Thursday, December 10, 2009

Everyday (lab) living

Last weekend I went on a slightly obsessive-compulsive cleaning spree in my tiny kitchen and consulted Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook (hey, it was a gift... and actually quite useful) to refresh my memory on cleaning the coffee maker (which I highly recommend doing-my homebrew is fantastic this week). As I was flipping to the appropriate section, I noted a page headed: "Six Things to Do Every Day". According to Martha, we should do the following daily:
  1. Make the bed. Because "Tidiness begets tidiness"
  2. Manage clutter.
  3. Sort the mail.
  4. Clean as you cook.
  5. Wipe up spills while they're fresh.
  6. Sweep the kitchen floor.
There are explanations for each, which I (mostly) redacted, but this list makes sense when you think about the things that you spend so much time on during weekly/monthly/semi-annual cleaning. They are the little things that can be managed quickly when they are still little things (a book here, a glass there) but can quickly grow into behemoth monsters if you wait.

Similar things happen in labs. We decide to file papers A through D over the weekend, wash X tomorrow, put away Y later, order Z this week, and before we know it, we can't find our desks for the piles of papers, our benches have descended into chaos, we can't find anything, and we can't run experiments because we're out of reagents. So I got to thinking, what would Martha's list look like if she worked in a lab? Thus I bring you "Six Things to Do Every Day: Science Edition". (You will note some redundancy.)
  1. Manage clutter. Some scientists have a place for everything: every pipette, tip box, tube rack, reagent, etc. When they're done with an experiment, everything goes back in its place. I was not this person in grad school; I am now, and it saves me so much time looking for things.
  2. Update your lab notebook. We want results, but documentation is equally important*. In academic labs, many scientists are not particularly vigilant in this regard. We scribble down notes on post-its, gloves, paper towels. We shove the printouts of our raw data, graphs, or Westerns in the notebook. Then we transfer everything to our notebook maybe once a week. Doing this daily--both the writing and the scrapbooking (as I refer to cutting, pasting, taping, or otherwise affixing raw data and other bits of paper to the notebook)--offers several advantages.
  3. Wipe up spills when they're fresh. Because it really pisses people off when they have to clean up after you; it's disgusting and potentially hazardous, seeing as they have no way of knowing what the dried up gunk is.
  4. Plan out your next day's experiments. I find that I am most productive and efficient when I plan my next day's experiments before I leave for home. This gives me a focused task to accomplish when I walk in the next day, so I can started right away. Although this may seem obvious to some, planning out experiments includes checking supplies to ensure that you have what you need to run the experiment. If you don't have the supplies, then you know what you need to beg or borrow before you are elbow deep in samples. Speaking of supplies...
  5. Make a list of reagents and supplies that are running low. Make an actual list on a post-it or note card or whatever, not a 'mental note' because mental notes have a greater tendency to disappear. Once a week, source and order whatever is on your list.
  6. Scan literature search RSS feeds. The sheer volume of research being published in any given area is astonishing. Much of it has no bearing on our personal/lab research interests, but there are jewels out there as well. RSS feeds for saved PubMed searches or articles in press from publishers are a great way to stay on top of what's happening now. Others may have longer attention spans than I do, but I find whenever my article feeds go beyond ~20 new entries, then I have a tendency to scan through without paying much attention to the title. Taking 5 minutes to scan through the feeds every day helps keep me from skipping over those gems.
My list is not the be-all, end-all. So what does your list look like?

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Zen said...

For those in biology: Check your animals!

Nice post!

Dr Becca, PhD said...

Great list, BCB!! I want to print it out and hang it all over my lab! Everyone should see this.

scicurious said...

Excellent list! Especially the clutter bit. If only I could convince my labmates...I'm constantly looking for stuff that they pick up, take with them and shed in various places around the lab. And lab notebooks are not just for YOU, they are for the people who come after you and really need to know what you did.

Yes: animals. Check them. Every day. In theory there's other people hired to do this, but more than one check never hurts.

And cleaning out the coffeemaker goes for the lab as well as the home. :)

Anonymous said...

I think I may need to print that list out and post it all over the lab :) (and my apartment for that matter!)

biochem belle said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone! Seems like regardless of our fields, we encounter similar "issues".

@ scicurious-anyone who tackles the lab coffeemaker gets extra points in my book :)

Anonymous said...

The Martha Steward lab! Brilliant!

(Though Manage Clutter, in my life, needs many, many subcategories. Sometimes I think that's all I do everywhere...try to manage the clutter.)

biochem belle said...

I hear ya, Ink. The clutter is never conquered... I'm always trying to manage it too.

chall said...

I'm good at the Martha list. altohugh, I didn't know of it before today :) (ignoring the clutter bit a bit)

In lab... ehh.. write in your lab book everyday... although I don't do that. But in my mind... but I do clean and leave it tidy. Almost all the time ^^

Lab Rat said...

Manage clutter - heh, very true. my problem is that I'm quite good at sorting out the 'wet lab' clutter, always make sure the bench is clean at the end of each day, but my 'dry lab' aka computer space, is a mess! Papers and chocolate wrappers and plastic bags (from bringing lunch in) all over the place.

biochem belle said...

Lab Rat - Clutter seems to take over many of my colleagues' desk areas. Sometimes their desks disappear entirely under meter-high (literally) stacks of papers. I don't know how they do it. I lose my junk before it gets that bad.