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The Tale of Two Lab Management Strategies

The Tale of Two Lab Management Strategies

According to the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, experimental science relies more on  scientists’ emulation of each other as apposed to theoretical knowledge; e.g. it’s more like craft, which is transferred from person to person through teaching and observing, rather than anything else. Chosen by a group leader, a lab-management strategy is self-sustaining, so I hope after reading this article and starting your own lab you’ll chose the best one. When it comes to solution preparation and lab organisation, there are two main strategies on the opposite ends of the spectrum.

Seagull strategy of lab management

Seagulls live in colonies but they don’t cooperate in finding food; on the contrary they often steal it from each other. Applying the seagull strategy (SGS) to the lab, each person develops their own SGS so that, at least in theory, everyone’s work speed depends on their individual organisation skills – if you don’t think in advance, the experiments are being done very slowly. On the other hand, the seagull strategy (SGS) policy of lab management leads to a lot of money and time wastage. For example, people buy the same enzymes and reagents repeatedly using one microliter of reagent while the rest degrades in the freezer for a year or more such that they are less active when next needed. If you make too little reagent it runs out quickly, too much and the buffer made a year ago can precipitate, etc. Therefore the SGS of lab management creates an environment where everybody spends time making the same reagents. And the strategy does not prevent the lab bastard from sneakily using your stuff, unless you change the label (or use other know how).

Commons strategy of lab management

This is the opposite of the seagull – there are communal stocks and reagents. Stock solutions can be prepared in large volumes, saving time for individuals; the reagents are used quickly (if not, there is no point in making a lot of stock!). Plus everybody uses the same stuff, increasing reproducibility of the experiments. I don’t know whether to count incorrect stock made from time to time as an advantage or a disadvantage of this strategy: in the Commons strategy of lab management a lot of experiments can go wrong at the same time, but the cause is established very quickly, while you may use your incorrect solution for some time under the seagull strategy wondering what change in the stars is causing this misfortune.

The disadvantages of the Commons strategy stem from no less than the imperfection of the human nature. The Commons strategy sometimes results in the tragedy of the commons, when lab colleagues drain the resource and do nothing to replace it, relying on somebody else to do it. However, this can be prevented by establishing a rota and applying peer pressure on colleagues who don’t pull their weight.

Even if you are unlucky to find yourself among the seagulls, you can try to establish a sharing and caring Commons strategy – sometimes just making a communal stock and telling your lab mates what it is will prompt them to join you and maintain it, especially when newer members join the lab having not being immersed in tradition. If your attempt to live like a human, not a bird, fails, you can always return to the SGS.

Which strategy do you prefer and why?


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