10 Tips for Working at the Bench in Developing Countries

Working in a lab in a developing country can be a unique and exciting opportunity for any scientist. It can be very rewarding, but also challenging as you navigate foreign settings to conduct your research.

Here are ten tips for working at the bench in developing countries.

1.  Expect cultural differences

Everyone approaches science differently and these differences are highlighted when conducting research in a developing country. Every culture has different methods of data collection, keeping a lab notebook, and amounts of red tape needed to get things done in the lab. Keep an open mind and practice active diplomacy.

2.  Know your equipment

What if a key piece of equipment breaks down? Your lab may be isolated and technical support nowhere to be seen. It helps to know the basics of how your equipment works: what does the machine do, how does it do it, what parts can break, etc. When something goes wrong, sometimes a simple tweak will make everything better.

If something happens to break completely, other lab equipment may serve multiple purposes never thought of before, like using a transilluminator to check for fluorescent Pseudomonads.

3.  Plan ahead

Say the internet is down and you desperately need a protocol for a DNA extraction. It helps to know ahead of time what happens at each step of your protocol and what each reagent can do. Knowing the science behind your protocols helps if a key reagent runs out, mysteriously disappears or is destroyed when the power goes out for a few days (along with refrigeration).

If you plan ahead, you’ll know what you need and when you can make substitutions, because you likely won’t have access to next day shipping! Waiting long periods for the arrival of needed, quality supplies is the norm rather than the exception in developing countries, so plan ahead for what you need.

4.  Be creative

If something goes wrong, it’s usually possible to remedy the situation with a few simple supplies and some elbow grease.   For example, vortex adaptors can be fixed with a 50 mL centrifuge tube and a paper towel or duct tape and cardboard. Brushing up on old episodes of MacGyver is highly recommended.

5.  Be flexible

Sometimes power and water are not the most reliable resources in developing countries, so it’s best to be flexible in terms of research plans. Try to create research plans that are flexible to accommodate unexpected events. If the autoclave is up and running, make full use of it and make all the media and sterile water you will need for the next month, because you never know when it will shut down for weeks on end.

6.  People are the most important resource

Get to know your labmates, professors and collaborators very well, because they know the ins and outs of the lab, the institution and the local culture. Learn from their experiences and seek their advice should problems arise. In many cultures, the best way to get things done is to ‘know a guy who knows a guy’; you’ll be surprised at how many of your collaborators have friends and family who can help you solve a problem.

7.  Get creative with consumables

There are many consumables and lab doodads that make research easier. However, these supplies are expensive and in short supply in many labs in developing countries. Often, with a little extra effort, supplies can be cleaned and reused. Sometimes, other lab supplies can be repurposed to meet the needs of the missing supplies, such as using a microscope slide as a cell scraper. You can make a loop out of a paperclip, and a makeshift hood out of a box; tools don’t need to look pretty to get the job done!

8.  Expect a few roadblocks

There will likely be problems that arise that you cannot fix with creativity and a gung-ho attitude. There may be unforeseen circumstances that affect the best laid plans, so, being flexible and creative can lead to plausible workarounds. If your entire experiment hinges on one piece of equipment or one field site, you’re dead in the water if something goes wrong. Plan for the worst-case scenario, and you’ll always be pleasantly surprised when things go right!

9.  It’s always an adventure

There are new and exciting experiences to embrace by doing research in exotic locales that can make labwork back home seem quite mundane. Combating altitude sickness while doing DNA extractions, lizards in the lab, and entering data to a chorus of bleating goats are just a few examples of unique, exciting experiences you could encounter (although it won’t seem so exciting when the hundredth fly lands on your culture plates…).

10.  Have fun!

Research, combined with being away from home and adapting to a different culture, can be tough, but, above all, the experience abroad should be fun. Take time to explore the world outside the lab and immerse yourself in the local culture. You will learn a lot and have fun in the process.

Remember: sometimes climbing a baobab tree to ‘collect samples’ is a totally legitimate part of doing science abroad.

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