The prospect of walking into the lab for the first time to do some ‘real’ research is hugely exciting. Ambitious thoughts fill your mind about what a brilliant research scientist you are about to become, making that all-important difference and saving the world.
That is, until you step over the threshold and The Fear overcomes you.
The Fear is all encompassing and I don’t wish it on anyone so with that in mind I want to share the terrifying thoughts that have crossed my mind in order to arm you with a strategy to conquer it.
Lab terminology sounds like a foreign language
‘I’m going to split my cells 1:10’ … ‘ I definitely need to seed more cells for my next IP’ … ‘I’ve ordered my primers but now I’ve realised they don’t have a GC clamp so annealing efficiency will be reduced.’
These are all common phrases you might hear when you enter a lab, and it might seem like people are speaking another language. The trick here is not to worry, Just let all this lab waffle go over your head, especially if it doesn’t directly concern you. As time goes on, it will begin to seep in and before you know it you’ll find yourself uttering such phrases in a similar fashion.
Everyone knows what they’re doing apart from me
This is in part an illusion created by:
- you feeling vulnerable and miles outside of your comfort zone
- the power of a dazzling white lab coat and a pipette in hand.
Don’t be intimidated by a perception that is disproportionately built up of fear and negative emotions. To find out what your fellow lab members are working on, just ask them! People like to talk about their own work a lot so they will be happy to explain. Remember that these people may have been doing this for years, while you have only just begun. Cut yourself some slack, you’ll soon be among those who know what they are doing!
There is so much stuff everywhere
I don’t know where anything is
Before you panic, ask yourself how you could possibly know this when you’ve just stepped foot in the lab. It’s impossible and no one is expecting you to know!! If you need something, ask where its kept and it might be helpful to make a note of it so you’ll know for next time.
Why are there so many different bins?
Autoclave bags, sharps bins, bleach boxes, bin bags in every colour under the sun…the list is endless and accompanied by a vague outline of what should and shouldn’t be thrown into each.
Then there are liquids – can’t they just all go down the sink or will you risk blowing up the lab? What’s the distinction and how should they be treated differently for disposal?
In short, just ask. I can assure you it is not a stupid question and it’s an important one to ensure the health and safety of the lab and the waste disposal team. They will be thanking you for learning to do it right.
How will I ever get my head around what everything does let alone know when to use different variants to optimise an experiment?
The sheer number of chemicals, powders, reagents, enzymes, buffers, media, antibodies, cell lines, rockers, centrifuges, microscopes and so forth is overwhelming and I’m quite sure that most of your lab members don’t even know the complete inventory of your lab.
Rule of thumb: don’t let the sheer volume of ‘science stuff’ overwhelm you and instead, focus on the materials needed for your experiments. If you need something – ask if the lab has it. There will be times when experiments don’t go to plan and you need to put your thinking cap on and troubleshoot or optimise. This often involves seeking advice from others who may suggest using, for example a different type of polymerase in your PCR reaction. This simple exercise will introduce you to different variants and variables and when it’s preferable to use them over others.
At what temperature are things stored at, what is their working temperature and how can temperature change their behaviour?
The number of temperature conditions are vast: ice, cold room, room temperature, water bath, fridge, freezer, dry ice, -80°C, liquid nitrogen.
How are you meant to know which is right, for what and when? There’s added pressure for shared lab materials and the fear of ruining an expensive polymerase by leaving it on your bench instead of on ice. Some items are more important than others but either way, always ask beforehand. If you know a substance from the freezer can be warmed to room temperature without needing to be on ice it will save you time and time is something scientists never have enough of.
I took cells from liquid nitrogen and on asking how long to thaw them in a 37°C incubator before plating I was given the response ‘not long’. I left them for 30 minutes before discovering ‘not long’ in this case was measured in seconds. Miraculously the cells did survive (don’t try this!!) but I stress to always clarify time and temperature to avoid ruining experiments, killing cells and wasting money.
Everyone has their own way – which way is the right way?
Simply put, there isn’t a right way.
Basic techniques and procedures have less leeway but when it comes to complex experiments that require many steps even when using the same protocol in the hands of two different people the outcome may differ, so don’t stress. Seek advice for a basic protocol and from there, optimise it so it works best for you. Most importantly, once it works for you stick with it.
I have a million and one questions
You will inevitably be worried about interrupting your lab members every two seconds with what you think is another stupid question. Well STOP.
Every child was told at school – no question is a stupid question. Although this may be hard to believe at times, keep your inner child in mind and don’t let this worry hamper your learning by keeping quiet. Also, don’t forget that whomever you are asking has been in your position before.
To avoid asking questions more frequently than you need to, try to work through them logically yourself first and have a look online to see if anyone else is stumped on the same query (its probably quite likely!). If you still don’t have the answer or are unsure, ask with confidence. You are not a burden and in time you will ask fewer questions and learn to problem solve for yourself. It wouldn’t be fun if you had all the answers to start with!
To conclude, breathe and be realistic of what you can expect from yourself. Seek advice, be cautiously confident and accept that you will make mistakes you had rather you hadn’t.
One of the great attractions to science is that the learning never ends. Embrace it and conquer The Fear.