I was lucky enough to do my PhD in an extremely friendly and well-organized lab. In my opinion, these two key traits are required for a successful research experience.
This environment, while appearing effortless, was due in part to the hard work of the senior postdoc who kept the lab, and all of us, in order.
One of the ways the postdoc kept the lab ticking over was by presenting each new starter with a guide to a happy Clarke lab: a list of basics to keep the lab running smoothly.
This guide was full of very simple but effective tips that I want to share with you so you can have a pleasant lab experience.
1. Order new reagents BEFORE the old ones are finished
This may sound simple, but the effect on a lab when key reagents run out can be dramatic, disrupting experiments and delaying work.
We would have a rule that when individual reagents were down to a specific number the person to take the next one would be responsible for ordering the next lot. For example, we did a disgustingly large amount of tissue culture and we went through a vast amount of cell media. To ensure a constant supply, we had a rule that the person to open the last box would order the next batch.
2. Tidy up after yourself
There is nothing more infuriating than time wasted cleaning before you start your experiment because the last person left a mess. It may seem like the least important task, but simply cleaning up once you are finished will help keep everyone in the lab happy.
3. Be respectful of lab stocks
Every lab has stocks of reagents that are expensive and used by everyone, such as antibodies and restriction enzymes. These are delicate reagents that require careful handling and should be stored correctly to ensure the quality isn’t compromised. If you use communal reagents, ensure you handle them properly – keep them on ice where necessary and return them to the proper storage conditions as quickly as possible.
4. Don’t hog the equipment
In an ideal world, labs would have a never-ending supply of lab equipment and space for everyone. Alas, this often isn’t the case, and in fact, there is often a shortage of equipment. It is very easy to have a self-centered attitude in the lab (after all, your experiments are most important to you) but a little bit of selflessness and understanding will go a long way.
If you’re planning on using a large amount of a kit or need to use a machine for an extended period, check with your lab mates before you get going. You’ll be surprised how accommodating people can be if you’re considerate of their work. Another successful way to circumvent this issue is to try and work almost in shifts. I was an early bird so I’d make sure to use equipment that was in high demand early on in the day leaving it free for others later on.
5. Respect people’s lab space
As I’ve said before, lab space is limited, and therefore people’s individual space is precious. If you are in a lab where everyone has their own designated space, please respect it.
I remember one day I came into the lab at a ridiculous time in the morning to get started on a long experiment. Unfortunately, I found that someone had used my bench the previous evening and left it a complete mess. I was so furious I couldn’t do anything but pace back and forth muttering under my breath until the culprit turned up. The result was I ended up starting my experiment much later than planned and had to stay extra late in the lab. Needless to say, I was less than enthusiastic to help the individual in question when he asked for it in the future.
6. Avoid using other peoples reagents
It’s happened to us all, you get halfway through your experiment only to realize you don’t have enough of reagent X or buffer Y to finish the experiment and you don’t have time to make more. Low and behold the person next to you on the bench has a full bottle – what harm would it do to just ‘borrow’ a few mls?
Well, there are several reasons why you should avoid dipping into someone else’s stash. Firstly, they may need it later in the day and while you think they have plenty, they may be planning to use the whole lot. Secondly, you don’t know the quality of their reagents. Perhaps they are more lax at weighing out powders or pHing their solutions. You’d be pretty angry if your experiment was messed up due to using someone else’s poor quality solutions, and if you took it without asking, you don’t even have a cause for complaint! Of course, if you know the person to have reliable solution-making skills this last point doesn’t hold as much weight – but if you do reach for someone else’s stock, make sure you ask permission first.
7. Be considerate with the radio
Many labs won’t allow the use of radios or MP3 players in the lab, but for those that do, the radio can quickly become a source of tension.
The best way to prevent any disagreements is to first check that everyone is happy to have it on. If not, consider using your MP3 player and headphones (although leave one headphone out so that people can still communicate with you).
If people are happy to have the radio on, make sure everyone is happy with the station choice.
And finally, no matter how tempted you are to belt along to your favorite song, don’t. You may think you are the next big pop singer but in all likelihood, this isn’t the case and no one needs to be subjected to that (I’m ashamed to say that this comes from personal experience of being caught singing and dancing in tissue culture –although to be fair I didn’t think anyone else was about!).
8. Don’t rely on others to do your work
Science is a lonely endeavor, normally with each person having their own defined project. This means that you, and you alone, are responsible for your work. Even if you are a first-year PhD student, you are still responsible. Therefore don’t try and get others to do your work. This includes keeping up with the literature and figuring out how to do new experiments.
I had a fantastic post-doc who had several folders full of protocols she had written up for various experiments. However she wouldn’t simply pass them onto new PhD students, instead, she would get us to write out our own first. Initially, I thought this was a little pedantic but I soon appreciated that this was ensuring we understood the protocol and were not simply blindly following someone else’s method.
9. Help out others if you can
This may seem counterintuitive to the point I made previously, but I assure you the two work well together. While you shouldn’t rely on other people doing your work, there are times that individuals can help each other out.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I was an early bird in the lab and would often add drugs to cells for other people so that they could do what they needed with them as soon as they arrived. In return, people would do the same for me, often adding drugs or even harvesting cells for me later in the evening. Such tasks often take very little time, however, they can make a huge difference to your co-workers’ day and help create a friendly environment.
10. Safety First
The level of safety awareness in the lab is shocking at times, from people weighing out carcinogens on worktop balances to microwaving alcohol. Safety, both of yourself and those around you is of the utmost importance in a lab environment since harmful and dangerous chemicals are often in use. Make sure you know the safety protocols for all the reagents you are using and ensure you never put yourself or others at risk in the lab. For some tips on lab safety see my previous BitesizeBio article on 10 common PPE sins.
These ‘commandments’ are based on my experience in the lab – what are your rules to help create a happy lab?