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5 Laboratory Techniques That’ll Get You Punched in the Face
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5 Laboratory Techniques That’ll Get You Punched in the Face

When first learning laboratory techniques, it’s important to start with the ones that will help you keep your front teeth.  We’ve discussed some of the best ways to fit into a lab, but often the worst offenders don’t even realize what they’re doing wrong.  So this is directed at the select few who are making life difficult for the rest of us.  If it turns out you’re “accidentally” performing one of these, it might be better to knock it off before getting knocked out


5. Never wash your dishes

Cleaning up after yourself is a lesson that anyone who’s survived the rigors of kindergarten knows.  That should qualify most of us.  So, despite what your roommates may have convinced you of, the main function of a sink is not to hold dirty dishes – especially in a lab.  Unfortunately, performing laboratory techniques successfully requires more than hope and love.  Specifically, it requires those dirty gel plates you just put in the sink.  Stop wasting time and pick up a sponge…


4. “Borrow” everyone’s buffers and never make your own

Most of us will bend over backward to help a labmate.  Experimental help here, some buffer there – usually the favor is returned and it all comes out in the wash, as they say.  However, while people like feeling helpful, they don’t like feeling taken advantage of.  So if you notice that most of your sentences start with “I’m just gonna borrow a little…” it may be time to try out “I made you a new stock of…”


3. Jump onto an instrument when someone else reserved it

A well-planned experiment requires more choreography than Swan Lake.  Reagents are prepared and instruments are reserved well in advance.  This is called “planning.”  Just as laboratory techniques can’t run on hope alone, experiments almost always require an element of timing.  Penalizing others for your inability to plan is not the answer.


2. Use up the last of a reagent without reordering

In some labs, ordering supplies is the job of one person and can be as easy as telling that person “We need more ____.” In other labs, it may feel more like filling out a loan application followed by a stern grilling from the Congressional Budget Office.  In either case, you have a responsibility to replace reagents that are low or empty.  “Low” can be a grey area, but you know 70mg in a 5kg container of Tris is low.  We realize ordering takes effort and adds another line on your to-do list, but please – pull your weight.  Place the order.


1. Steal a labmate’s project

The granddaddy of all sinful laboratory techniques.  Nothing can devastate lab moral than someone who’s cherry-picking the projects that are actually moving forward.  This is unconscionable and inexcusable. Developing into a great scientist requires the ability to think for yourself and those thoughts should not be “Hey, I should start working on Katie’s project because that’s a gold mine.” If you’re struggling with your project, maybe now’s a good time to refocus and set some new goals for yourself.  Be aware of project boundaries and stay within them.


Like the Great Barrier Reef, the lab environment is a precious ecosystem.  If everyone follows the rules and gets along, the lab will be there years from now for others to enjoy.  But all it takes are a few offenders to ruin the fun for everyone…


Any other offensive laboratory techniques you’d caution against?


11 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. @deray28

    wrote on June 16, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    I have another to add: if you are working on a project with other people, share your results and plan experiments accordingly. You might find that the other person has already done that one experiment that takes 3 weeks to do.

  2. Deborah

    wrote on June 16, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    How about using and damaging other people's pipets, tools or glassware and putting it back dirty/damaged or discarding it without saying anything. Another pet peeve: leaving balance tubes in the centrifuge so that it will be unbalanced for the next run.

  3. whizkid

    wrote on June 16, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    (in a similar vein) and when people break an instrument and just walk away. there used to be someone who would accidentally run the piece of cardboard from a film packet through the developer and then just leave the mess for the next person to deal with. not cool- especially when you're the next person and you don't find out until the lights are out and you've got film ready to develop.

  4. Ψ*Ψ

    wrote on June 16, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    Not isolating the glovebox from the catalyst and testing chamber when using solvents. Results in a bad run of device data for whoever's unlucky enough to be testing, and also leads to having to replace the catalyst later.

  5. Lab Rat

    wrote on June 16, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    Don't put unlabelled items into a communal centrifuge! I did this once (it was late and it was just an overnight culture and I wanted to go home…) and someone else in the lab took them out. Which was highly irritating but I've never done it again since.

  6. orchidhunter

    wrote on June 16, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    Using up all of the room in the -80°C freezer; leaving unidentified chemical dust all over the analytical balances; opening doors while wearing gloves contaminated with ethidium bromide; storing samples in tube racks in the -20°C, instead of boxes, so that I have to pick random tubes off the floor every time I open the door of the freezer and they all come tumbling out. This could potentially be a very long list.

  7. biochem belle

    wrote on June 16, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    Do not ask someone to "help" you with an experiment and then disappear just as the work gets started. If what you really meant is "Here are my samples-please do this thing for me", then you should have said that instead of implying that you'd actually be involved in the process.

  8. biogeek

    wrote on June 17, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Another is treating techs like they are personal slaves. Common decency seems to fall away when some post docs walk into the lab.

  9. Steven

    wrote on June 18, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    How about using all of the Schlenk frits to filter your reaction solution off of Na/Hg. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the frits somehow disappear since someone was too afraid to ask for help with how to clean them.

  10. Debby

    wrote on June 28, 2010 at 11:06 am

    how about insisting you get your name added to a labmate's paper because you did a ridiculously insignificant amount of work on it?

  11. BenchLife: Managing Your Life in the Lab | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on December 2, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    […] 5 Laboratory Techniques that’ll Get You Punched in the Face – avoid the most irritating and annoying lab habits if you want to keep your million dollar smile […]

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