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Basic Lab Skills and Know-how

The Top Three Tips for Lab Etiquette

Whether someone is new to lab work period or just new to your lab, it’s important to be sure that they know the top three tips for lab etiquette for the benefit of everyone’s safety and sanity.

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The Multi-skilled Scientist: Key Skills for All Scientists to Master

Although bench work is an integral part of becoming a successful scientist, it is by no means the only part of it. It is often the uncredited skill set possessed by many seasoned scientists that make them so valuable to employers and to further research. In this article I will highlight the less obvious skills…

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The Five Essentials of Organizing Laboratory Samples

If you look closely, there’s a scenario that plays out frequently in labs across the world: A scientist sits hunched over dry ice searching exhaustedly through frozen boxes for one sample that has disappeared into the abyss. The tube or specimen in question was likely catalogued at some point in time. But, between then and…

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How to Clean and Maintain Scales

Spring time means spring cleaning! Baby birds are hatching, the days are getting longer, there are butterflies everywhere and you feel inspired to do a good deep clean of your lab scales. We can’t help you sing like Snow White so that animals come help you clean but we can help you get your scales…

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Get To Know Your Common Reaction Reagents

When I first started out in the lab, I used to follow all protocols to the letter. Now, this is fine as long as your reactions run smoothly. However, there came the day when I had a new protocol and I just couldn’t get it to work. My supervisor told me to just “play around”…

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The Art of Approval: Getting a New Protocol Approved by Your Institution

All of your planning has paid off. You just got the green light from your PI to start work on a new experiment that you have been plotting for weeks, but it involves some new techniques that you’ll need to run past your institution’s scientific approval committee first. No problem, right? Not necessarily. While many…

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How to Minimize Variation and Achieve Reproducibility

Ever wonder why your data isn’t the same after repeating an experiment? Well part of science’s beauty lies in the difficulty of achieving reproducibility. Heraclitus first said that no mans steps in the same river twice and the same can be applied to experiments. It is literally impossible to control for everything because the second…

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6 Common Lab Uses of Detergents

Detergents are all around us in the lab – and that’s a good thing! Thanks to their chemical structure, detergents can solubilize and interact with many types of molecules, making them vital to research. To show you why detergents are such a good thing for scientists, we’ll go through six examples in molecular biology where…

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The 10 Unspoken Rules of Working in a Lab

There are so many unspoken rules to working in a lab! It’s unnerving what will cause frayed nerves to snap, people not to trust you and a good relationship to turn sour. Here are some of the rules I’ve learned. Feel free to add more in the comments section below. 1. Thou Shalt Not Touch…

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A Quick Guide to pH, pKa and pI

They’re easy numbers to take for granted, so it’s a good exercise once in a while to remind ourselves what pH, pKa and pI stand for: pH—the measure of acidity. It’s the negative logarithm of the proton concentration. pKa—an association constant. It’s the negative logarithm of the ratio of dissociated acid and conjugated base, over…

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The Dos and Don’ts of Weighing Dangerous Chemicals

A lot of chemical reagents are relatively nonhazardous. But there are just as many that are extremely hazardous, which means you’ll want to take precautions to reduce any risk of exposure, repeated exposure and of course, accidental contamination of anything – or anyone – that walks out of the lab at the end of the…

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Let’s Dish About Soaps: A General Overview of Detergents

What do cell lysis, clean dishes, and gallbladders all have in common? Answer: detergents! These useful chemicals can solubilize fats and other proteins in water. They are the key to applications as varied as lysing cell membranes, extracting DNA, and solubilizing proteins for gel electrophoresis. To help you understand these important chemicals, we provide a…

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How to Clean a Tissue Culture Incubator

  A few years ago, I was doing research in a lab in Ireland. Our lab, among many others, was moving to a new building. Everything was chaotic. Half our equipment was in the old building and the new lab was creepishly empty. The fire alarm went off every few days. There was a constant…

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Protocols: Where Do You Get Yours?

Trying a new protocol is always a little daunting, especially if no one else in your lab is doing it. So it’s always good to find a tried and tested protocol from a reputable source before getting your hands dirty. Or at least one that can start you off in the right direction. It is…

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Heating up agar? Just add a cup of water and avoid the glitter and crumbs

It’s ironic how much folklore and superstition comes with being in science. “That’s a lucky pipette”, “playing Bach for your cells will help them grow”, “always make your own solutions”; we all have our own tips. Some of them might be well-founded others not so much… Tips from trusted colleagues can be very helpful though.…

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Facing Your Laboratory Freezer: Dos and Don’ts For Defrosting Day

Your stomach clenches. Sweat snakes down your torso. The world seems to slow down. You begin the long, terrifying walk down the corridor. Your mind calls out to you to, “Run! Run now!” but you soldier on until you reach the door and knock. There is no escaping the wrath you will evoke when you…

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SuperSize It! Scaling Up Your Experiments

Life in the lab is easy-peasy when you are only prepping a handful of tubes. But what if you need to scale up to 10’s or even 100’s of samples? Scaling up your experiments can have some expected and some not-so-expected, leaving you in a lurch, consequences. Read through our tips so you aren’t caught…

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How to Check the Accuracy of Your Pipette

How much time do you spend thinking about the accuracy of your pipette? Probably not much. It’s one of those things that get brushed aside in the heat of experimentation. Pipetting accuracy though, is critical to successful experiments–especially in sensitive experiments. For example, qPCR relies upon accurate pipetting—calculations depend on having the same amount of…

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Red light/Green Light In Aseptic Technique: When Is The Flame OK?

My mom is a microbiologist and so I was a lot more informed about bugs than most kids. In fact, I probably gave more than one classmate nightmares with my talk of there being 10 times more bacteria that make up the human body than human cells. I remember my mom working by a Bunsen,…

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10 Ways to Abuse a Pipette

It seems like every movie that needs a shot of a scientist doing their sciencey-thing either gets the person to pour one pretty liquid from one flask into another or to stare intensely at a test tube with a look of knowing so much more than you ever could. Another favorite shot is of someone…

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Agarose versus Polyacrylamide: Not All Gels Are Created Equal

Like athletes running on turf versus sand, the gel you run your DNA through can highly affect your results. The two main types of gels that people use for DNA electrophoresis are agarose and polyacrylamide (PA) gels, but figuring out the differences can be confusing. Basically, you choose a gel based on two main factors:…

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Gel Electro-For-Whatsit? Breaking Down How Gel Electrophoresis Works

Run to red!  It’s a mantra I learned when first using gel electrophoresis to separate DNA molecules.  This can save you a lot of frustration and humiliation in the lab (stage right: a complaining scientist who swears the equipment is broken as a supervisor facepalms in embarrassment). But what about how does this jell-o like…

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Take Care of Your Tools: How to Clean a Pipette

Like a Jedi’s light saber, your pipette is an extension of your arm and the lifeline to your (lab) existence. You probably should give it a little TLC once in a while to keep it free from contaminants.  Especially if you are doing experiments involving things like gene expression analysis. Sure, you can use filter…

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Freeze-Thaw Cycles and Why We Shouldn’t Do It

Freeze-thaw—you know it’s bad for your samples, don’t you? While working in the lab, you have most likely heard someone say ‘aliquot your protein/cells/DNA/RNA to avoid too many freeze-thaw cycles.’ But do you actually understand why? You probably thought that avoiding freeze-thaw cycles had something to do with damaging cell structure as well as proteins…

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Buying a Secondary Antibody: Why all the Choices?

So you grab a quick 5 minutes in between lectures to sit down and tackle an item on your to-do list: order a secondary antibody for an upcoming experiment.  But when you start to search your favorite secondary antibody provider’s website, you realize it is not going to be a 5 minute job.  Conjugated, F(ab’)2…

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Tips for Heating up Agar in the Microwave

One of our readers posted the following question to us and we decided to pass it along to everybody’s favorite microbiology expert, Aunt Yersinia: For one year I am working in different research laboratories, after I got from school. I keep wondering why EVERYBODY is using pre-made Agar solutions for pouring plates, and EVERYBODY is…

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What Makes a “Good” Laboratory Buffer?

Just about any molecular biology experiment will involve the action of enzymes or other active proteins. And when enzymes are involved, the pH of your experimental environment is going to change. This is because most enzymatic reactions involve the loss or gain of hydrogen ions (protons), which modifies the pH of the environment. Biological systems…

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A Quick Primer on Enzyme Kinetics

As biological catalysts, enzymes transform target substrates into products. Enzyme kinetics is the rate of that transformation. By understanding how an enzyme’s behavior is affected, you can figure out how it functions in physiology or fails to function in disease. Now it gets complicated… What Affects an Enzyme’s Kinetics? In the first place, most enzymes…

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Chemistry Spies: pH meters, Buffers and You

The pH meter is probably the least understood and most abused piece of equipment in the biological lab, probably because it is an undercover agent from chemistry and only a rare biologist likes chemistry. Look over there, it stands in the corner of the lab, covered in dust, glass probe encrusted with crystals. In a…

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Common Sins When Weighing Out Chemicals

You can really tell when Honours Project students start working in the lab on their projects: the pH meter probe is suddenly floating in water and the weighing area is a mess, because nobody had time to explain “the weighing etiquette”. Fret no more! We will spell it out and you can print it out…

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Top Ten Tips for Making Stock Solutions

Having to make stock solutions is a part of everyday lab life…a tedious, but necessary, one. So why not make the process as streamlined as possible? Here are a few little tricks I picked up while I was still in the lab: Check to see if anybody has a tried and tested recipe – why…

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Book Review: At the Bench: A Laboratory Navigator, by Kathy Barker

Starting a PhD, or even a summer scholarship, in a laboratory can be a daunting experience. Moving from carrying out experiments in the comfort of a teaching lab to working in a research laboratory is quite the bridge to cross. From a personal experience, I found I became quite rusty over the summer months in…

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How Do Buffers Work?

A former colleague and friend of mine worked in technical support, taking calls from scientists. Most of the calls came from life science researchers frustrated by failed experiments. My friend would listen for a bit, then almost always exclaim in very charming but booming Russian-accented English, “No! You must add buffer to the experiment! It…

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How To Make Fewer Mistakes In The Lab

How often do you make errors in the lab that ruin a good experiment? Rather than flaws in experimental design, I mean errors like forgetting to add a reagent, pipetting the wrong amount or following a protocol step wrongly. Especially early on in your career, errors like this can be a real drain on your…

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The Nature of Scientific Observation

Currently I’m reading Alan Chalmers’ What is this thing called science?, with specific interest in the questions of expertise and the uniqueness of science as a foundation for knowledge.

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How to Make Accurate Stock Solutions

Biology researchers have a bad habit of doing accurate assays using semi-accurate tools. Here are some suggestions on how to sharpen up the accuracy of your assays.

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