Chen Guttman is a guest author at GradHacker who is pursuing his PhD at the Raz Zarivach Laboratory in Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Chen blogs at benchwise.wordpress.com and tweets from @Benchwise.
Research costs money. Lots of it. The costs can range from a million-dollar piece of state-of-the-art equipment to a month’s worth of disposables, as well as your monthly stipend. There is also one large cost that often escapes notice: the cost of disorganization. We seldom count the aggregate price of redundant or late orders, the mess in the -80°C fridge, haphazardly planned experiments that waste expensive materials, or the frequent loss of time looking for a compound on the shelf. All of this adds up to squandered grant money and longer lead times to publication and graduation.
An efficient lab does not just keep benches clean and tidy. It also establishes healthy habits, sets practical rules for cataloging and ordering materials, schedules activities (cleaning duties, equipment maintenance and even a day off to have fun together), and enforces professional conduct related to experimentation.
Starting with a Smart Bench
Many say that a messy bench is a sign of a busy scientist at work. While that can be true, a smartly organized working bench can make your work experience more pleasant, less error-prone, and much more time efficient. Yes, doing so will require time and energy to analyze your unique working style and environment as well as to learn how to stay organized over the course of the week.
Consider seven starting tips:
- Keep all your pipettes and tools on the side of your dominant hand.
- Place the trash bin on the same side.
- Set common solutions at the other side of the bench.
- Stow stock solutions and less commonly used solutions or devices on the upper shelves.
- Keep a minimal set of stands and tip boxes piled at the center and back area of the bench to maintain a centralized empty space.
- Lay your lab notebook as far as possible from the experimentation area and potential chemical spills. (Consider the dollar value of the data inside it.)
- Retain your own scissors, labeling tape, paraffin, Kimwipes, as well as a marker. This eliminates the most frequent walks around the lab and encourages good labeling habits at the bench. (It’s not a bad idea to write your name on these items, too.)
One way to encourage good habits is subjecting yourself to operant conditioning, just like a lab animal. Try the Martini Method. Yes, this means treating yourself when a week goes by with only good behavior.
Supplies and Costly Mistakes
- How often does your lab accidentally place duplicate orders?
- How much money do those orders waste each month?
- How often do you run out of a supply unexpectedly each month?
- How much time is lost from waiting for that depleted supply?
- Who approves each order?
The results painted a worrisome picture.
Even though it was primarily PIs or lab managers who approved orders, about half reported their lab wastes money each month on redundant orders and many estimated the cost to be at least $2,400 per year. Three-fourths reported finding a supply unexpectedly depleted each month, which delayed the experiments of a large block of the respondents by a bit more than six weeks per year.
Adding up six weeks per year for an entire Masters or PhD program should make anyone pay more attention to not just learning protocols, but verifying that all the materials will be in stock by the time they are needed. In addition, the whole lab should make it a policy to place a purchase order when reagents fall to a certain level. Everyone will graduate earlier and with better data. This is too big of a time sink to take lightly.
Duplicate orders should be easy to avoid. It’s not clear why it happens so much. Maybe spreadsheets aren’t being used or regularly updated. Perhaps a better or easier to use database is needed. Or, recently delivered reagents may need to be stocked so that they are easier to find. What is clear that better planning - and sharing of upcoming plans with colleagues - is needed so that grant money (and our lives) can go to more productive endeavors.
Good research practice
Another way to increase your efficiency and reduce experimental error is "Good Research Practice", the sibling of the biotech industry's "Good Laboratory practice (GLP)". Major scientific centers, such as the Medical Research Council in the UK, publish guidelines regarding proper research conduct. Basically, it advises that before conducting an experiment one should carefully plan and allocate materials and resources, carefully think through the physical motions of performing the experiment to identify potential hiccups, and have your PI or lab manager approve a documented experimental plan, if possible. The goal is to identify weak spots and required controls before a problem arises that necessitates repeating the experiment.
The bigger a lab is the more troublesome it becomes to coordinate a lab meeting or any other lab event. Moreover, a lab can have several instruments that if not scheduled or maintained properly can produce bottlenecks and hinder lab members from performing experiments as planned. If your lab is still using a whiteboard or pen and paper, stop. Get everyone using a research management web app or Google Calendar for booking instrument time or chores. This has the added benefit of providing an overview of everyone’s workload, too. You can also try apps like Doodle for finding a good meeting time for a big group.
In the aforementioned survey researchers were asked one additional question: "Do you feel your lab is efficient?" Nearly 80% of the researchers said no.
Are academic labs doomed to inefficiency and over expenditure of their precious grant money? Not necessarily. It is the responsibility of all lab members - students, lab managers and PIs alike - to proactively develop more professional habits to get the most of their resources and to do more good science.
Do you have any advice for working more efficiently in the lab or elsewhere? If so, let us know in the comments below.
[Image by flickr user skinnydiver and used under a creative commons license]