Labeling For Life – Get a Good Self-Tracking Labeling System

When you work in a laboratory, preparing samples sets for many different experiments is a large part of the job. Keeping track of your samples can be tedious or even challenging if you don’t already have a good system in place. However, getting this right is a critical part of the experimental process.

In this article, I would like to share some great tips I have gathered to help keep track of samples without having to write every little detail that can fit onto a small micro-centrifuge tube!


Notebook keeping is just as important as producing the experimental samples. Information regarding sample preparation, experimental procedures and results needs to be documented in great detail. Each notebook will be unique, but here are the 3 basic, but extremely important tips that you should adhere to for every notebook:

  • The first thing you should do is write your full name on the notebook. Label the notebook as #1 if it is indeed your first notebook, along with the lab you are working in, and the university name.
  • In order to help you find certain information pertaining to specific experiments later, leave the first few pages of the notebook blank for a table of contents.
  • Make sure to date each entry and provide a header/experimental name. For example: When I do a cell viability assay using various concentrations of a drug, my notebook entry is labeled with the date and header as follows: “6/14/2017 Cell Viability Assay”.

Sample Tracking

For a quick way to reference and limit the amount of writing I have on my sample tubes, I always label my experimental samples based on these 3 particulars:

  • My initials
  • Book #
  • Sample Number (depends on number of samples in each experiment)

The corresponding samples for my “Cell Viability” experiment would thus be labeled “CK1_5_1”. This indicates that I am working in book 1, starting from page 5, and referring to sample #1.

Electronic Note Keeping

I also have an electronic notebook where experimental results are collected if generated on a computer. The way this works is:

  • Experimental results are organized into subfolders in a main folder titled ‘experimental,’. The subfolders are named ‘cell viability’, ‘Bradford assay’, ‘Western blots’, and so on.
  • The file where the raw data is contained is labeled with the date and title of the experiment, and additional samples numbers so that I can reference my notebook quickly for the details e.g., “06142017 Cell Viability CK1_5_1-5”.
  • Lastly, it is important to always keep an exact copy of the raw data as it was generated. Therefore I tend to leave tab 1 in my excel spreadsheets for the raw data and use other tabs to work on any graphs I generate or to normalize data. This ensures that I don’t accidentally alter the raw data.

I have found that this labeling system provides a great and easy way to quickly document experiments and store samples so that they may be referenced later with ease, similar to industry where lot numbers are used to keep track of items. In addition, this labeling mechanism helps prevent bias or guesswork, because you are always able to track your sample back to the notebook number containing the most important details. You will never have to write a date or conditions of your experiment on your micro-centrifuge tubes again!

I hope that my tips will help you to organize yourself for future experiments. I would also love to hear any additional labeling tips and tricks you might have. Please get in touch and share your tips with us!

Image credit: Lenore Edman


  1. Amit on September 9, 2017 at 1:03 pm

    Along with sample labels, putting date is always helpful in tracking the sample. I suggest writing the page number as well, on the sample tube. To me, it helps a lot in finding the particulars and every detail of the experiment regarding that sample.

  2. MB on September 5, 2017 at 4:20 pm

    Have to leave a remark, but I would VERY strongly encourage to use all your date labeling as: YYYY/MM/DD. Regardless of where you will work in the future, it will prevent confusion between Europeans and Americans.
    This also means that all your electronic files will always be automatically organized by date when filing on document name, regardless of when they were originally created or modified.

    On the Notebook side of things I would also heavily recommend numbering your experiments, although this doesn’t differ so much from the notebook page number. You are likely to run multiple (similar) experiments on a same day, so a unique identifier is very helpful (besides the notebook entry), also on your samples! I personally would recommend labeling according to project/type of experiment. For instance C001 for your first cloning, or E001 for expression etc etc.

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