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Getting Started in a New Lab

Take a proactive approach to make your new lab your home.

August 25, 2015

Hanna Peacock is a PhD student in Cardiovascular Sciences at the KU Leuven. You can find her on Twitter @hannapeacock or at her website.



Starting in a new lab can be a daunting experience. Whether you’ve never set foot in a lab before, or are simply switching to a different lab, it takes strategy to efficiently learn your way around so that you can start getting data.


Before you can be productive in a lab, you need to be able to get into the building, find the lab, log into to the internet, and know where things are. Start asking your colleagues, your supervisor, the administrative staff, or technicians right away to make sure these needs are met. You may need to request keys or badge cards, a computer, a desk and chair, an internet password, and a lab coat or other personal protective equipment. It’s also worth asking someone to show you around so that you have a general idea of where the various labs, offices, bathrooms, and coffee rooms are located. You may need to complete safety courses, animal care courses, or courses for certain databases before you will be allowed to begin your own research. Find out what certificates you will require and when you can take the courses. Get them out of the way as soon as possible.


One you are settled in the lab, find out your milestones and obligations, such as qualifying exams, proposal submissions, or journal club meetings, and put them in your calendar. Knowing now that in 11 months you have an evaluation will help prevent you from falling behind. And, naturally, you don’t want to find out six months after you start that you were supposed to be going to mandatory monthly seminars. If you are expected to take any courses toward your degree, you should meet with your supervisor(s) and plan which courses and when you will take them. Taking a proactive approach to your milestones now will help prevent a nasty surprise later on.


A second thing you can do now to make your future much easier is to make friends with the administrative staff and technicians. They are a great resource as you are trying to figure out which certificates you need and what equipment you have to request. And they are a rich source of tricks and tips for navigating bureaucratic snafus and complex protocols. Once you have all the paperwork done and are ready to actually start some lab work, ask a technician to give you a brief lab orientation to explain specific regulations that might not have been covered in a safety course. Such a tour will also give you some idea of the capabilities of the lab.


During your first few weeks in the lab, carefully observe the culture. What time do people arrive and leave? Do people go for coffee or lunch together at a certain time? How strictly are safety regulations followed? How clean and tidy are things kept? What items or solutions are communal and what do people each have individually? Is it normal to wear headphones, or do people listen to music on the radio? Who decides what channel the radio is set to? Are there chores that rotate among people? The trick is to fit in, at least at first. You neither want to be the person who leaves a mess in a normally tidy lab, nor do you want to miss out on coffee with your new colleagues.


Since, as the newbie, you will be asking lots of questions, borrowing reagents, and probably making some mistakes, it’s a good idea to also make yourself useful. Pay attention to tasks people complain about doing, or complain that nobody is doing. Putting pipette tips in the boxes, re-making buffers, restocking supplies from the storage room, or checking on animals are all relatively simple tasks that you should be able to do without much training. Volunteering to help out now will let you make a good first impression, and get comfortable in and around the lab.


Before you can really get started, it’s necessary to figure out what you need to learn and who can teach you. Obviously, you’ll have to have a slight sense of what your project is and the first experiments you plan to do. In order to figure out what you need to learn, it may be helpful to draw up a provisional plan for your project. Do some background reading and then sit down with your supervisor and figure out the first few experiments you want to do. Only then can you figure out what techniques you will need or what equipment you will use. For example, if you want to test the effects of a chemical on expression of a particular protein in cells, you will need to learn how to grow cells and how to perform a Western blot to determine the amount of protein. Again, ask around to the technicians to find out who specializes in each technique you need to learn or who is responsible for the equipment you want to use.


Once you know what you need to learn, it’s time to start mastering some techniques. One of the easiest ways to do this is to shadow someone. Find someone who is using the technique you need, or something as similar as possible, and ask to follow them around. Take detailed notes including the order steps are done in, which steps need to be perfectly precise and which steps are just estimates, where reagents are kept, whether something is done on the bench top or in a hood or cold room, and make note of any special tricks, like where the “ON” button is on a piece of equipment. Make drawings in your notes where necessary. The goal is that from your notes, you should be able to replicate their experiment without having to rely on memory. If something doesn’t make sense, make a note about it and go online. There are many great videos explaining the theory behind techniques. Don’t hesitate to ask questions either, but pay attention that you time your questions properly. You probably won’t be invited to shadow again if you distract someone at a critical or complex step in their protocol!


Now that you have (sort of) learned a few techniques, it’s time to try out an experiment—with a positive control. The first time you run an experiment, make sure it isn’t 100% new. If the experiment doesn’t work, it’s helpful if you can distinguish whether you are making a mistake, or whether the experiment truly didn’t work. This is where including a positive control comes in handy. Sure, you can test out a sample of your own, but make certain that you run something in parallel that “always works.” If it doesn’t work in your hands, then you know you need to fix your technique. Don’t be discouraged. Most techniques take practice to get right. But if it does work, it’s a great confidence boost!


The first weeks or months in a new lab certainly have a learning curve, but you can ease the transition by taking a proactive approach to making your new lab your home. Before you know it, people will be coming to you for advice and help with equipment.


How did you make the most of your first few weeks in a new lab?

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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