In my last article I looked at how to efficiently self-manage the scientist in us all. But, to transform efficient and elaborate planning into a mass of (publishable) results, you need to be technically proficient. Here, I’ll look at some ways to acquire and improve your technical prowess, while on your way to becoming a professional scientist.
Understand how your chosen techniques work
Most graduate students studying biosciences know how to prepare and separate protein mixtures on an SDS-polyacrylamide gel, but how many completely understand the basic concepts and chemistry behind the technique. This was published by Ulrich K. Laemmli at the start of the 70’s yet a basic understanding of a method regularly used by students is often absent. This knowledge is important – not only for troubleshooting a failed experiment, but also to identify the pros and cons of a particular method or technique. Reading articles and keeping track of technological advances in a particular method/technique will enable the graduate to make the most of what they have.
Work with a clear and updated protocol
An experimental protocol is an essential tool for the technician. It may be important to identify any modifications that might be relevant and you should update these (using an accepted version control) for the current experiment. On the other hand, a protocol written ten years ago for the transfection of plasmids into HeLa cells should work in a similar manner even today. The results of a biological experiment will only be repeatable if the crucial conditions remain the same; using a different medium for a transfection assay can lead to a different result. While in the busy throes of an experiment it’s also a good idea to make sure your protocol document is well written or typed. There will be less room for error when your instructions are clear and easy to read.
The importance of consistency
The importance of good stock preparation in experimentally prepared samples is of great importance if you are to obtain reliable results. Using a single batch of enzyme prep, for example, can enable the technician to make multiple experiments from that same sample stock and establish high consistency across several experimental repetitions. If an experiment is not repeatable, sometimes the source of inconsistency can lie in the technical preparation and different suppliers or even different seasons in which the preparation/experiment was conducted can have a marked effect. Keeping large preparations frozen in aliquots can eliminate much of the variation that can originate from biological diversity.
The power of observation
An experiment has no value unless it’s observed, data are collected and then well documented. Good scientists must possess the power of observation, and whether it’s the confluence of a treated cell culture, the turbidity of the neutralized solution or the size of the spleen from a sacrificed immunized rat, that observation of something being different may be the first sign on a path leading to the next discovery. Show your results to other graduates and postdocs in your research group to discuss your findings – and especially your PI, who is more experienced in analyzing collected data.
Data collection is the platform on which any future publication will arise from your hard work. Whether it’s a Western blot, a confocal session or chromatography separation, you need to make sure that the data collection process is conducted according to acceptable scientific standards and that data are stored in a safe place. Bad luck is a simple fact of life and you should be prepared for a hard drive to crash at least once in your life! I’ll bet you know of someone this has happened to? Make multiple backups when raw data are collected and then do it again once the data are processed and analyzed.
Good habits – documentation
Getting into the habit of keeping good documentation is one of the vital skills a scientist needs and the key stone of the knowledge transfer process. Ironically, adequate documentation is also one of the most neglected and less mastered techniques in the arsenal of graduates. Usually you find that seasoned technicians and scientists have adopted their good documentation habits only after having to repeat a crucial experiment, using up valuable time and resources. The basic message here should be to make sure your lab notebook accompanies you to every experiment and every observation and manipulation recorded and dated. While many regard the hard copy lab notebook as the gold standard, one should take into consideration that paper is not fire proof – do you photocopy chapters of the notebook regularly and store the copies off-site? If not, perhaps you should start doing this as routine. Commercially sensitive material will always be an issue though, so agree how to backup your data with your supervisor/PI.
How to get organized and stay organized
A common sound in the lab is the yelling alarm coming from the deep freeze, followed by the miserable face of a hand-frozen graduate who was searching for a plasmid construct. While maintaining good organization of your data and samples demands energy and time, in the end it’s definitely better to invest a little time and energy every now and again logging the position of a sample, than to waste a lot of time looking for it within a fully packed freezer. To start you off getting organized (and professional!) a good tip is to generate an excel sheet for your sample location (or use a web-based laboratory management system) and start documenting the storage details for your samples. In many cases when a graduate or a technician initiates this move he/she already possess hundreds if not thousands of samples in different locations and documenting their exact position can be labor intensive but well worth the initial effort. PIs and lab managers should enforce and educate rookie graduates and technicians to adopt this habit early, as it will make the whole lab management and flow of samples from one student to the next a breeze, in addition to improving the storage efficiency and allocation.