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Starting Grad School: The beauty of a clean lab book


Occasionally, I have the realisation that I am not entirely sane. Not in a catastrophic hearing-voices type way, but when I talk to myself and then remember that this is not normal. This morning I arrived at the sports centre to discover that circuits wasn’t on, and I would just have to go run in the gym instead. Upon finding my mp3 player in the bottom of my bag, and realising that I had in fact remembered to put it on hold (therefore meaning there was enough battery to get me through a 40 minute hill slog) I smiled and mentally called myself a good girl .

This is a regular occurrence for me: when Past Me does Future Me a favour I am prone to congratulate myself in the way that I might address a dog on her best behaviour. Yesterday, I sowed some more seed ready for protein extractions. Of the four deletion lines I regularly work combined with I have maybe 30 envelope of seed derived from different plants. When I last sowed seed (for the RNA that makes up my qPCR study) I had the genius idea of marking each packet with a star so that Future Me would know which plant the seed had come from. When I discovered this yesterday, I was so pleased that I rewarded myself with a cup of tea.

Science is a bitch. Some days a reaction will only work if you use sample 7a, where your lucky pants and put the reaction in the the Ringmasters PCR machine (yes, I named my PCR machines after barbershop quartets – they sit next to the Realtime PCR machine: the others are Platinum, Crossroads and Storm front). And the only thing worse than doing all the work to find that out is then not being able to replicate it because you didn’t write it down.

It’s very easy to say ‘keep a spotless lab book’ (and sample sheet and freezer and…) and much harder to implement, so here are my go to golden tips:
Date everything: However badly the rest of the tube is labelled, if the date is legible you can probably match it up with more sensible instructions in your lab book. (E.g. A 29012013 becomes sample A from 29/03/2012, which is then identified as Arabidopsis Line 34 tested with GapDH primers using NEB OneTaq at 58C)
– Write out protocols on the computer and print them: Possibly a huge waste of toner but it means that while working across multiple lab books you can just search for the date (I label PCR protocols in the form e.g. 29012013 GapDH PCR
Initial everything: To prevent anyone using / confusing / contaminating / throwing out your samples.*
Leave space between protocols: Don’t write back-to-back. If you have blank half pages around it may waste some paper but it allows you to slot in analysis / gels / things you forgot.
– Have magic tape on your desk. And your bench. And in your rucsac: I used to have a teacher who would hurl books across the classroom so that any loose leaves would fly out. You should be able to do this with your exercise book.
– As soon as you start a new sample box, make a grid and stick it into your lab book: You might only have 4 samples in there right now. But you’ll keep adding a couple and adding a couple until you have no idea where anything is. Or you’ll need to come back a year later and have forgotten. 

Anybody else have any lab book saving tips?

* Fun story. After my first rotation the lab I had been working in had a massive clean out. I still maintain that I had had it so well beaten in to me that everything was initially that there was no way I would have left anything unlabelled, let alone my precious box of hard-won cDNA that was in my labelled freezer drawer. Nevertheless, the whole lot was scrapped. Oh wait, that wasn’t a fun story. It was a shit story. Label your stuff.

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4 responses to “Starting Grad School: The beauty of a clean lab book

  1. I’ve found that even going as far as time-stamping my lab book can be useful. Especially when doing a big burst of work, or something that’s stupidly sensitive- sometimes the weather has an effect!
    Good point about labelling samples. We’re lucky enough to have private cupboards for our samples, but we still are supposed to label them and keep a catalogue on our group computer space. Can save a hell of a lot of time- “don’t do that, it ends up with a sample that looks liiiike… this!”

  2. I can’t nod fast enough to agree with you on the importance of good lab notebook keeping! So many times Past Me has screwed over Future Me by just not writing something down, since I’m just “redoing” an older protocol I’ve already detailed, only to change something on the fly and think my brain is awesome enough to actually store mental notes (guess what – it’s not!). I think anything you do should be so that Future You treats themselves to tea. Now I just have to take my own advice…

  3. Pingback: Starting Grad School: You don’t have to wrestle the snake! | bakingbiologist

  4. Pingback: Starting Grad School: You don’t have to wrestle the snake! | bakingbiologist

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