Lab life.

How to be a good labmate.

All PhD students have their own projects to work on. It is your sole focus for about 4 years of your life so understandably you would want to pursue your research question as far and wide as the time (and money!) permits you. However, regardless of how independent you are as a researcher, you will always be part of a team – your lab group. No matter whether you are a part of a big lab group or, like me, a much smaller one – you are going to have to help each other out and you will need to rely on someone many times during your PhD.

Now these relationships that you have with your lab group is essential to how successful your PhD will be and how much you enjoy your time at the lab bench. So, it is crucial that you keep them happy and they keep you on side to not sour that working relationship and make those four years or so of PhD research harder than it needs to be!

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I think we are all guilty of getting a bit lazy around the lab from time to time, me included! I am well aware that we are all human and sometimes do make mistakes and forget to do something but we need to remember this team ethic and find ways to become a reliable and valuable member of that lab group! So I thought for today’s blog post I would share a few quick tips to make your lab life and the life of your lab mates that little bit easier. Now if they seem obvious to you, then you must be ahead of the game!

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1. Invest in your project.

So I am starting off with something that probably wasn’t what you were expecting to be on this particular list of advice and perhaps seems a bit counter intuitive. But what’s the point on being a good lab mate if you’re not in the lab and taking pride in your research in the first place. In my opinion, if people see that you want to get the most out of your project in the time limit, then they will be more willing to help you out to meet your goals. Plus, you never know – seeing you manage your specific project requirements as well as all the general lab jobs we all need to do may inspire the others around you to get more things done – which leads to a more productive and happier overall lab environment.

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2. Ask before you borrow.

You would think as intelligent functioning adults that researchers would have the manners to ask the owner before using a piece of equipment or chemical, or even something as insignificant as a pen or some lab tape – but you would be surprised with the amount of people who don’t. And what makes it worse is that many of these people don’t even return whatever they’ve borrowed so you often spot people walking into different labs asking if they’ve seen various possessions of theirs that have been taken without their consent.

All I have to say on this one is just be polite and ask before you take something. Not only is it the polite thing to do but you wont lose the respect of others around you and they are more likely then to help you in a time of need compared to if you’ve annoyed them by taking their things.

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3. Be reliable and be flexible.

Sometimes someone might need your help to teach them how to do a certain experiment or technique, or it could be the opposite and you need help from someone else in the lab. The vast majority of people I have worked with are more than willing to teach you and help you out, but they do have their own work to do too. So, if they have asked you to turn up and start at 8.30am then be there at that time because your lab mate who is helping you out has probably scheduled all their other experiments in around helping you so don’t put them behind schedule because you can’t be bothered to turn up at the right time. But sometimes, the others in your lab just simply won’t have time to help you out tomorrow or maybe even the next day if they have a big experiment going on. Just be respectful and either ask someone else to help you or wait until they are free.

It is also the case in some labs that you need to share equipment and reagents such as Western blotting kit or cell culture hoods. If there is a booking system, book in your time so firstly you can plan your day in the lab and secondly so others around you can plan their day too. But it is essential to be flexible too. If one of your lab mates urgently needs to use something and you do just think about how you can rearrange your day to help them out. If there is no booking system, then maybe ask around your lab mates to see who will need to use the Western blotting kit tomorrow before you prepare samples to run 4 blots but someone else needs one of the tanks so you can only actually run 2 blots worth of samples. Think ahead, and think of what other’s might want to be doing is probably my main advice.

And another key bit of advice is don’t overrun if someone is booked on after you. I always try and overestimate slightly the amount of time I will need as it gives me a bit of room to play with. And if someone asks how long you will be, give them an honest answer. Don’t say 10 minutes if in reality you are going to be another 30 minutes – because 10 minutes I will wait for you to finish, whereas 30 minutes I might go and start something else so I’m not in the lab until 8pm every night.

If you help them out, then they will try and help you out if you’ve missed calculated the amount of time you’ll need in the hood for example and swap with you.

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4. Think of others when doing your experiments

As I’ve mentioned, in our lab, we tend to share working areas and reagents for certain experiments – so it is quite a common thing for two people to be doing the same experiment on the same day but obviously the starts are staggered so we are not working completely on top of each other. I’m usually the one that starts later as I’m not a morning person, so any excuse to stay in bed a bit longer and start work a bit later suits me ūüôā But it sometimes means that I end up making up fresh stocks of all the buffers because they have been used before me and not replaced. Now that might sound like I expect there to be buffers and reagents there for me to use every time but I don’t intend for it to sound that way at all. I’m happy to make up buffers but I don’t want to be faced with all the empty buffers all of the time. Plus in our lab, for each buffer we usually have two bottles of stock – so we in theory should always have something to use as when one bottle is finished you can use the other but make up fresh in that recently finished one too. But unfortunately it doesn’t usually happen.

All I am trying to say for this point is be aware of what experiments your peers are doing or planning to do and make sure you don’t use up the last of something without getting it ordered because you don’t want to be the one who has set up a really expensive experiment, got most of the way through and can’t finish it because the last person finished the reagent you need and didn’t order it. It is a waste of time and money. So, just treat others as you would want to be treated I suppose is what I’m trying to say ūüôā

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5. Do your lab chores.

This is my greatest hate in the lab – people who don’t do their lab chores. Now with the risk of sounding like your mother, people who can’t be bothered to the trivial things like restocking shelfs, wiping down equipment after using it, refilling pipette tip boxes, lab cleaning or simply emptying the bins when they are full really get to me. These are all things that everyone in the lab needs and use for their research so it is EVERYONES job to keep the lab ticking over. It is so simple – if things are running low or bins are overflowing, stock them up or empty them! It takes two seconds. Dont rely on the same person to fill up the ethanol bottles every week or leave an empty box of lab gloves on the lab bench and wait for someone else to put a new box there. It is so infuriating! This goes back to my team ethic point – help the team out and the team will help you out! And if you dont know where something is or how to discard of something just ask or tell someone! It is so much nicer to tell someone that there is something to be dealt with rather than just leaving them to find ot with the impression that you left it there for them because youre ‘too good’ for that job or have better things to do. Rant over ūüėõ

 

So, there’s my top tips for being a good lab mate! Hopefully it doesn’t put anyone off working with me in the lab ūüėõ But do you have any other tips and advice to share? I would love to hear them as it might help me and others become better lab mates too!

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Lab life.

7 MORE everyday essentials of a stem cell biologist.

My transfer thesis is FINISHED!!! Finally! Which means this week, I am back to the lab bench ready to discover some more new things in the world of stem cells¬†ūüôā

Last month I wrote a post about some of the everyday essentials I use in the lab as a stem cell biologist. But being faced with the lab bench again now after a few weeks away at my desk, I have realised how many things I need to do my research everyday and how many I overlooked from my last list. Which led me to this post Р7 MORE everyday essentials of a stem cell biologist.

So, again, in no particular order:

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1) The Falcon Tube.

The saviour to all your liquid holding needs! I cannot believe I missed this one out from the previous list, as I use these in basically every task and experiment I do! They come in either 15ml or 50ml versions and I use them for storing the media to feed my cells with, making up the solution to set my Western blotting gels, they hold the water/buffers/ethanol etc I might need for my RNA extractions and they house my Western blots overnight when I probe them with an antibody. They have a simple job. But an essential one!

P.S. I also hear they are great for sneaking alcohol into clubs/festivals etc and storing flavoured syrups for your coffee ūüėõ

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2) The Cell Culture Flask.

In my last Everyday Essentials post, I introduced to you the cell culture plate, but this time I introduce to you the cell culture flask.¬†In my research I also do some work on cancer stem cells which I grow in these flasks depending on how many cells I need. They have the same job as the cell culture plate – to provide a home for my cells, but for reasons I don’t know some cells just don’t like being grown in certain culture flasks. For example, my embryonic stem cells are really fussy and don’t stick down in these flasks, but are much happier in the plates. Whereas my cancer stem cells will stick to anything!

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3) The Vortex.

A lot of the experiments I do need the liquid to be properly mixed together. And I mean properly and thoroughly¬†otherwise the experiment doesn’t work! Typical science! Pressing your sample onto the top generates a whirlwind in your liquid and the perfect mix! Obviously make sure you apply enough pressure to keep your sample on the vortex and so your sample doesn’t get launched across the room in a random direction – not that I’m speaking from personal experience here :/

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4) The Test Tube Racks.

Again – another tool that comes in a varied of shapes and sizes and tries to brighten your day with their array of bright colours. Sometimes when two hands, ten fingers and thumbs, your armpit and elbow aren’t enough to hold all the tubes and reagents you need, a test tube rack is the answer to your problems. Again – another tool with a simple but essential task in the lab to keep all your sample tubes in the right order and facing the right way up!

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5) The Water Bath.

Keeping my cells happy and healthy is an absolute MUST! So, warming up the media before I feed them is on way to keep them happy! Warming the media is a task assigned to the water bath. As the name suggests, it is partially filled with water to evenly heat my media!

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6) The Duran Bottle.

A lab staple no matter what field your research is in and probably one of those things the public associates with classic lab experiments, the Duran bottle is perfect for all your liquid storage needs! Unfortunately, all of the bottles I use are full of boring colourless buffers and chemicals, but the bottles themselves to come in a variety of different shapes and sizes!

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7) The Weighing Scales.

Without these I would not be able to accurately measure out the different drugs and chemicals I need to add to my cells or make up my buffers and much more. Too much and I could kill all my cells, too little and my experiment would not work! There is not much room for error so precision is the key!

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I assure you that there are more everyday essentials – but I think after sharing 18 with you in this post and the last, anymore would be overkill! But hopefully it has given you some idea of the tools I use everyday in the lab!

What are your everyday lab essentials? What could you not live without in the lab?

S.x

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Lab life.

5 things you wouldn’t expect to find in the lab.

What do you think a science research lab looks like?

Full of people in long white coats? Lots of really expensive equipment? Shelves scattered with powders and liquids of various colours?

Well, you’re right! But if you took a peek behind some of the lab doors you would probably find some things that you REALLY would not expect to see on a lab bench. So, continuing from my ‘Everyday essentials’ post, I thought I’d give you that sneaky peek behind the lab doors and a different insight into lab life by¬†showing you some of the unexpected!!

 

1) Milk Powder.

Easily found on the shelves of your local supermarket, dried milk powder is a regular on many lab¬†benches. But what use could a scientist possibly have for milk in the lab I hear you say? If you cast your minds back to my A day in the life of a PhD student. Chapter 1.¬†blog post, I introduced you to a technique I use nearly everyday called Western blotting, where we use antibodies to detect the amount of our protein of interest in our samples. But there is a major issue with antibodies, which is that they¬†can be¬†very ‘sticky’! Antibodies generally bind very specifically to whatever protein they are meant to, however, sometimes they bind unspecifically to places and proteins that they shouldn’t. This is where our milk comes in. As part of the Western blot method, we need to block our membranes¬† – which basically means we are covering up all the ‘sticky’ places which we don’t want our antibody to bind to, and this is the job our milk does.

(Obviously, other brands are available in addition to the one pictured above :P)

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2) Aluminium Foil.

Probably something¬†that would look more at home in a kitchen than on a lab bench, but probably one of the less surprising things you will see on this list of the unexpected! There are a few reagents in the lab that are light-sensitive, and if not kept in the dark, will go off and not work, and then you’re back to square one with that experiment! This is¬†something that the aluminium foil does brilliantly; keeping the light out! A simple, but necessary job!

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3) Microwave.


No! It’s not for when we get peckish in the lab!

The microwave in our lab is not something that is used very often, but sometimes is the only way to solve a particular problem. When making certain solutions in the lab, no matter how long you try and dissolve that powder into that liquid, it will NOT go! The answer Рheat it up!  A few quick blasts of 30 seconds in the microwave and the powder will soon dissolve!

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4) Cling Film.


Continuing along the ‘Things more commonly found in a kitchen’ theme, cling film provides another simple but necessary task! There are a few things in the lab that cannot be allowed to dry out otherwise they simply won’t work properly, like the gels I use in Western blotting. Wrapping them in damp tissue and wrapping it all in cling film keeps the moisture in! Alternatively, it can help keep the moisture out too! Sometimes I need to store membranes in the freezer, but all moisture needs to be kept out! The solution is wrapping it in cling film for protection.

 

5) Nail varnish.

This is probably the one you would be most shocked by on this list. Am I right? It’s not for lab ‘Manicure Mondays’ for us to have beautifully painted nails all week, but helps when we are staining cells with antibodies in immunocytochemistry to take images as seen here¬†and here. The cells we stain are stuck onto a microscope slide, but before we can put them on a microscope we need to cover them with a wafer thin glass cover slip. This is done by simply laying this piece of glass over the cells on the microscope slide, making sure not to trap any air bubbles. Our nail varnish is the seal to stick the cover slip to the slide!

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Some of these unexpected items seen our lab, you would probably not find them in all labs, but I just wanted to show that it is not just complex and expensive equipment in the lab, there are some things you would recognise Рeven if it is things that do the most basic of tasks.

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Is there something in your lab that someone would not expect to find in there? Let me know in the comments below.

S.x

Lab life.

11 everyday essentials of a stem cell biologist.

Lab life means there are a whole heap of tools I need to use to do experiments and make those exciting discoveries! But only a handful of these are everyday essentials, that without them would make my PhD journey unbearably difficult.

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In this weeks blog, I want to show you a slightly different take on my PhD life by showing you some of the things I use everyday that I probably take for granted! So here are 11 of the things on the front line of my PhD battles.

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So, in no particular order…

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1) The Lab Coat.


If I told you to draw a scientist, you would probably draw an old man in a long white coat. Am I right? Unfortunately, the stereotype still exists in part. A lab coat, although completely unflattering, is an essential for any lab work. In our lab, they are mostly the traditional white coats. But our tissue culture labs need coats that are only worn in those rooms – so we have gone a bit wild and got blue and yellow coats instead! Does anyone have any other colour lab coats?

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2) Lab Gloves.


Again – this one is probably something that you would expect to find scientists in the lab wearing, but I bet you didn’t expect to see blue and purple gloves? Another everyday essential that I need to perform all my experiments and to protect me from any ‘nasties’ I may have to work with, and more importantly protects my cells and samples from me.

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3) The Pipette.


A very basic explanation – but most of what I spend my time in the lab doing is taking different volumes of various reagents, chemicals and water and combining them together to see what happens. Pipettes come in different sizes depending on the volume of liquid I need – usually less than a millilitre, sometimes as little as half a microlitre (that’s 2000th of a millilitre!) – but they are what I need to mix everything together. They need to be INCREDIBLY accurate otherwise it could cause problems down the line in my experiments.

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4) The Pipette Buoy.


Carrying on from the pipette, the pipette buoy is answering the same question – moving a volume of liquid and mixing it with another. But it is different to the pipette, as I can move larger volumes! I usually use this when I am making up buffers and stock solutions!

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5) The Centrifuge.


A piece of equipment I need for sample preparation or simply to pool any remaining reagent in the bottom of the tube and make sure I use every last drop! Tubes are put in each of the holes and spun at speeds of 10,000 rotations per minute!!! It works using the sedimentation principle – the centripetal force from it spinning causes denser substances to move outwards and collect at the bottom of the tube. You need to remember to keep it balanced though! Two samples on one side, another two directly opposite.

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6) The Cell Culture Plate.


Now if you’ve read my blog before, or you work in a lab yourself, you would have seen these before in my ‘Feeding time in the lab’¬†post. These are the home to my cells and as my cells need looking after each day, the cell culture plate is something I use on a daily basis! I usually use the 6 well version, but we sometimes use the 12 and 24 well versions too!

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7) The 96 Well Plate.


Again – this continues from the previous everyday essential! Except we have scaled up! These come in a few different variations too – flat bottomed and U-bottomed to name a few! I mainly use these for my Bradford assays to calculate the protein concentration of my protein samples as shown here, a PCR experiment to look at RNA expression in my samples or for some of my metabolism assays.

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8) The Timer.


Or more accurately, the timers! To try and get the most out of my day, there are usually a few different experiments going at once, and each step takes a different amount of time so I’ve usually got two timers on the go to know when I need to go back which experiment!

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9) The Microscope.


Another everyday essential that you would expect to see in the lab. I’m often found looking down the lens to check on my cells and deciding whether they need feeding or splitting. This one is a simple light microscope, but sometimes I’m on a more high tech fluorescence microscope taking images of my immunocytochemistry as seen¬†here.

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10) Hand Cream.


Now, I know this one isn’t really lab based but it is my number one everyday essential for lab life! It is my saviour! Spending most days putting lab gloves on, taking them off and putting them back on and so….. it ruins my nails and my hands. So this little beauty is stashed on my desk for that daily moisturise! Does anyone else have any tips to save your nails and hands when wearing lab gloves?

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11) The Notebooks.


Last but not least is the researchers best friend – the notebook! I have different notebooks for different purposes. My everyday notebook which is basically my ‘To Do’ list for each day and any calculations I do whilst in the lab. I have a meetings notebook so I can keep track of any hints, tips and advice I get given by my supervisors or my peers. And finally, the most important one – the lab book! This is where I need to write down all the details of each and every experiment that I do so I can repeat it at a later date and to prove I actually did the experiments I say I did!

 

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Making this list to share with you has made me realise that there are so many different things I rely on every day in my lab life. The list could go on and on….

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What are your everyday lab essentials? What could you not live without in the lab?

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Hopefully it’s given you another little insight into what my everyday life in the lab as a stem cell biologist is like ūüĒ¨‚ėļÔłŹ

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S.x

Lab life.

Feeding time in the lab.

Working on embryonic stem cells, my cells need feeding EVERY SINGLE DAY! Which means I have to work weekends too ūüė¶ So, I am often getting texts from friends and family simply asking ‘what am I up to?’ and when I’m in the lab on a weekend, the reply is usually ‘In work. Feeding my cells.’ without actually realising that to most of my friends and family that doesn’t really mean anything. So I often get questions back asking ‘What do you feed them?’ and ‘How do you know they are hungry?’. Hopefully this post will explain…

 

I often use the expression ‘feeding my cells’ as do all of my colleagues and we all instinctively now what each other is referring to.¬†But to those who have no scientific background or have¬†minor interest in what I get up to in the lab, this means very little. So,¬†what do I actually mean? And what am I feeding them? Am I leaving my cells a nice burger and chips to munch their way through each day? Or maybe a salad instead to try and keep my cells happy and¬†healthy? Unfortunately not! My cells get given a delicious red liquid every day called media, which¬†is simply a liquid that contains all the nutrients and growth factors that the cells need to keep growing, and to keep them happy!

How do I know they are hungry? Much like when a baby cries when they are hungry (no, my cells don’t cry!), my cells also send me a sign that they are hungry –¬†by changing the colour of the media.

So, here are some photos of my cells growing in tissue culture plates just after I have fed them on the top, and 24 hours later on the bottom. The big difference is that the culture medium has turned from red to yellow! The more cells that grow, the quicker they use up the nutrients that are in the media. The cells digest these nutrients and release the waste by-products, or metabolites, back into the media. These by-products change the pH of the media, or its acidity, causing it to gradually turn yellow!

So, ‘Feeding my cells’ simply means that I am removing the old, used media from the wells and adding fresh media full of healthy nutrients ūüôā ! Think of it like an all-you-can-eat buffet – you finish round 1, then have to clear your plate before you pile it all back on the plate again!

 

S.x