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Top Tips For Peaceful Lab Communities

An image of cells to depict free PCR

Picture the scene: standing at your bench, you look up at the shelf of neatly-labelled bottles of fresh buffers, you see your pipettes arrayed in size order by your right hand, the gleaming expanse of your bench is in front of you, ready for you to perform wonders of science on its routinely-cleansed surface. In short, all is well in your well-ordered personal fiefdom. However, you need to make an agarose gel, so you step out into the no-man’s land that is the communal area. The feeling of serene calm instantly evaporates as you realise that the TAE stock is empty. Again! And the weighing scales are a mess, there are no more autoclaved microfuge tubes and I bet you were the last person to calibrate the pH meter. Suddenly you are seized by the urge to commit unspeakable acts of violence against whoever failed to have the human decency to perform these most basic of lab tasks.

So how do you get your lab mates adhere to the basic rules which allow the lab to run smoothly? Surely there must be some middle ground between your usual (ineffectual) passive-aggressiveness  and winding someone’s entrails around the highest tree on campus? Whilst there is no easy way to broach this subject with people you have to spend your whole working day with, here are a few suggestions that may help you make a start.

A little more conversation

Hopefully you remember that these people you are currently contemplating forcing to eat their own ears are actually your friends and colleagues. Prior to their latest unspeakable act of passive negligence, you had been happily chatting about your projects/the relative misfortunes of your sports teams/the contestants in the latest TV talent show (delete as appropriate). They probably fully intend to top up the TAE, but they’ve been really busy of late, or they haven’t got around to it, or they hadn’t noticed it was empty. It could well be that they’re nursing their own hot little bubble of private rage about some trifling lab task that always seems to fall on their shoulders. By talking to your colleagues about these issues, rather than quietly seething at their collective iniquity, you’ll find that more of these communal jobs get done.

Education, education, education

Probably the most common reason for someone failing to adhere to the laws of the lab is ignorance. Obviously, ignorance is no excuse, but it’s hard to motivate yourself to learn how to do everyone’s least favourite menial lab task, especially when you know you are committing yourself to a fortnightly dose of drudgery. However, most scientists are basically decent people. By spending a few minutes demonstrating to someone how to complete your least favourite lab task, you will more than likely find that it is your turn to do it just that little bit less often.

Make it a little more formal

It could be that, despite your best promptings, your labmates simply fail to conform to the minimum standards of consideration required for a smooth and (relatively) stress-free existence in the lab. This probably means that there needs to be some kind of formalised system for ensuring these things get done. Most groups have this to some extent, but if some jobs still go undone, they may need to be incorporated into the existing system. This needs to be handled carefully, and you will need to get most of your colleagues onside beforehand (see above).

You could suggest a rota system, whereby unpopular communal tasks are done by each lab member in turn. This has the advantage that everyone has to muck in and help out. However, some people may resent being regularly called on to clean equipment they never use, or restock buffers they have no need for. This could actually generate tensions in the lab where none previously existed.

Alternatively, each lab member could be allocated a responsibility. Again, this needs to be carefully done, as not all tasks are equal. However, if equitably done, this means that everyone has a stake in the smooth running of the lab. If the tasks are well matched, people should rarely be doing jobs from which they seldom benefit, and if the worst comes to the worst, and you still find the communal stock of TAE is empty, at least you’ll know who to complain to!

These are just a few of my thoughts on how to ensure that communal lab chores aren’t left undone. What works for you?

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