Starting a PhD program is both an exciting time as well and a challenging one… One of the main things that keeps most PhD students up nights, is rethinking their steps in the lab during the day. Did I do that one thing I may not have? Is that one reagent back in the fridge? Are all my tubes correctly labelled as to what contains what? Sometimes with all the chaos of getting things done and meeting deadlines, it is very easy to mix things up while working at the bench or even at your desk. To stay on top you need to maximize your lab efficiency.
Lab efficiency is one sought after trait, that every PhD student aims to acquire and master. Having completed my first year as a PhD student I thought I would impart all the wisdom I have so far to prospective students or even those just starting.
Maintain a Lab book
This seems pretty basic, but I cannot stress enough how useful this is! It amazes me that there are many students that don’t maintain one – digital or otherwise. Sure, you may carry around a notepad or few bits of paper to scribble down what concentrations you use or what your cell counts are for a specific flask. But losing those notes is one way to lose track of what you did when.
I like to keep a hardcover book (mainly because it makes me feel professional) with every experiment, to contain all details including the dates. I also make notes of any mishaps or mistakes that I make. This helps you to explain weird results later on, as you can go back and go over the notes and then think to yourself “ah! That’s what went wrong!” Not to mention, you have a record of everything you do so no one can question your productivity.
Keep an Inventory List
Another thing that will make your life a lot easier is keeping a list of all the items you purchase, whether it’s basic reagents to really expensive antibodies. It helps you keep track of where all your money is going and helps you prioritize your research needs.
Having an excel spreadsheet with the item name, the price list, quantity, and the catalog number, makes it convenient the next time you want to order the same thing. Also include the expiration date to help comply with good laboratory practice.
Aliquot, Aliquot, Aliqout!
This is my mantra for all things liquid! I cannot recommend this enough. Whether its molecular biology to cell culturing reagents, nothing is more annoying when you think you have a stock of something and it’s all gone or contaminated. If it can be aliquoted, you can be sure I have tubes of it ready to go.
What about sterile PBS for washing my cells? Well I have over a dozen 50mL tubes ready to go when needed. Fresh media you ask? I have them aliquoted in sterile 150 ml containers labelled for each cell line they are used for (I will come to labeling next). This goes for my trypsin as well. The list goes on…antibodies, protein standards, buffers etc. can be aliquoted. See also tips for making stock solutions.
Now this one seems too obvious but you would be surprised how often people forget to label their stuff. It might seem a bit too OCD but it is always better to be safe than sorry. If it is stuff you aliquot like the items mentioned above, always, always write down what it is, the date it was made up and YOUR NAME! This brings me to an important point to make, invest in good lab markers and labels. Good markers make for good labels.
Templates Here and Templates There
Last but not least, have printouts of templates for things you do all the time. For instance, if you routinely run a PCR experiment or a Western Blot experiment, it is a good idea to have a template. That way you can just write the information down using the template and then paste it in your lab book. A year from now, you will know what you pipetted where and/or what you loaded where. And your lab efficiency will reach an all time high.
Your Lab Efficiency
By now it should be pretty obvious that these steps are extremely basic and sometimes a little boring to keep up with. However, they will save you a lot of heart aches and sudden panic attacks.
Here is to efficient and good lab practices!