Here’s a few things to take into consideration when starting up a new lab. Starting anything new is understandably overwhelming, but let’s break it down and go through the main points of designing your own laboratory.

Purpose of Your New Lab

The purpose and function of your proposed lab sets the course for the tasks involved in setting up a brand new lab. If used for teaching purposes, include a whiteboard, a projector, open top benches with space for note taking and some storage space for miscellaneous stuff like bags and books that shouldn’t be left on the bench. Also remember sinks for washing up.

If you’re setting up a research lab, then it depends on the field you’re in. For example, if you need a cell culture lab, include sanitized areas, autoclaves, freezers and incubators.  Alternatively, if you are setting up an analytical lab, include air-conditioning and controllable humidity.

Equipment

Your next step is to start procuring equipment. But before you start ordering in all those machines, be sure to check out the core facilities and equipment already available in your research institute. If you don’t check, then you might end up buying duplicates. Another great way to save some cash is to check out second hand equipment. Also, remember there are various options available besides buying, such as leasing or renting. Another lifesaver comes in the much appreciated form of discounts and sales specifically targeted at a new lab.

Layout

Once you’ve got the equipment list done, you need to design the layout of the lab. How you design the lab will affect you for the rest of your career, so avoid rushing (unless you’re on a deadline). Stay calm and think of the best way to optimize workflow.

Separate the lab layout into different zones with varying degrees and types of hazards, and plan around those zones accordingly. Areas predicted to have “heavy human traffic” should not also be the “extremely hazardous zone of peril.” Create different areas for general population and lab staff so they won’t have to bump into each other. Place commonly used large equipment in strategic locations; they should be away from heavy traffic areas but easily accessible. Ensure that lab entry is restricted to unauthorized personnel to prevent any mishaps. Another good safety measure: make sure there is more than one exit from the lab in case of emergencies. You wouldn’t want everyone rushing out the same door in the unlikely event that a fire breaks out.

Lab Safety

No matter how many times you’ve heard it, I’m about to remind you: Lab Safety is important. When you’re setting up your own lab, you are in charge of lab safety so you’re going to have to lay down the law to preserve the lives of your team.

Don’t forget to ensure there is a compulsory safety training program or workshop in place for your lab personnel that introduces them to the possible hazards of the lab as well as protocols and proper safety procedures. Make sure your lab is equipped with safety equipment. Some of the emergency items you’ll need in the lab include: fire extinguishers, fire blankets, emergency showers (with an easy to reach handle), and (don’t forget to stock up on those) gloves.

Paperwork

There’s bound to be a mountain of paperwork, from conducting HIRA (Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment) to protocols, when starting a new lab. It’s better to consult a senior PI or mentor in your field who has gone through setting up their own lab to find out how to get things moving in your lab. But if you don’t have any reliable primary sources, you can make your own list of paperwork to get done through identifying clearly the purpose of starting your new lab. For example, if your research project involves conducting tests on animals, you’ll have to submit your research proposal for approval to the appropriate regulatory bodies in your region. However, if your institution/facilities isn’t licensed for animal studies, then you’ll need to either obtain a license or certification for animal testing.

You’ll also have to fill out paperwork based on the type of reagents used in your experiments, especially if they fall under a certain category (e.g., use of infectious agents, human gene transfer or the use of biological toxins).

Biosafety

So, what exactly is biosafety? It can be defined as safety measures taken when handling biological organisms/materials that are known to pose a threat to human health. One of the main safety measures taken is to ensure that if in the case of an emergency, the organism/material is contained to reduce the number of exposures. There are two types of containment: primary barriers and secondary barriers. Primary barriers focus on the protection of personnel and the immediate laboratory environment through good laboratory practices and techniques and use of appropriate safety equipment, such as PPE and BSC. The secondary barrier focuses on the protection of the people and environment external to the immediate laboratory environment through well thought out laboratory design and other control measures.

The main question is: which type is more appropriate for your new lab? Well, obviously, it depends on the type of agents you use for your experiments. For example, if the agent in question is classified under “not known to consistently cause disease in healthy adults,” then it would fall under Biosafety Level (BSL) 1, where nothing but an open top bench sink is required. In contrast, if you are working on a really dangerous pathogen that falls under the category of “dangerous agents that pose high risk of life-threatening disease or dangerous airborne infections,” then you would need a tightly regulated isolated zone or even a separate building to conduct your research in a full-bodied, air-supplied, positive-pressure personnel suit as per requirement for BSL 4 research.

Now that you’ve got the gist of things, go forth and spread the joy of scientific discovery. Be it through community labs or embarking on a new phase in your scientific career. It will definitely be a once in a lifetime experience and I wish you all the best.