Lessons from the Lab

I think it’s generally agreed that every job teaches you something, though the lessons vary in usefulness. I have worked in four university laboratories over the last ten years and the things I’ve learned could fill a six-foot tall lab freezer. There are very situation-specific lessons like “X always leaves their dirty glassware on the counter, so don’t loan them anything”. There are super embarrassing and time-consuming lessons like “Check how heat-proof the plastic bag is before you pour the literally boiling-hot clay beads into it, or the hot beads will melt the bag, roll all over the lab and under the equipment, and require a horrible hour-long cleanup.”

From little conveniences to profound life advice, here are some of the most useful things I’ve learned in the lab.

Little Tricks

Mostly related to labeling. We do a lot of labeling in the lab.

Turning down one corner of a piece of tape makes it much easier to pull off later.
Whether it’s a flask of two-week-old nutrient broth that now needs to hold a DNA-labeling solution, or a drawer in your garage that held 3/4″ screws for six months and now needs to hold zip ties, the adhesive on the label has likely become something like cement. Don’t chip a nail (or rip your gloves) trying to pick up a tiny corner of the fossilized label. Instead, tuck under one corner of a label as you apply it to create a handy starting point for its future removal. This technique is also handy for laying down tape when painting, hanging seasonal decorations, or putting up flyers.

When we move, this device may not hook up to HDMI 2 anymore, but the folded corner will make it easy to replace the label.

Label every container (that isn’t going to be used immediately) with the contents and the date.
In the lab you need to know how long ago you plated that fungal colony, and which species it is, and what nutrients are in the medium. When you’ve finished putting away leftovers at home, you may think it will be obvious which container has the barbecue sauce and which one has bolognese, but after two months in the freezer they’ll both be solid brown bricks consigned to the “mystery throw-away” category. We have significantly reduced food waste in our house by labeling and dating all our leftovers!

Label boxes on at least two sides.
Every lab I’ve worked in has had a shared refrigerator where everyone stores their DNA isolation samples. If the door stays open for too long, chemicals, buffers, and samples can be damaged, so it’s important be able to quickly know which box is yours. But because the fridge is shared, people may have to move your box to get to their box. If boxes are only labeled on one side, it’s easy for the label to be hidden against a wall. But if you write your name on two opposite sides, each box only has to be turned once to find your label! This reduces the amount of time everyone has to spend looking for labels and keeps everything inside nice and cool. Having done a lot of moving and pantry organization, I can vouch for this method outside the fridge, too.

Write down where things are within a large container.
When DNA needs to be stored in the longer term – say, over several decades – we put it into an extremely cold, extremely big freezer. We’re talking an air-locked, 6-foot high, 3-foot wide fridge that chills things down to negative 80 degrees Celsius (-112 F). These freezers are divided into large sections which each contain several sliding shelves. The shelves are separated into several columns where sample boxes can be stacked. With this arrangement, each of these freezers can hold 5,000 sample tubes. The last lab I worked in had four such freezers.

Now for the fun part: If these freezers are open for longer than about a minute, the samples may be in danger of thawing, which can mean losing decades’ worth of work. But the boxes are also caked in frost, which can obscure the labels. The only reliable way to pull the right sample tube without destroying thousands of others is to know where they all are before you reach in. Labs have painstaking spreadsheets detailing whose samples, from which year, from which field, from which experiment, under which grant, etc. are in which box, in which shelf, in which section, in which freezer.

Even though the stakes might not be as high at home, this is still a useful thing to do. Since I started mapping out our fridge, we are able to find what we need without standing in front of the open fridge door, which is a big energy saver. It’s also much easier to know what our lunch options are and what we need to use up quickly. If you’re boxing up lots of possessions, keeping a master list will help you find what you need in storage or tell you if something is missing after a move.

I use a repurposed magnetic weekly planner, with each box representing part of the fridge.

Big Lessons

Now that we’re organized, we can make some bigger changes. These (sometimes hard) lessons were real life-changers for me.

Clearly separate public and personal space.
The laboratory bench is a hotly contested piece of real estate. Brian needs to perform DNA extractions, Natalie needs to mix nutrient media, Nico has to get to his buffers, and Julian has to pour agar into a hundred Petri dishes.* In addition to respectful communication, lab mates settle these issues with clearly marked public and personal spaces. Every member of the lab has half a bench to themselves, and extra counter space is often devoted to a specific task – such as pouring Petri dishes – which anyone and everyone can do there. Everyone needs their own space, but areas everyone has to use (like a sink or refrigerator) should be publicly available.

At home, this has translated to refining my sphere of control and being attentive to the needs of other folks (mostly Husband) in their own spaces. It isn’t my business to police how neat or messy Husband keeps his desk, so long as it works for him and doesn’t encroach on shared space. On the other hand, me taking out every mug in the house to use for different teas throughout the day is something that negatively impacted him, so even though I used to keep all those mugs in “my” space, I had to quit that habit. Meanwhile, we made sure to cultivate shared areas we are both comfortable in. We each have half of the closet and half of the dresser; we worked together to decide where our pots and spices go in the kitchen; and we’ve both agreed how often the kitchen and bathroom should be cleaned (and who cleans what). As a result, our home is clean and comfortable for both of us.

When trying something new, write down all the details.
My first day as a lab technician at Undisclosed University, my boss showed me where everything was, told me the access codes for various pieces of equipment, and pointed out the areas of the shared space that were available for me to use. I payed close attention, knowing I’d get the hang of everything over the next couple of weeks. Then on the way home I busted my ankle, had to go to the hospital, and received strict orders to stay home and in bed while I recovered. When I returned to U.U. a month later, I remembered nothing of the tour – and my boss was less than thrilled to take me through everything again.

I stuck with this idea when I began writing my textbook. I laid out my ideal timetable and daily schedule, then as the weeks went by, I took plenty of notes on what worked or didn’t. How long could I focus on reading papers? How long did it take from sitting down at my desk to get into the groove? By gathering this information I was able to refine my plan and find a system that works. If I hadn’t written things down, I might have taken a lot longer to notice the factors that make me most productive.

“Take Care of Yourself Before Everything”
My graduate school experience was fairly miserable (a story for another time). One of the biggest underlying issues was that my boss pressured me to be in the laboratory all day, every day – from at least 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., though I frequently stayed later. I was also trying to develop my research project, which required reading a lot of journal articles and other scientific literature, and was attending two classes, a seminar, and a lab course. I was utterly exhausted and never felt like I could keep up. One day, while preparing samples with a post-doctoral friend of mine, I expressed my feeling of drowning under work. He told me, “You must take care of yourself.” I laughed sarcastically and asked when I was supposed to do that. He replied earnestly, “Before everything.” 

Work is important. Having goals is important, and working consistently to reach them is important. But none of it will be worthwhile if you lose yourself, or your health, by trying to work hard all the time. Burnout is real; breaks are vital to mental and physical health.

I ultimately left grad school, but I keep this lesson in mind as I work on my textbook, manage my finances, talk to my friends, maintain a home, and do other ‘jobs’ of various types. It can be challenging to anticipate the burnout before it hits, but I keep getting better at taking breaks before my body and brain are exhausted. This can mean using my inhaler when my chest starts to feel tight instead of letting myself go into a full-on asthma attack before using my medicine. It can mean telling a friend I can’t meet up after all. But sometimes it’s as simple as taking a chair to the kitchen when my back is sore so I can sit while I stir a pot. Thanks to this hard-won lesson, I prioritize my health now in ways I never did before, significantly improving my work quality and my quality of life.

It’s A Process

I still sometimes find a mystery sauce in my fridge and I still burn out sometimes. Life and science are both messy processes! I’m grateful that I’ve found various ways to let my experiences in science improve my life outside the lab while giving space to both. I hope you’ve found these lessons helpful as well. But even if nothing else has captured your attention… don’t put boiling-hot clay beads into a plastic bag. Nobody should have to go through that.


* Some of my delightful Michigan State lab mates!

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