Six ways to start something new in the lab

Photo by National Park Service

You walk into the lab right on time (before 9:00 am of course!), pull out your precisely written protocol from your perfectly organized binder, and get to work. After executing each step flawlessly in a space specifically dedicated to this protocol, you get a nice and clean result because every possible hang-up has already been worked around (and you get to head home right at 5:00 pm of course!). Repeat over and over again until PhD or postdoc is achieved…right?

Photo by National Park Service

Wrong. Though this may have been the vision of what you thought working in a lab would be like, this is rarely the case. While it’s nice to get to do the occasional protocol that is well established in the lab and doesn’t take too much thought to execute, this is not what most people do for a majority of their career. Science is about pushing forward, and that usually means new techniques and frequently working outside of your expertise or comfort zone. Personally, I have enjoyed the thrill, but also suffered the downsides of trying new things throughout my scientific career. I completed my PhD as a cell biology major in an engineering lab, where I established a new assay to answer questions very different from what the main part of the lab was working on. I enjoyed the challenge so much that when I was offered a postdoc opportunity to work on novel transgenic mouse models for a PI who had only worked with Drosophila previously, I jumped on board. I love the continual challenge of doing something new, but it can be lonely, time-consuming, and easy to get tangled in the vast web of trouble-shooting. Here I aim to bring you some common sense advice that I have found useful to starting something new in the lab.

Find someone to follow

When you want to try something new, find someone who has done it. This does require a certain amount of confidence and an outgoing personality, but send those emails to anyone who might know someone who is doing what you want to do. Don’t be afraid to make use of your widest network; I have yet to encounter a scientist who doesn’t want to help someone else. And when you find someone doing the technique you want to try, ask to directly follow and observe them through each step. As we move further through our careers it may feel embarrassing to go back down to a novice level. Even if you are a postdoc following an undergrad around for the day, watching each step of a successful protocol is going to be the best way for you to learn.

If you can’t find someone to learn from in person, don’t be afraid to email the corresponding author of a paper with the technique you want to replicate. Again, scientists generally love science and they will probably be excited about whatever new application you have for their technique. Ask for an explicitly written protocol and see what meeting or conference they are going to next so you could try to meet up in person.

Don’t be afraid to ask the “stupid” questions

If you are following your new mentor around the lab and you don’t understand why they are doing something a certain way, make sure you ask! Remember, you are going to have to take what you learned and execute it in your lab, which may be a completely different kind of space. You need to know why they do it the way they do so you can adapt any aspects to a new environment. It’s ok to not know something, even if you have years and years of experience in your lab and in your field; you’re never above learning something new. Same goes for the specific reagents used—it may not matter, but it’s better to get exact catalog numbers first and figure out if it matters later.

Planning makes perfect

So you spent some time following your new mentor through each step of the technique, you have ordered all the required reagents (so you think), and it’s go time! Before you just try it, actually write out all the steps for yourself and accumulate each tool and/or reagent you would need to complete the whole process. Doing this dry run will save you tons of time if you discover that you are missing some crucial element. It might be as small as a type of pipette or a specific size of tube, but especially if the protocol is time sensitive, you don’t want to spend your actual first try running around trying to find the things you need.

Nothing works the first time

You did it! You did the whole protocol exactly as you think it should be done, and it didn’t work. Science is 99% failure. Even protocols you have done hundreds of times sometimes fail. Don’t get all your hopes and dreams caught up in your first try (always my biggest mistake). It’s going to take time to establish something new in your lab. Make sure you account for this both in terms of your time as well as reagents. Think through where you could have gone wrong, touch base with your mentor, and persevere.

Keep good notes

You should always keep good notes and an organized lab notebook. That being said, it’s easy to fall into a note-taking rut when you’re doing the same thing over and over. Make sure you get out of the rut when you start troubleshooting a new protocol. Use your planning dry run to type up a protocol that you can then modify as you go. You may think you’ll remember what you did differently each time, but when it gets to be the 10th try you’re never going to remember what is different about each run. And once you have tried numerous things, it’s much easier to ask for help from your mentor or discuss it in your lab meeting when you have properly labeled experiments.

Don’t let yourself become isolated

Implementing something new in the lab can be a long and tedious process. If your entire project is built on doing something new, and particularly far from what the rest of your group is doing, it’s easy to become isolated. You may not even be in the same space as your lab mates most of the time, or you may not think your peers can help or that they would even be interested in what you’re doing. It’s essential to stay actively engaged with others. Academic science is hard and we all need support. Your peers are probably busy with their own work but would be more than happy to grab a coffee and discuss your new project if you ask. Individual and diverse backgrounds can shed new light on your troubleshooting problems, and who knows, they might also be struggling with a new protocol that you know something about.

In addition to staying involved with your own lab, don’t forget about the people who taught you this new technique. Maintaining those relationships throughout your career can bud fruitful collaborations. Maybe this technique didn’t work out, but something in the future likely will. Keeping your network diverse will both help you complete new things and do better science in the future.

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.


About the Author:

Amanda Haage is a newly minted assistant professor at the University of North Dakota. She previously trained as a postdoctoral fellow in Guy Tanentzapf’s Lab at the University of British Columbia and received her PhD in 2014 from Iowa State University in Ian Schneider’s Lab. She is generally interested in how the microenvironment regulates cellular behavior as well as promoting diversity and inclusion in science. Twitter: @mandy_ridd and Email: