Researcher, CEO, Mentor – The Role of a Principal Investigator, Explained


Are you passionate about research and business savvy, with solid leadership skills? If so, you might be interested in a position as a principal investigator.

Principal investigators lead research projects and are responsible for numerous areas outside of the lab including grant funding, budgeting and mentorship. To find out more details about this role, BioSpace interviewed Bradley Olson, Ph.D., who serves as a principal investigator and associate professor at Kansas State University. Olson provided insight into the diverse career path and role of a principal investigator. 

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your background before becoming a biochemist?

A: I have been interested in science and technology since I was young. I was the kid that was always taking apart things, building electronic gizmos, computers and programming and so forth. When I got into high school, I learned that chloroplasts and mitochondria had DNA in them suggesting their endosymbiotic origin and became enamored with the idea that we could sequence genomes, and use computational methods to determine the origin of life. From there, I started working in labs at the local university at a young age and loved everything about molecular biology and genomics.

From there, I decided that biochemistry was a good way to learn both molecular biology and biochemistry, so I trained in these programs as an undergrad and Ph.D. student. I also liked mathematics and programming algorithms, so I also got a minor in mathematics. The latter I really didn’t use much until I started doing data science and machine learning in my own independent research program as a principal investigator.

Q: What is a principal investigator?  Why did you decide to become one?

A: A principal investigator (PI) is the person who designs research themes and devises projects within those themes, writes grants to fund research, mentors students and trainees and makes sure that trainee career goals are being met, while ongoing research projects are progressing. It is a huge responsibility to be in charge of research, training and most importantly making sure that those who train under your mentorship realize their goals. Typically, a PI is a university professor or at a related academic type institution, but some companies also have PIs or scientists that function in a similar capacity as a PI.

I never really had the specific goal of being a PI, but I have always wanted to lead my own research ideas and themes and the best way to do this is in an academic environment, where you design your own research projects, get them funded and take them through publication.

Q: What do you think are the primary differences between a principal investigator and other scientific researchers?

A: Leading a lab as a PI requires a much different skillset than I was trained for as a Ph.D. student and post-doc. As I was training, you spend nearly all of your time learning to ask important scientific questions, develop an approach to address those questions and then do the science itself. Of course, you work with teams and build mentorship skills by mentoring junior colleagues, but a large amount of your time as a Ph.D. student and post-doc are spent “at the bench” doing science.

The big change in being a PI is that you are now in charge of a scientific team. You have to obtain funding to keep salaries paid and supplies coming in, you have to spend a large amount of your time mentoring your lab personnel to help them develop into amazing researchers themselves. On the academic side of being a PI, it is more like being a CEO at a small startup with the added responsibility of mentorship (in addition to university responsibilities).

Q: What are some of the top benefits of working as a principal investigator?

A: You get to run your own scientific show. As long as you can obtain funding, you are unbound from limits on what you can explore in terms of creating new knowledge, asking interesting questions and exploring. It never ceases to amaze me that I get to go to work every day and work on problems that I find interesting or important.

The biggest satisfaction of being a PI is seeing your trainees succeed. I still get butterflies in my stomach before my trainees present at scientific meetings, but there is no better feeling than seeing all the hard work they put into their project manifest into scientific success, whether at a conference, in publication and so forth. Watching your trainees grow and knowing how important of an influence you are on that growth is immensely satisfying.

Q: Have you noticed any new trends in the field?

A: The biggest trend is that funding for investigator-initiated research has been going down over the last 10 years or so. It is really making competition fierce for funding. There is a lot of amazing science that isn’t getting done simply because there is not enough funding to go around. It is really changing how I mentor students in their career goals. When I started as a Ph.D. student, there was a reasonable expectation that you could train as a Ph.D. student and post-doc, and if you did well, you could expect to have a funded research program at a university. More and more, this is becoming a very difficult path for trainees to follow. Thus, as trainees build their career, we are always cognizant of alternative career paths.

The second biggest trend is for research to have applied value. This does depend on the funding agency, but there is more awareness that basic scientific research must have an obvious applied value, especially in biomedical research. It is not always obvious as to how basic research can be applied in the future, but there are many examples of basic scientific research leading to novel applied technologies. The latest example is CRISPR, who would have known many years ago that the genome editing revolution would have been driven by a bacterial defense system?

Q: How competitive is it to become a principal investigator?   

A: Extremely competitive. Not only to become a PI, but to become tenured and stay funded is incredibly difficult and time-consuming.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring principal investigators?

A: Make sure that you learn how to mentor trainees early on. You may even benefit from courses in leadership, project management and scientific communication. These are skills that are very difficult to develop but must be quickly developed when you start as a PI. Learning these skills early will immensely improve your chances of success as a PI.

Back to news