No matter if it's across town or across a country, moving a lab is a daunting prospect. There are people to organize, equipment and reagents to sort through, and grants and other paperwork to fill out.
"It's definitely an experience — not something that should be taken lightly," says Jonathan Sebat, who recently moved his group from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York to the University of California, San Diego.
However, the process does not have to be overly difficult. Michael Snyder, who recently relocated his lab cross-country from Yale to Stanford, says that the process went "quite well" for his team. Sebat, too, says his move went well.
It's about being organized: knowing who in the lab is coming along, what equipment needs to be moved, and setting back up in a new environment.
Not everyone in the lab is always able to pull up stakes and move, especially if that move is 3,000 miles. Both Sebat and Snyder say that some lab members had to stay behind. "It's inevitable that some members have personal or professional ties with a place like New York, for example," Sebat says, and that they could "not come to San Diego."
They both had support from CSHL and Yale, respectively, to keep a lab roof over their graduate students' and postdocs' heads so they could finish their projects. "My former department was extremely accommodating," Snyder says.
Sebat was the first member of his lab to move — something he does not advise for other PIs. For personal reasons, he'd set a firm moving date for himself, and his lab followed shortly thereafter. For others, he suggests that a few lab members — including the lab manager in particular — move about a month beforehand. That way, there are people in the new place who can accept packages, help with all the administrative paperwork, and begin to set things up as the rest of the lab follows.
To ease the administrative burden of moving, Snyder recommends hiring a few people at the new institution who are already familiar with the ins and outs of the new bureaucratic and regulatory systems.
Around two-thirds of Snyder's lab members — and their projects — did make the move to California with him. He says that many of them waited and tried to wrap up some of what they were working on before heading out.
In addition, funds have to be moved, and those that are left behind have to be taken care of. Sebat says that moving NIH grants wasn't difficult, as the agency deals with PIs moving all the time. "NIH is quite accommodating," he says, though he advises getting in touch with your program officer as early as possible. With NIH funding, it is a bit trickier to leave funding behind for those lab members who can't move with the lab. For that, Sebat relied on institutional and philanthropic support that he had previously acquired.
At the same time, of course, everyone is also trying to move their houses, spouses, and children. It'd be a whole lot easier, Sebat says, if you could just box people up and ship them like equipment.
Compared to moving people, moving equipment is easy. It's similar, Sebat says, to moving the contents of a house.
First, it is important to determine which pieces will be making the trek. To do that, Sebat went through his lab to figure out how each piece of equipment was purchased — whether it was his to take or belonged to the institution — and considered the resources available at his new place. Knowing these things, he could better negotiate his startup package to include funds for equipment he'd need to buy. He also decided not to bring or buy some pieces of equipment because they were available at a UCSD core facility, he adds.
Hiring experienced movers is also helpful, Snyder says. When he moved his lab, he used a company that others at Yale had relied on previously. He says he wound up with a team he'd recommend. "They just knew what to do," he says. The movers decommissioned and packed up his equipment in New Haven and then unloaded it in Palo Alto. Snyder says that his research team was also motivated to help with all the steps, and that the same company moved some of the lab members' houses as well.
"It's not cheap," Sebat notes, adding that relocation funds are critical — otherwise you may end up moving everything yourself.
Back to work
Once all the boxes have been opened and the equipment recalibrated, the lab can be up and running soon. It takes time, though just how long can vary. Snyder says that some people in his lab got going very quickly, while others took longer. Sebat says that he allowed his lab time to get humming again. "Definitely plan for a full 12 months of rebuilding," he advises. "That's at a minimum."
Doing so ensures that the newly moved lab will be better than ever. "It does disrupt some projects, but it does create new opportunities as well," Snyder says, adding that his lab has added a number of new collaborations. "It's definitely been a stimulus; [it] stimulated our work in a new direction."