avoid mistakes in lab

December 4, 2009 at 11:26 am | | everyday science, how-to, lab safety, open thread

Nick at BiteSizeBio gives of a list of ways to make fewer mistakes in lab.

1. Use a checklist.

2. New protocols and SOPs: write out your own version.

3. Annotate. If you make a mistake in a protocol, annotate your copy so that you won’t make the same mistake again.

4. Repetitive pipetting: be consistant and use bookmarks.

5. Don’t multitask too much.

6. Get set up before you start.

7. Prepare in bulk.

8. Don’t spend so long in the lab.

9. Get enough sleep.

10. Take responsibility.

I’d like to add a few of my own, from my vast experience making mistakes:

Clean up after yourself as you go and maintain a tidy workspace. Obvious, but often forgotten. Tidying up will make your next experiment easier, and shows respect for your fellow labmates.

Label samples with sufficient information. When you come back tomorrow (or in a month), having a dozen ambiguously labeled epi tubes means you’ll probably have to start over (or screw up your experiment by grabbing the wrong one).

Write down a plan (in your lab notebook!). Maybe even a decision tree to plot out the experimental path you will take, what to do if unexpected results occur (i.e. anticipate the unexpected), what data you will collect in the experiment, and what controls are necessary. This will help avoid that terribly frustrating situation where you realized during data analysis that you collected only (n-1) of the necessary data points and have to start all over the next day.

Ask questions! If you don’t know how to use a piece of equipment, don’t know how to properly use or store a chemical, don’t know a protocol, or are simply stumped by a problem, ask a labmate. Most people would rather answer a question or demonstrate a technique than find out you broke a piece of shared equipment. Of course, respect your labmates: plan ahead and ask someone on their schedule, read manuals and protocols before asking for help, and avoid going to the same person every time.

When something isn’t working, take a deep breath and think. No matter what Murphy says, often the problem is minor and obvious. Before you start twisting knobs on a laser that isn’t lasing, confirm that the shutter is open.



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  1. This is all incredibly valuable advice. Of course, I would have ignored most of it if I hadn’t learned it on my own. That’s sad, really.

    I would add. Never trust Aldrich (or any other supplier). Not everything they sell is perfect.

    Comment by Chemgeek — December 4, 2009 #

  2. Great post. I should write up something similar for experimental condensed matter physics. Some of your points (e.g., “Write down a plan”) translate very well to just about any scientific discipline.

    Comment by Doug Natelson — December 5, 2009 #

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