Memoirs Of A Microbiologist; 11 Things I Wish They’d Told Me Before Working In The Lab

After recently graduating from Newcastle University with a 1st Class BSc with honours in Medical Microbiology (no bragging here, honest) I have been lucky enough to start employment in a lab as a Research Associate; and I am loving it! As with any new job I was nervous to begin with and still am from time to time but I feel like I am settling in quite well, getting used to how things are run. Since starting I have had to change some of my habits and practices but have found that others have come in very useful. Many of you reading this will hopefully have just graduated too (congrats!) or are hoping to soon, or have already graduated and you’re looking for a job and some advice. Or you’ve just stumbled across this post by accident- but now that I have your attention I thought I’d share some of my experience and tips this week with you lovely people. I’m turning it up to 11 in here, with my top tips.

11) The Hours Are So…So….So….Long.
 And you’d be right. If you’re working or looking for a career in science at the bench you’re going to find yourself at times doing all-nighters for those growth curves, midnight trips into the lab to check up on that HPLC and generally finishing later than what you’d like. This is going to happen at some point because that’s just the type of work it is but we do it because we enjoy the work. Most of the time.
It’s not all a gloomy start here though because with experience it will get better; you’ll become faster with procedures, manage your time more efficiently, choose what you can leave until tomorrow morning and what needs to be done then and there. Experience will shorten the day but you will still find yourself leaving the lab at 7pm or 8pm some days.

10) Label Everything. Everything!
 No matter if it’s just a test tube you’re going to discard in half an hour or what, this habit pays dividends in the long run. For example, I find it best to label my cultures with the organism, the media, my name and the date that I made it. It can sometimes be a lot to fit onto your glassware and equipment but it tells you everything you need to know and when it comes time to organising your bench/fridge, sometimes years after you’ve made it, the last thing you need is a mystery vial to scratch your head over.

9) Plan Ahead/Sticky Notes Are Your Friend
 This piece of advice is pretty generic, I know, but nonetheless it’s best to stick to the basics and it is especially important in a bacterial lab where samples/cultures can take a night or a week to grow, depending on what you’re working on. You don’t want to prepare your experiments for the day and following week only to realise your samples haven’t grown sufficiently yet. Or worse, that they’re contaminated.
Trust me, it’s frustrating.
I find sticky notes or a page torn from a notebook and taped the to shelf/wall at your bench is a great short-term way of keeping track of what you’ve done/need to do. Like a shopping list, just tick it off as you’ve done it!

8) The Cold-room Is The Cool-room
 It’s hitting 30 degrees in your’ lab… The windows are jammed shut. The Bunsen burners are on full blast. Your labcoat is hanging off you like a damp rain-poncho.
You need to quickly pop to the cold-room.
Most labs will have a walk-in cold-storage or work room for experiments/supplies that need to be kept at a low temperature, not only are these useful for storing solutions, fresh petri dishes and old ones, a few minutes in a beautifully chilled 4 degree room can do wonders to refresh you when the paint is practically melting down the walls. Now, I’m not saying you should skip off and have a cigarette break in here; but a few minutes if you have them free won’t hurt and can help you maintain your concentration and motivation in the long run while everyone else is melting like ice-cream. Keep your cool.

7) Do Not Piss Off the Technician!
If your lab is affluent enough to be able to employ a lab technician, try not to get on their badsides. This isn’t speaking from personal experience as such; it’s just common sense, kind of like not annoying the person who cooks for you, like not biting the hand that feeds you. People can be petty in and out of the workplace and you don’t want your experiments ruined or delayed because a reagent or glassware has magically vanished or there is suddenly a five year queue for the autoclave, which brings us onto…

6) If Possible, Learn To Use the Autoclaves Yourself/Love Thy Lab Chores
 For those who don’t know; autoclaves are machines that are used to sterilise equipment, solutions and media using high pressure and temperature. They may be difficult to fix, but the majority are easy enough to use. This ties in with Tip No. 7 as the lab technician will generally be the master of these things. If you’re in bad graces with them and it’s going to take 4 days for you to sterilise a single bottle it may be best to learn how to use these machines yourself, and even if you’re not it can’t hurt to help them out. It’s also useful for those quick “I forgot to add this” moments.
Really cracking in with the lab chores when you have nothing much on is also a good way to spend your time; it makes sure supplies/glassware is readily available for yourself and others and it’s always a feather in your cap.
It goes without saying that training on any equipment used (such as the autoclaves) should be sought officially.

5) Learn Your Environment
 It sounds like common sense but just taking a few hours or a day to learn where all your vital supplies (pipettes, tips, beakers, Eppendorf tubes etc.) are can save a lot of time and hassle in the long run. Which again leads us onto…

4) Be A Squirrel
 Or at the least, think like a squirrel. If you can’t realistically stash a few abundant supplies away in the lab, at least learn where others stash theirs or the lab’s backup supply. You don’t want to run out of yeast extract halfway through making some media for example.

3) Time Management
 Yeah, you could go grab a cup of tea while your gels are running…or you could start setting up your next experiment. It could save you your dinner break.
For example I’ve started to make and sterilise my media on an evening so that it’s sterile and ready for use in the morning. As a thorough autoclave cycle for, say, agar is 120 degrees for 30 minute cycles, this can save you a good two hours twiddling your thumbs in the morning. In the long run it can mean the difference of finishing at 5 or finishing at 7.
(And I know what you’re thinking; yes the agar will solidify overnight in the bottle but a quick autoclave or microwave in the morning will sort it out, just remember to loosen the lid so that it doesn’t explode).

2) Know the Experts
 Everyone in the lab will be particularly good at one thing or another. Simon is a whizz at protein purification. Sarah can avoid contamination like a freckly kid avoids sunlight. John has never had a PCR fail (don’t believe him).
Whoever they are, and whatever they’re good at, it’s always worth it to note who knows what in your lab. That way, when you run into trouble or issues yourself, you know who to buy a cheeky pint for in exchange for some advice.

And lastly, I think the best tip I can give anyone starting work in a lab…

1) Murphy’s Law
 What can go wrong, will go wrong. Your experiments will fail. PCR’s will give blank/confusing results. Purified enzymes will go off faster than a kebab left in a gym bag.
Experiments will fail, it’s unavoidable but the quicker you accept it, the easier things will become. Yes, a good rant now and again is carthargic and perfectly natural, I’m not saying you have to become the Dalai Llama but why not turn these negatives and failures into opportunities to learn the minutiae and quirks of the procedures, what works and what doesn’t. In the long run, it’s this hands-on experience that marks a veteran scientist and this is only gained over time, trial and error.

And there you have it. My top 11 tips for those who are thinking of or are starting work in a lab. I know that many of these sound very specific to microbiology, a lot of them can be applied to a range of biomedical disciplines and fields. So I hope you’ve learnt a thing or two today, and are raring to go. Go get ‘em!



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