After studying really hard, getting a good B.Sc., flying high in your Ph.D. and as a postdoc, you have finally amassed enough research experience and scientific research publications to apply for Principal Investigator (PI) positions. You succeed in winning, against massive competition, a prestigious Fellowship or other grant to start a research group in a great department and so can now start to forge your own independent research career as a PI! Fantastic! As I explain in my summary of Academic research careers this is in some ways, just the beginning!
Once your group grows beyond yourself, there is one important question. What do you call the Group?
There is a long tradition, at least in places I have worked, to call the group after the person who forms it. Some would argue this is egotistical and somehow gives the impression that all the work is done by the PI and that the group members are just a supporting act. I think it is very rare for this to be true though – science is a team effort and in my experience, most PIs do a lot to acknowledge and and support their team. In fact, the “Group called after the PI” tradition reflects the realities of how research groups are created and funded in Universities and many research institutes. They are built around a PI. If the Group is to succeed, the PI, with the support of colleagues in their group has to win grants, support and train research students and postdocs and steer the Group to publish scientific papers and other outputs that advance the field. If the PI decides to leave their job or retires, then typically the group dissolves.
Some argue that it is better to call the group after the research theme that the PI works in. Some do this and that is fine. Unfortunately, PIs often shift the direction of their research, so a group that is called one thing when the group is first created, may become unconnected with what the group actually does a few years later. I suppose you could change the group name if that happens, but that is a chore, particularly if the name is used on the Web and Social Media such as twitter.
That’s the generalities, what about me?
I first established an independent research group in the Laboratory of Molecular Biophysics, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford in 1989. The Laboratory head was (Sir) David Phillips to begin with and then Louise Johnson (later Dame Louise). The Laboratory had 8 or 10 research groups in it, each led by an individual PI and the groups were all referred to by the PIs name (e.g. Johnson Group, Stuart Group, Barford Group and so on…). Naturally, when I joined, my group was called the Barton Group by the Laboratory and the Department.
I can’t remember if I thought this was weird or egotistical or not. I do remember as a fresh PI, enjoying the fact that I was independent of what the other groups were doing and our Head of Laboratory (Louise Johnson for most of the time I was there). The group name also made clear that I was not someone else’s postdoc, though as is common with young PIs, I had to point this out to people a lot in my early career.
There is a slight computational twist to this. When I started as a PI I had just enough equipment funds to buy a Unix workstation (A Sun SPARCstation 1) to use for my research. I had to configure this and manage it myself. At one point in the slow installation of the operating system from tape, I had to provide a name for the computer. I was stumped, “Err, what do I call it?” Since this was the first time I had ever “owned” a computer, I decided for some reason to call it “geoff”. I thought, “I can change that later to something more sensible…”. However, I didn’t know how to change the name (it was harder to find out things like this without Google) and so the name stuck.
So, the network name for my computer was “uk.ac.ox.biop.geoff” which, when we went fully onto the internet became “geoff.biop.ox.ac.uk” . I was one of the first in the UK to establish a group web site in about 1993 I think, so naturally, it was called the Barton Group website and was hosted on www.geoff.biop.ox.ac.uk. Sigh… This was a real embarrassment but at least it did make clear whose group it was…
Roll the clock forward a bit to 1997. I went to work at the European Bioinformatics Institute near Cambridge, UK. In the early years of the EBI the tradition for the few research groups was to call them after the surname of the PI. So, my group site became “barton.ebi.ac.uk” alongside “sander.ebi.ac.uk” for Chris Sander’s group and others.
When I moved to the University of Dundee in 2001, I compromised by keeping the name of my group as Barton Group, but naming the website, “compbio.dundee.ac.uk”. This gave continuity and “Brand identity” since by this time we provided a number of bioinformatics resources to the world and it made them easier for people to find.
This is pretty much where we are today…. There is a problem though. The generic domain name “compbio.dundee.ac.uk” is just “Barton Group” but in 2013 we formed a Research Division of which I am one of six PIs, which after much discussion is also, confusingly called “Computational Biology” – it has its own simple webpages on lifesci.dundee.ac.uk.