The Organized Lab

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By Lisa Jancarik

Chen Guttman, writing for the blog GradHacker, frames the importance of keeping an organized lab in terms of squandered grant money. He includes among the costs of disorganization: duplicate orders, late orders and wasted or lost materials. Guttman also points out that work in an organized space is less prone to errors and more efficient.

Giving some thought to how a space is organized also encourages good habits (do you know where the safety glasses are in your lab? How about the ones that aren’t completely scratched up?). Consider, too, that taking a few minutes to straighten up before you leave for the night or the weekend makes returning more motivating. Even if you show up ready to take on the world the next day, having to dig out enough of the bench to do a task can take the wind out of your sails.

The Organized Lab Bench

As your first act in organizing your space at the bench, take everything off and clean the benchtop. Then, return only what you need, putting all of the other accumulated odds and ends wherever they belong (especially if that’s the trash). Now, you’re ready to set up for optimal efficiency.

Guttman recommends the following tips for keeping your immediate work surface organized and ready to go:

  • Pipets, tips and tools belong on the side of your dominant hand. Don’t keep three boxes of pipet tips on the bench unless you honestly use three different sizes of pipet tips in your most commonly performed tasks. The trash bin goes here, too.
  • Commonly used solutions belong on the other side. “Commonly used” should be interpreted as “in daily use.” Stock solutions and less commonly used solutions go on upper shelves rather than the work surface itself.
  • Snag your own scissors, labeling tape and marker, wipes, paraffin or whatever consumable items you find yourself rummaging for around the lab. Put your name on them, too.
  • Keep your lab notebook as far from the work area as practical (or keep it elevated, if you must have it immediately to hand) to avoid damage from spills.
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The Organized Stockroom

Organization is the key to preventing duplicate orders (wasting money) or running out of necessary reagents (wasting time). Although primary investigators or lab managers are generally responsible for approving purchase orders, this is the last step in the process. Inventory spreadsheets may need updating and that’s a job for everyone who uses any of the lab’s consumables. Or, maybe recent deliveries aren’t making it to the shelves or getting placed in the right spot. Who is supposed to be doing that task and if it’s not happening, why not? If redundant orders and other inventory mishaps are occurring more than once in a great while, then it’s time to examine how inventory management happens in your lab and to address the breakdowns.

Borrowing Home or Office Organization Tips

A few common takeaways from home and office organization articles cross over into the lab. In case you aren’t caught up on Pinterest.com, here are a few highlights:

  • Everything gets a specific place. This is the big one, and if you don’t have a specific place to store something, then do you really need it in the lab?
  • Go vertical. Now that you’ve got all those greeting cards and baby photos off the wall, consider mounting hooks or racks to store some items.
  • Clutter. What sorts of things end up not having places? Cartoons, holiday cards and postcards provided a smile at the lunch table a few months ago, but has anyone really looked at them lately? Have outdated memoranda come off the cork board? Are you using the freebies from the campus events or conferences? If not, then it’s time to throw them away. Plus, ask the PI if maybe the obsolete or broken equipment has outlived its usefulness: she might be ready to reconsider its worth compared to the value of the flat surface it’s occupying.
  • Folders. Even if your lab is pretty reliant on electronic data management, clutter often consists of papers in some sort of limbo: nothing immediately actionable for you, but you can’t necessarily throw them out yet, either. Create some folders like these: 
  1. WOR (“Waiting on Response”) for papers on hold until someone else acts (e.g., forms awaiting someone’s signature)
  2. A meeting folder for whatever needs to go to your lab meeting
  3. A reading file, with all those journal club articles you’ve been meaning to take a look at.
  4. Also consider a “To File” folder, into which you can jam anything else, and then purge it every Friday.
  • Labels. We’ll revisit this idea more specifically with respect to the lab fridge, but for now consider their general utility. Don’t just label the bottles and other consumables. Label shared items according to where they belong in the lab or shelves according to what kinds of items belong on them. Labels of this sort help people new to the lab to find what they need without a lot of wandering around. Plus, they create some subtle pressure for everyone to return items to their designated spot.
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The Organized Departure

Blogger Alisa Moskaleva writes for MyScizzle.com about making an organized transition out of your current lab. How you depart is an opportunity to earn the respect of future colleagues, and how organized they find your legacy figures into their opinion. Moskaleva’s first recommendation is to make sure that you are the one who cleans out your own space, especially in the refrigerator/freezer. Only you really know how old that buffer is or what is in the bottle with the cryptic label (no partial credit for labels with lousy handwriting), and cold space is at a premium.

Second, she recommends that you take some time to organize your notes for a student or postdoc who might be building on your efforts. Even if you weren’t the most organized soul at the beginning of your time in this lab, you can probably still create at least a table of contents to stick on the front or back of written notebooks.

Overall, maybe lab cleanup day will never be anticipated with glee, but participating in its chores benefits everyone’s safety and progress. A checklist will facilitate the process, but be sure to include the routine maintenance tasks you won’t think of any other time. For example, run the eyewashes, and change the filters in the freezer.

While you’re doing all that, you’ll all have a chance to chat and listen to some music. Afterward, you can all treat yourselves to coffee. You may find that once you’ve been through enough lab cleanup days that you don’t leave quite so much of a mess in the first place, making future cleanups much easier.

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Starting from Scratch: Designing the Organized Lab

What if you have the resources to design new laboratory space? Designing the ideal lab is trying to hit a moving target, as construction can take as many as three years for an entirely new building, and needs will almost certainly have evolved by that point.

Back Up and Observe First

If you really are starting from scratch, then invest the time to watch how students, scientists and lab techs use the space available to them now. This time spent in observation gives principal architect John Kapusnick, of Studio of Metropolitan Design Architects (Philadelphia, PA) a better sense of how the proposed space needs to function.

How the space lends itself to safe and efficient workflows is key. In other words, no one wants to spend all day bumping into equipment that is too big for the allotted space, for example, or notice that the eyewash is in an odd spot only when they need it. “I prefer to sit down with end users or managers and talk about their science,” John Kapusnick says. “If you begin by asking about their preferences for physical layout, they’ll go back to what they’ve always had. Instead, I ask about a typical workday or experiment, and how they would set it up.”

For example, he notes that observation often reveals that the operating footprint of an instrument can be much bigger than its physical size. He also plans placement of utilities, racks, benches and desks based on the functions people perform in their present space. He likes adjustable casework as a means to preserve flexibility when workflows change or storage needs evolve.

Keeping Science Social

Of course, the weekly lab meeting has been a fixture in any scientist’s career, but so has the quick, informal exchange of information in a stairwell. Scientists benefit from the thoughts and insights of their colleagues, and senior researchers need to hear about progress from their direct reports. Consider, then, where these exchanges will happen. Organize your lab to facilitate communication and teamwork:

  • Given the interdisciplinary nature of many teams, avoid identifying spaces with a particular department.
  • Give multidisciplinary teams the flexibility to alter their space as needed: put electrical outlets on the floor, so equipment can be wheeled into place there, and use adjustable casework on casters.