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How To Prevent Other People’s Mistakes from Affecting Your Work

Chances are, in the course of your scientific career, you will encounter a common problem in research: losing time due to someone else’s mistake. Whether the problem is an incorrect strain or plasmid given to you by another lab, incorrectly made buffers or media from within your own lab, or, in the most extreme case, fraudulent published data, mistakes like these can lead to months or even years of wasted time.

So it’s vital that you take precautions to avoid wasting your precious time due to other peoples’ mistakes. Here’s my advice, taken from my personal experiences:

Confirm Key Findings

The most important thing that you as a researcher can do at the beginning of any project is to confirm key findings. When you join a new lab, you’ll most often join an existing project, carry on someone else’s old project or start a new project based on published data. Whatever the case, you are building on someone else’s work.

While it is tempting to jump directly into doing new and exciting experiments, the first thing you must always do is repeat the key experiments that form the basis for the project. Confirm independently that in your hands you get the same results, and that you draw the same conclusions from those results. Whenever possible, use your own materials to ensure that you are performing an independent replicate of these experiments: thaw a new vial of cells from the freezer, use a new batch of mice, make up fresh stocks of media, purify your own stocks of key constructs. Once you have confirmed the original observations, you will be able to confidently pursue the development of your own project.

Test Key Materials

If re-creating the materials used in the key experiments is not feasible, at least do everything you can to test key materials. This means that you should always sequence plasmids you did not construct, to confirm that there are no mutations and that all fusion tags are in-frame. If the construct encodes a protein, express the protein and blot to confirm its expression. If you receive a cell line or strain, test as many of the known phenotypes of that cell line as possible to confirm its identity. This includes looking at the cell morphology, growth rate, auxotrophies, and antibiotic resistance markers. A few days’ worth of confirmation experiments could save you months of grief.

Pay Attention to Character

Finally, when it comes to accepting materials from members of your own lab or from collaborators, pay attention to their character. Are they reliable? Are they organized? Do they do good science? Talk with your lab members or other people in the department to help you with this and pay attention during lab meetings to determine the quality of work that your co-workers are producing. When it comes to requesting materials from other labs, your supervisor will have a good sense of what other labs can be trusted, based on the quality of research and materials that have come out of their labs over the years. Trust your instincts when it comes to taking materials and results from others; if your senses tell you that someone is unreliable, avoid collaboration at all if possible.

While it is impossible to predict everything that can go wrong with your research, you can set yourself up for success by establishing a project based on solid data and reliable materials. By avoiding other peoples’ mistakes, you’ll not only save yourself time, but also give yourself the opportunity to learn from your own mistakes and grow as a scientist.

3 Comments

  1. Emily on February 22, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    Thanks, Suzanne! I think we all have a similar story – personal or otherwise – let’s hope other people can learn from our experience!

    Charles, you make a great point: that the blame game will get you nowhere. Other peoples’ mistakes will slow you down, but making accusations and trying to assign fault will set you back even more. Learn from the experience, and use it to make you a better scientist.

  2. Charles on February 20, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    If you share lab rooms for certain purposes with your colleagues (e.g. RNA analytics, cell culture, etc.) check everytime in advance (at least one day before!) whether all the materials necessary are there in sufficient amount and quality. Never start your experiment and count on your colleagues (no matter how reliable they are) that they have renewed the buffers, or that they have reordered the enzyme from which tube they used the last drop and so on. Nobody is perfect and most probably you have forgot those things as well when you have been pretty busy. And no doubt, it is alway quite annoying when materials are not there which your dearly need for your experiment that of course should have been done already weeks ago.

    In my experience, however, it has never changed the situation really when you blame those “colleagues” for leaving scorched earth. It is only on you to prepare everything so that your experiments can be done at time point you’ve envisaged. Fortunately, most often there are more persons in the lab who act collegial than those how do not. BUT: Always prepare your experiments well in advance. AT LEAST: Have your own materials which are very crucial for your experiment which can be renewed (e.g. enzymes).

  3. Suzanne on February 20, 2010 at 6:55 am

    Hi Emily,
    Very sage advice. I lost a huge amount of time on a project because of both an incorrect protocol that was published in a paper by a collaborating lab and because the lab I was in had never frozen down the cells when they were new and were using the same cells passaged for years continuously.
    I can’t stress enough how important it is to get brand new cells and freeze down your own low passage cell stocks so you can avoid contamination.
    Great article- thanks for writing it!
    Suzanne

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