Help my start my biology research on the right foot
December 27, 2009 6:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm starting a 3 month research project in a neuroscience lab as part of my Masters program. What should I know/do in order to make it go as smoothly as possible?

I'll be working with mice.

The type of experiments I'll be doing: immunocytochemistry, cellular cartography, behavioral testing.

I'm looking for general or specific advice on: keeping a lab notebook, being organised, staying on top of the bibliography, not letting the lab swallow up my entire life, and above all making a good impression on my supervisor!
posted by snoogles to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Are there other grad students working in your lab? See if you can set up a couple of organizational meetings to come to an agreement about exactly these. How the lab notebook is written, standard conventions and definitions, how everyone's time is scheduled, etc. If you're dong any kind of behavioral stuff at all, you need to be very specific with your agreed-upon definitions of a behavioral display (and where to draw the line at a partial response).

Also talk to your supervisor(s) about the kind of progress schedule they'd like to see, and try to stick to it.
posted by Jon_Evil at 7:07 AM on December 27, 2009

I have no idea if this is a problem for you, but some people react to being out of their comfort zone by being very defensive of the ego; don't be that guy. You're there to learn, and the best advice I have for a lab summer is to keep that in mind. Observe and be present, most of the little things that people are doing they have a reason for. Go ahead and ask.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:43 AM on December 27, 2009

If you break something, tell someone. I don't care if you've broken the $40,000 machine that I need to do all of my research, I'm going to be less pissed off if you tell me right away so I can get it fixed. Just tell someone.

Say please and thank you. Training someone is hard. Don't be a total brown-noser, just acknowledge that the person showing you how to do stuff is taking time from their own work to help you. Personally, I accept bribery in the form of cookies.

Take notes. All the time. Write it down in your lab notebook immediately. (I'm bad about this, but it is completely worth it most of the time)

If you're doing a new protocol, ask for a written version of it the day before so you can read it over before doing it.

The first time you do something, do it when there are other people around. This is a lesson that I've learned over and over again. You may think that it is easy but there's going to be one reagent that you can't find.

Learn how to calculate dilutions.
(volume init)(concentration init) = (volume final)(concentration final)

Be on time.

You're going to have to work on weekends sometimes. You're going to have to work more than 8 hours a day sometimes. Yeah, it isn't wonderful all the time, but you like this stuff, remember?

Lab safety training is annoying. So are protocols for dealing with animals.

The fact that you're asking this is a good sign that you're going to have a good experience. Good luck and have fun.
posted by sciencegeek at 7:58 AM on December 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and before you start, ask for a good list of papers to read. Then read them.
posted by sciencegeek at 7:59 AM on December 27, 2009

Things WILL go wrong. This is especially true well working with live animals. Make sure you have extra time an recourses for when:

- An animal inexplicably dies
- a lab assistant/volunteer forgets to feed your animals (I was the assistant in this case!),
- a power failure affects your animal holding facility,
- a protocol does not have all the important details,
- a protocol is out of date,
- a protocol is wrong,
- you screw something up,
- someone else screws something up,
- chemicals you thought you had are passed the expiry date,
- chemicals/equipment is not in stock and will take a long time to arrive,
- a machine doesn't work,
- it's impossible to figure out how a new machine works,
- a machine stops working in the middle of an experiment,
- a machine required a lot of set up that no one informed you of previously,
- your supervisor tells you about 10 experiments you should have done with a week left,
- your supervisor tells you 10 experiments you should NOT be doing at the start of your research
- your supervisor decides that you should completely change the focus of your project after reading a new paper
- you get scooped by another research team
- you can't get ahold of the one lab tech/postdoc/PhD who actually knows how to use the equipment
- tissue was not stored correctly
- samples became contaminated
- etc., etc., etc.,

and I haven't even started on the pitfalls of field research. In short, never assume anything will be quick and easy even if it is a common procedure and has been done often in your lab.

Good luck!
posted by Midnight Rambler at 8:49 AM on December 27, 2009

When you set up a row of tubes that you're going to add various reagents to, move each tube back a space as you add each reagent. Or forward. whatever works.

Make checklists.
Make a to do list every morning when you get in or every evening before you leave.

Label things really well. You won't remember next week if you just label things 1, 2, 3, etc. Label the tops and sides of tubes. If you misplace the lid you won't know what is in the tube. If you don't label the top you're going to spend a half hour looking for one tube in a box full of tubes.

Do not make dinner plans that require everything at lab to take a reasonable amount of time.

Get phone numbers for people in the lab. Give them yours.

Do not sign up for the scope and then not use it.

You will most likely be assigned a specific person who will train you. In a lab with ten people, there will be ten ways to do a protocol. Most of these actually work, but since you're working with "Bob," you do it Bob's way. If Bob's way doesn't work ... well, you're going to have an interesting three months. Choose who you ask things intelligently. Don't ask the guy who doesn't know what he's doing. Generally, you can ask Bob who you should ask about stuff when Bob isn't around.

Don't let Bob use you for too much scutwork. You've got three months to get something done in. That's not much time. You do owe Bob for the time spent training, but you have to get stuff done.

If you finish a reagent, tell someone. Scientists get pissed off when someone finishes the last of the milk and then puts the empty or almost empty container back in the fridge.

Don't skip lab meeting.
posted by sciencegeek at 9:09 AM on December 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

>>keeping a lab notebook

1. Try to find out beforehand what's the general procedure for this in the lab.
2. Even if there is no strict protocol (and especially so), every single day when you come in, write down the date and the objectives for that day. Write up the procedure the same day as you go (especially if learning for the first time, you will forget things people tell you) or at the end of the day.
3. Make a copy of your results (eg scan/dry gels and stick them in the notebook) and more importantly write down a discussion. What you think they mean, what do they really mean (help from people in lab/supervisor) and what you are going to do next.
4. (General rule) Try to write things keeping in mind that when you leave the lab, the person who picks up from where you left can follow things just from the notebook.

>> being organised
1. Keep your own notebook/progress notebook in addition to lab notebook.
2. Write down the overall Aims of the project. The methods you are going to use to accomplish these. What you expect to get and what you are going to do next in either case.
3. Have a weekly and monthly plan. Plan and strategize it almost like a military operation. What, why, how, whats next?
4.Everyday before coming in, have a plan. Of course you will learn things from people so initially, your time will depend a lot on other people's schedules. Keep articles ready to read in case someone arrives late, you have to wait for something or someone, or even incubation times. Even if you don't have articles to read on the project, you can do your own school work to fill time slots.
5.If you need to write a report at the end of the training, it would help to know the format and such before you even start. Develop writing strategies. Some are here
6. At least one full article a day. I can't find one of the answers I read here, there was a former student who used to read just the discussion part of 2-3(?) articles a day and so s/he would go through the entire literature in a month or more. I like that strategy.
7. In addition to research related articles, at least one article on general organization or business articles- things you think you can work on. Every one is different so you know best what areas you can improve. It doesn't have to be something as focussed as time management, even improving your interpersonal skills..things you won't be taught in school but you'll surely need to learn in the long run.
>> staying on top of the bibliography

>>not letting the lab swallow up my entire life
1. Don't plan to spend all day and evening in the lab!
2. Make weekly plans to meet up with friends or do other things that are important to you.
3.Think of your time and plan it as distinct packets or blocks, not a continuous stretch.

>>making a good impression on my supervisor!
1. Develop a strong work ethic. I liked some comments here
2. Be sincere about learning and develop integrity. Like mentioned above, everyone makes mistakes but if they happen, own up to them.
3. Discuss expectations beforehand, follow them sincerely and have regular meetings with boss to discuss progress and future course of action.

Side notes:
1. Don't forget to network while you are at it.
2. Personally, I don't like being bribed in any form and if someone did that to me, it could backfire. A simple acknowledgment works just as fine. And even without it, its always a pleasure to be able to teach others and learn from them, as much as they learn from you.
3.Last but not the least, don't forget to ENJOY your research!!
posted by xm at 9:37 AM on December 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

(The links may not be directly applicable to you but you can certainly use some of the mentioned strategies)
posted by xm at 9:45 AM on December 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Good advice upthread, but don't be too disappointed if you don't really get anywhere in 3 months. Science is frustratingly slow, and 3 months is only just about enough time to learn how to perform all the techniques correctly. If you have the chance to re-up for another 3 months, you might feel a lot more productive during your second stint.
posted by Quietgal at 11:20 AM on December 27, 2009

I came in here to say the same thing Quietgal just said. Three months is hardly any time at all, especially when first getting into a project. If things don't go too far, don't worry about it, it is probably not your fault. Getting anywhere in periods of time shorter than 6 months to a year is largely about some combination of luck and the project to which you're assigned. Stay organized as best as you can, ask as many questions as you have, but consider it a situation in which you are learning more than a situation in which you are completing someone else's research goals. Good luck, and enjoy! Science can be painful on the day to day level, but it's an awful lot of fun too.
posted by Schismatic at 1:32 PM on December 27, 2009

Use BibTeX for every paper you ever look at. Keep all the PDFs around, keep track of the filenames (i put them in my bib file), and make a quick note of what's in the paper.

Keep your filesystem organized. Put a file in every directory you make with the date the directory was made, what exactly is in it, any settings or parameters if its a dataset, and a changelog of *everything* you do.

Keep your raw data and analyses separate. Make sure you write down every step in the analysis (and preferably script it, if you're using R or such) and periodically redo everything (this is why having it automatic is great). It really, really, really sucks to think you can duplicate what you did before, and it ends up that you were using a slightly different dataset and can't without a lot more effort.

Along with that, keep all the code & parameters around for every plot you make. Keep the plot with a file explaining what the plot is, what data it came from, parameters, etc. if its not 100% totally obvious to someone else (you'll forget, or someone will ask and you won't be able to recall everything instantly, etc).

The really important thing, though, is staying on a direction. In 3 months you don't have time to get side tracked. You can easily spend a day doing something interesting, but eventually useless, because you just are plodding along and it seems like the next logical thing. And it may be, but it also may be a waste of time in the larger picture. My solution to this is to tape a piece of paper with a numbered list of "STUFF THAT NEEDS TO GET DONE" above my monitor, and then when I start drifting off on something unhelpful I'll look back up, go "oh yeah, I should probably put this off until later."
posted by devilsbrigade at 1:38 PM on December 27, 2009

Do not make dinner plans that require everything at lab to take a reasonable amount of time.

Also, this. As many other people have said, things will go wrong, and the more flexibly you can deal with it the saner you'll stay.
posted by devilsbrigade at 1:41 PM on December 27, 2009

Be nice, very nice, to the lab technicians...
posted by bluefrog at 4:24 PM on December 27, 2009

I did something similar to this last summer. My advice is to double-check all of your protocols - don't take anybody's word for it. I spent three months on a project that wasn't working because we had been doing simultaneous digestions with two different enzymes. This is what my boss and the other student in the lab (who had been there far longer than I) told me to do. The two enzymes had different active temperatures, and so one of them never worked. By the time we figured it out, my fellowship was nearly over.
posted by honeybee413 at 8:14 PM on December 27, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I'm not going to mark a best answer as they're all extremely helpful. I can't wait to start!
posted by snoogles at 9:40 AM on December 29, 2009

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