by elevating the research program and even the other copilot above oneself. To do so requires setting aside any personal ego, and we speculate that this contributes to the dearth of co-PI labs. Unfortunately, it is traditional that individual success, not laboratory success, is rewarded in science. To circumvent this issue, we simply have not put personal recognition as a goal. Instead, we are dedicated to the success of the lab. Second, we respect one another. Like any relationship, personal or professional, there has to be a mutual respect. Finally, we trust that we both entered into a partnership for a common goal. By having these qualities, it is known that even when you may not agree with the other person, you respect their decision and trust that it was made in the interest of both of you.

These thoughts are just what we have learned along the way. We hope that this perspective encourages others to try a similar approach. We have challenges too, but overcoming the challenges is always easier with a copilot.