Controlling the chaos: trainee tips for keeping the lab organized

Labs are naturally chaotic places. There are multiple people in a small space all working on different projects in their own style and on their own schedule. At best, this controlled chaos can bring forth incredible collaboration and creativity, but at worst, a truly unorganized lab can stop all productivity in its tracks. I’ve had the great fortune of working in several labs all with very different work environments, ranging from a brand new lab with only two members to a well-established lab with over 20 people. Only half of the labs I’ve worked in had a dedicated lab manager, and organization of daily lab operations is often left to the students and postdocs who spend most of their time there. As trainees, we are taught how to become good, independent scientists. Yet, we are rarely taught the organizational and management skills necessary for a productive lab environment, despite the fact that we often carry an outsized role in these tasks. Therefore, I want to share some basic tips and tricks that have helped bring harmony and organization to my lab (despite my naturally unorganized tendencies) and that may help others do the same.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Lab organization isn’t just about labels and records; labs are first and foremost based on human interactions. Labs only work efficiently when all lab members work together, and the same is true even for the most basic organizational tasks. Make sure to share lab chores with all members and have a clear, written record of everyone’s roles. This is especially important for tasks that no one wants to do but must be done to keep the lab afloat, like washing glassware, making common buffers, and placing orders. For example, in our lab we have an assigned chore list, and we randomly rotate who has each task every couple months so that all lab members learn how to do each chore (I’m currently in charge of refilling pipet tip boxes). Take the time to learn the personalities and work habits of all your lab mates and find ways to help, rather than hinder, their productivity; this simple gesture of understanding and respect will go a long way.

Don’t wait for the motivation to organize

Let’s be real, no one actually enjoys cleaning out the freezers or cataloging all the antibodies. So instead of waiting for a moment of inspiration to arrive, schedule an annual lab cleanup day and have everyone dedicate a couple hours to clean off the bench tops, defrost the freezers, thoroughly clean common equipment, and take full inventory of what you have, what you need, and what can be thrown out. Many hands make light work when cleaning out an entire lab!

Keep centralized, digital records of everything

Document EVERYTHING in a central place. I cannot stress this enough. Especially in large or growing labs, having an online inventory of lab information is crucial for efficiency. There are a lot of great free tools that can be used to keep your digital records organized. My current lab has had great success with Google Sites and its built-in wiki tools as well as Google Drive. We keep an updated order tracker and an inventory of every tube in the liquid nitrogen, all antibodies, all plasmids, all raw data, and all protocols (most useful). We also use digital lab notebooks through Microsoft Office 356 OneNote, but there are plenty of other free online tools available as well. By keeping an easily accessible, online record, nobody has to stumble through that protocol that only the postdoc from five years ago knew how to do or figure out where in the freezer the empty control vector is hiding.

Label everything

Anyone who has worked in a lab knows that awful moment when you’re looking for a certain sample only to find an unmarked or poorly marked tube with a scary-looking liquid inside. Not only is this a safety hazard, but it’s a waste of time and money to have to throw out unknown tubes. Label all of your samples in great detail with lab-grade markers or printed labels, and consider keeping an online spreadsheet of all sample box contents as mentioned above. In addition, label every drawer and shelf with what belongs there, especially in common areas. Although it may look ridiculous to have so many labels, it will save you from a lot of headaches later on.

Find a communication platform that works for your lab

Our lab rapidly doubled in size a year ago, and in so doing, communication between everyone got a whole lot more complicated. Keeping a dozen email/text threads going all at once wasn’t working for us, so we turned to a team communication app called Slack to keep all our communication easily centralized and organized by topic or subgroup. It’s completely revolutionized how we work and talk to each other. Sharing ideas, data, and even basic lab announcements has never been easier, especially between the busiest lab members. There are a ton of free or cheap group messaging and team workspace apps available (I know other labs that use WhatsApp or GroupMe), so try a few out with your lab and see what works for everyone.

Be a good neighbor

Use common courtesy. If you’re the last person to use up a reagent, be sure to place a new order so that your lab mates aren’t left scrambling. If you take a reagent off the shelf, put it back when you’re done. Don’t be passive-aggressive; if there is a genuine problem with how the lab is running, then it’s best to talk it out instead of letting it fester over time. Poor social dynamics will slow down productivity in lab, so trying your best to encourage a friendly (or at least tolerant) lab environment will help everyone work better. And importantly, don’t forget new people! Labs often have a rotating cast of new students and postdocs who can get lost in the shuffle, so make sure new people feel welcomed and are brought up to speed on how your lab functions. Make a “new lab member info” packet with contact info, a map of where everything is in lab, standard operating procedures and common protocols, and citations for background reading on the lab’s work.

Keep in mind that it’s not your sole responsibility as a student or postdoc to keep the lab organized, but you can make a significant difference by encouraging your lab to share that task together and by making lab organization a normal part of the lab culture. Don’t be afraid to start conversations with your PI one-on-one or at lab meetings about changes your lab can make; even a couple small suggestions may have a big impact. It’s on all of us, from new students to seasoned PIs, to develop good habits in lab so that we can spend more time doing great science and less time hunting for lost samples.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

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