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Johanna Joyce and her lab members during the flashlight part of their group meeting around a conference table.

Johanna Joyce and her lab members during the flashlight part of their group meeting.Credit: Spencer S. Watson

In the scientific world, where the focus is on data and results, it’s easy to overlook the human aspect — the team dynamics that are crucial for a thriving research environment. In my laboratory at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, we’ve been experimenting with a simple yet effective technique to enhance our group’s connectedness: the ‘flashlight’ method.

This straightforward method of passing a virtual torch, or flashlight, around the room during our weekly lab meetings has brought about a huge shift in how we all interact. Here’s how it works for us: I turn on the flashlight by randomly calling someone’s name, and when they have shared their thoughts, they name the next person at random, until everyone has had their turn. (It’s called a flashlight because the idea is to shine the spotlight on each person in a group.) The team member with the flashlight shares something from the past week, or the one to come — this could be a breakthrough in their project, a professional achievement, a challenging experiment they are planning, or even something from their personal life, such as a fun weekend hike.

In a recent meeting, for example, I shared about writing an article on strategies to increase diversity and equality in science, and how it was stimulating and, at times, challenging to work on something that is so different from our usual scientific papers.

Creating a safe space

Initially, my lab members and I were unsure how the flashlight method would pan out. Would it be too informal? Would it take time away from our scientific discussions? But, to our delight, the results have been wonderful.

The flashlight has opened up our meetings and the random nature of it keeps everyone engaged. It also encourages quieter lab members to speak up and share their crucial experiences and viewpoints. Each member in our group of up to 15 people gets around 30 to 60 seconds. This promotes sharing a message that is focused and succinct, and encourages us to be mindful about what we decide to share. The increased participation has led to a more comprehensive understanding of each other’s research and challenges, enhancing group cohesiveness as we all work towards our team’s goal — to understand the complexities of cancer.

When someone talks about a tough experiment or shares their excitement about a surprising result, it sparks discussion and uncovers fresh perspectives. And personal stories and aspirations help us to see each other as individuals with diverse interests and lives outside the lab. This fosters a more connected and empathetic team.

Of course, to implement the flashlight method effectively requires some facilitation. We must be mindful about how we conduct our meetings, ensuring that everyone has their turn, and to listen actively — so that we are all engaged, respectful and supportive. This investment has paid off tremendously in creating a more inclusive and engaging lab culture.

I’ve found that, sometimes, the simplest methods can bring about the most effective changes. The flashlight method might seem a small addition to the meeting agenda but, for us, it has been transformative. It’s about more than just sharing updates; it’s about creating a space where everyone feels valued and connected. And in the fast-paced, often high-pressure environment of scientific research, this sense of belonging and understanding can make all the difference.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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