While almost every lab has a small toolbox with some screwdrivers, pliers, and such, here are some tools that may not have obvious utility at the bench, but could make your life easier.
A Butane Torch
If your OCD is as bad as mine, then watching a bubble flow out of the flask onto the Petri plate you’re pouring bothers you… a lot. A short (~6 inch) butane torch comes in quite handy for flaming bubbles off the top of freshly poured plates. I also use this to pop bubbles that form while pouring agarose gels, but you have to be particularly careful while doing this not to damage the casting tray or any other part of the gel rig. In addition, these guys come in real handy as a portable Bunsen burner when you need to work away from a gas outlet.
What to look for: Almost all of them can be refilled with the generic cans of butane, but double-check to be sure the one your looking at doesn’t require some proprietary refill system, which will almost certainly be more expensive. In addition, make sure that it has an auto-start feature. If you think you might use it as a Bunsen burner, make sure that it has a large, stable base and a button to lock the trigger ‘on’.
What I use: Ronson Tech Torch
An Infrared Thermometer
Ideally, you would cool a flask of autoclaved agar in a waterbath, but that isn’t always possible. And once you leave it cooling on the counter, the gamble begins. Pull it too early, and you risk inactivating your antibiotic. Pull it too late, and you’ll end up with lumpy plates. (Did I mention my OCD?) One solution to use an infrared thermometer to monitor the flask.
After acquiring mine, I set up a test where I outfitted a flask of boiling water with a stir bar and a traditional thermometer, and compared the readings of the IR thermometer (aimed at the outside of the flask, below the fluid level) and traditional thermometer (in the fluid) as the water cooled on a stirplate. The two readings didn’t differ by more than a degree or so the entire time the flask cooled. This is particularly valuable if you have inexperienced people (ie – undergrads) making the plates in your lab. In addition, these things are great for getting an immediate temperature on anything without having to wait for a traditional thermometer to equilibrate. Once you have one of these, you will use it more than you think.
What to look for: Make sure that the thermometer you’re looking at can be switched to output Celsius (if you’re in the US or Canada). Also, you might want to get one that has “adjustable emissivity”. Emissivity is the ability of a material to radiate energy, and in practical term this means that glass at a particular temperature will emit a different amount of infrared radiation than aluminum at that same temperature. If you find that you want high sensitivity for one particular application, then you can adjust this parameter to fine tune the thermometer. (A quick Google search for “emissivity coefficient” will turn up tables of emissivity settings for common materials.)
What I use: Advanced Tool Design Deluxe Infrared Thermometer
As a group, we scientists aren’t known for our intimidating physiques, and this is usually revealed in the lab when the liquid nitrogen knob, or the top of a centrifuge canister or bottle gets stuck. You then have to go find the largest scientist you can think of to help you out of the jam, which for guys is “The Walk of Shame”. Strap wrenches will save your pride or even save your experiment if nobody is around to help. These tools consist of a flexible strap that wraps around and grips the object, with a straight handle that allows you to get some leverage on the beast. (If you’ve ever watched a mechanic change your oil, he likely used a specialized version of this tool to remove your oil filter.)
What to look for: Choose ones that have a urethane coated nylon strap to make sure that it doesn’t damage anything you might use it on. They are adjustable, so choose ones with a large capacity (~5 inch diameter), as they will also likely adjust down to less than 2 inches for smaller tops. You will want two, since you may have to wrap one around the bottle and a second (in the opposite direction) around the lid. Of course, be careful if you are removing the stuck top off a glass bottle.
What I use: Klein 12-Inch Strap Wrench
Are there any tools that I missed?