A tale of two labs
Film Guide

A Tale of Two Labs is a full-length feature film developed for the Labs That Work… for Everyone leadership program. 

This is a joint project between the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at the University of Illinois Coordinated Science Laboratory in the Grainger College of Engineering. Its aim is to provide leadership development for both lab members and lab leaders, tailored for research environments. 

Below, you will find videos for both the program trailer and the feature film. In addition, we have provided discussion questions to stimulate conversation about the issues addressed in the film.
If you have issues accessing the videos, please reach out to the Site Administrator.

Labs that Work for Everyone Program Trailer

A Tale of Two Labs

Featured Tools and Content

Cultures of Excellence



Decision-Making Framework Handout

The last step of the decision-making framework (DMF) asks you to articulate specifically what you will say after you make a decision and are starting to act on it. Finding the words is an important step. It is not enough to know what you want to do after you have assessed the situation and your options; you must also know how to implement your decision. Preparing personal scripts can help with communicating effectively.

Would you have been prepared to react in the moment when Jayna explained to Ana Sofia that she was too busy to bring her up to speed on the project? (Would you have had a preemptive personal script?) What about the way Ana Sofia responded to Alex instead of just being uncomfortable with his inappropriate, offensive remark? (Would you have had an appropriate reactive personal script?)

There will be times that you need to have a challenging conversation with your lab leader. You may need to ask for help, change research topics, request more guidance, or even change trajectories. Having a set of preemptive personal scripts can help you navigate these challenging conversations.

TRAGEDIES is an acronym encompassing Temptation,  Rationalization,  Ambition, Group & authority pressure, Entitlement, Deception, Incrementalism, Embarrassment, and Stupid systems—the pitfalls that can damage career and reputation.

Reflect on TRAGEDIES that you may have encountered over your career: Have you ever felt embarrassed by your lack of knowledge about something? How did you overcome that feeling? Have you ever tried to hide or minimize your actions or choices to avoid embarrassment? Individual TRAGEDIES are not necessarily all bad or career-ending–they can be powerful learning moments. It’s when they form a pattern of behavior or lead to normalizing deviance that they can affect your career choices. Having a framework to build your self awareness can help you stop TRAGEDIES before they grow into major problems.

Discussion Prompts for the Film

Big Picture

  • What resonated the most with you and your experiences? Are there things that remind you of your own lab (past or present)?
  • What actions do characters take that have positive impacts? How can you apply those lessons to your own environment?
  • What approaches are less effective or directly harmful? Do you recognize any of those tendencies within yourself? How can you and those around you improve?
  • What are the sources of dysfunction in both of the labs?
  • What are things that both labs do well?


  • Why did you decide to become a scientist? What drives you in your work?
  • Select five values that you identify with the most in guiding your life and career. Share your choices with your colleagues/peers. Are there any that surprise you?
  • How do your values affect your interactions with colleagues? Do your choices match your values? When you face a major career shift like Jules Sorenson, have you thought through how to stay true to your values when demands on your time will force you to prioritize?
  • There are various conflicts taking place throughout the film. How do they reflect conflict among strongly held values (either within one person or between individuals)?

Personal Scripts

  • Related to Meena at the poster session, think of a situation you have faced in which you didn’t know what to say, wished you had said something different, or perhaps even said nothing at all. What might have helped in that situation? With the benefit of hindsight, what would have been the right thing to say?
  • Consider an instance where you are collaborating with another lab or with a colleague and you feel the expectations are not clear or have not been met. What can you do to re-set the collaboration and constructively move the project forward?

Intent vs. Effect

  • Consider Malcolm Heideberg’s repeated statements to Meena about “his Indian students” always being reliable and exceptional. How does that make Meena feel? Do you think that Heideberg is aware that these statements may not be seen as a compliment?
  • During a meeting with Jayna, Jules Sorenson equates her own experiences with sexism with what Jayna is experiencing, saying “I’ve been there.” Do you think Jayna felt supported by Sorenson’s statements? Would you, in her place?
  • Bias can come from preferring those things that are most familiar to us or preferring people who are most like us,  though — however inadvertently and without intent to do harm — such biases can deny full inclusion, equal access and equal opportunity.  How can we manage the tension between intention and impact?

Power and Bias

  • What expressions of power do you experience in your current situation (i.e., in your lab)?  Is power used in healthy ways?
  • Have you ever questioned your use of power in a lab context? Has power ever been exerted over you in a way that felt wrong? If so, why?
  • How might you use power effectively–and with integrity– as you work towards your career goals?
  • Reflect on Jayna’s mailroom experience. What is going on when Jayna’s presence is questioned by  others in a department she’s been in for several years? What biases are evident?
  • If you are called out on a potentially biased action or statement, how might you respond?
  • If someone is being overtly biased, what might you say to navigate the situation?

Lab Culture

  • Scientific culture has been described as the “culture of no culture” (objective, rational, without context, “without loose ends, without temperament, gender, nationalism”) [1],[2]. What are some of the most compelling repudiations of this that you’ve seen in the film? How about in your own experience?
    [1] Traweek, Sharon. 1988. Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Harvard University Press, Cambridge,  MA [2] Subramaniam, B., & Wyer, M. (1998). Assimilating the “Culture of No Culture” in Science: Feminist Interventions in (De)Mentoring Graduate Women. Feminist Teacher, 12(1), 12–28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40545803
  • How might the idea of science as a meritocracy undermine both the assessment and rewarding of performance?
  • Think about Meena and Harold’s responses to not being able to make the compound. Can you identify any good or promising strategies for seeking help? Can you identify any strategies that could have been effective had they occurred in a different environment?
  • Mistakes aren’t handled well in Heideberg’s lab. In an ideal lab, how would mistakes be handled so lab members can learn and grow from the situation?

Psychological Safety and Mental Health

  • It seems clear there is no sense of psychological safety in the Heideberg lab. Thinking about the places where you feel like you belong and feel accepted and valued, what are elements in that environment that are missing from the Heideberg lab? How are those missing elements part of a lab culture?
  • One thing that is certain in science is that there will be mistakes in the work we’re doing. How can a lab leader set the tone for using those mistakes as a learning opportunity?
  • How can the kind of feedback you get about a mistake inhibit or encourage true learning?
  • How can a lab head reasonably balance the expectation of good science (accurate results) with compassion for/acceptance of human fallibility?
  • What can a lab group reasonably do to respond to instances like what happened with Harold?

Proactive vs. Reactive

  • Being proactive means taking what steps you can to address problems before they arise, rather than reacting only after a stressful situation has formed. While much of a lab’s climate is defined from the top down, lab members in every role participate in shaping the lab’s culture. Are you generally more proactive or reactive at work?
  • What are some proactive practices that you would like to see implemented in your lab? Topics in the film where proactive practices can help include data management guidelines, electronic notebooks and policies, mentoring compacts, protocols, and mentoring plans. Would any of those be helpful in your lab?

Owning Your Career

  • In thinking about Alex’s struggles to find a direction, how does one develop scientific independence? How does it change through the course of 1) a graduate program, and 2) a post-doc career?
  • Think about Alex’s storyline. How do you navigate the tension between learning to become an independent researcher versus being part of someone else’s lab? Does it change depending on your career stage and level of expertise?
  • In any one of your mentoring relationships, is the mentoring that you get from your PI responsive to your needs and current development? If not, what can you do to express your needs in a way to get them better addressed?

Interested in Labs That Work?

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