Planning vs doing


Success in a cycling event is much more likely if you’ve previously ridden a bike. Image:

Lab work always benefits from planning. A good experimental design drawn from a solid hypothesis based on current literature is essential for good science. And yet all the planning in the world can’t prepare you for the reality of what will happen in the lab. Kind of like a triathlon.

My entire triathlon career consists only of two such events. Ok, mini events. Training for the first triathlon encompassed the two weeks between the actual event and me first hearing about it. Sure, I could have waited a year and actually put in some proper training. Or I could just wing it this time and learn for next time.

Due to several errors in judgement, I opted for the latter. The swim leg turned out to be less to do with swimming as attempting to breath in the seething, churning mass of bodies. The ride leg also wasn’t the best leg, with that event being my first time on a bike in over a decade. The part I most excelled at was the change-over. All my training efforts had gone into putting on my shoes quickly and that’s where I gained most ground. Probably not the best training strategy but at the time it was certainly the most feasible.

Ok, so I probably came about dead last in that event. But at least the practice had taught me a great deal about mini triathlons and about training properly for them. The following year, I was prepared, knew what to expect and finished in a respectable time.

Lab work is much the same in many ways.

No matter how detailed and thorough the planning, there is always something extra to consider. Usually it’s something that no one would ever think of and it won’t be obvious until you get in the lab and try it for the first time.

In theory, the proposed method should work. In reality it might not and this might be due to something as ridiculous as the lack of available glassware. Or that the piece of equipment required for one critical step happens to be in use for the next month.

Little things that can’t be imagined on paper can have a huge impact on experiments.

Proper experiment planning is essential. But before launching into the full experiment, just getting into the lab and trying out some new ideas can be enormously beneficial and time-saving in the long run.

Like actually riding a bike before a cycling event.


Embracing the permanence of change


Managing change can be the mental equivalent of a Cirque du Soleil performance. Image:

The truest of truisms is that everything changes and nothing is certain. Except, of course, for death, taxes and the alignment of grant application deadlines with the busiest times of year.

Change is a permanent state of being in research, where topics can switch direction on the whim of a funding body embracing a new buzzword, and everything that you’ve been working towards for months or years becomes suddenly irrelevant. It’s enough to drive anyone under their lab bench in a foetal position.

Change-management needs to be considered an essential ability of researchers and yet this is one skill that’s not usually part of PhD training. During a PhD, there is one project that continues until completion, regardless of any shifts in research interests. Even when the entire topic disappears, like when a government stopped global warming, the PhDs continued.

And as tough as PhD research is and as many problems that crop during this research, it is nowhere near as psychologically traumatising as shelving all your research just before the project bears fruit.

Shifting project directions on a proverbial pin-head takes a kind of mental dexterity that would make any Cirque-de-Soleil performer jealous. Developing these abilities should be encouraged more during PhDs but probably not to the extent of forcing major change onto students.

With experience and practice in research skills, suddenly changing topics is not only possible but also potentially exciting. But only after the researcher has been coaxed from under their bench. There must be an adjustment phase. Usually involving both chocolate and wine.

Shelved research doesn’t have to die and so there’s no need for an extended period of mourning. With proper labels* and document management, such research can be put into temporary stasis from which it can be reborn. Probably in a new and improved format with a funky new buzzword in the title.

In the meantime, there is opportunity to take on another challenge and a new topic full of exciting problems to tackle. The new collaborations formed and approaches developed may even assist in solving past research problems.

With change comes opportunity and with the right skills and sufficient supplies of chocolate, it can be embraced.

*A hard lesson well learnt!

Fun times, lab style


Almost as hilarious as putting biohazard tape on your lunchbox

Working in the lab could be repetitive if not for the collective efforts of fellow researchers. Every week someone in the lab makes the effort to do something frivolous, purely for entertainment.tumblr_n04zgvjn8m1rqudgzo1_1280

Printout appears on noticeboards reminding giving helpful advice for researchers and lab visitors. I have a magnet that moves around this pictograph depending on how the week is going.

Inspirational quotes are also written on the whiteboard once a week by a diligent part-timer.  Motivational stuff like “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door” and sometimes truth: “a clear conscience is a sign of a bad memory”.

The drive of light-heartedness even creates highly sophisticated equipment with bullet-hole stickers on the sides and hilarious names for these instruments. We have the complete set of Thunderbirds characters for our instruments and we’re starting on a set of animated characters from Toy Story.

Oddly, justifications for new instruments such as “because if we just get a Buzz Lightyear we’ll have a complete set” don’t get much traction with the funding body.

While the general motivation is good-natured, there are tensions arising from such displays. Currently a silent battle rages in our lab played out by the Stop sign on the door to one lab. Sometimes it reads “Stop – Food-grade glassware only”, but more often it reads “Stop – in the name of love” and recently Stop – Hammer time.” This is likely to change again as the next wave of PhD students build the courage to add their version.

Little things like this make the lab more enjoyable. And reassures us that we are hilarious. Even if only other researchers think so.

Engaging the work experience kid


Making routine science interesting for work experience kids can be a challenge. Image:

Work experience is a valuable lesson for all school kids. Particularly when it makes you realise exactly what you don’t want to do in life. Ever. And that’s an important lesson.

So when it was announced that we would be taking on a work experience kid for a few days, I was keen to show her how cool and amazing science can be to encourage her to want to pursue a scientific career.

Unfortunately, when it came to my turn to dazzle the WEK with science, I was changing the water for my dialysis samples. I tried to make it interesting and gave her some hands-on experience by letting her refill the container with water but it still lacked some scientific sparkle.

Then I tried to impress the WEK with scientific equipment and showed her how compounds are separated using HPLC. I explained the principles of compound separation and then demonstrate how to prepare the samples. It was pretty complex stuff but she was very quick and could summarise the procedure:

Me: Now we need to pipette 40 µL of sample into 2 mL screw-capped HPLC vials with 300 µL inserts.

WEK: So like, transfer the samples from one container to another?

Me: Um…yeah.

And that, my friends, is science in action. Transferring samples into different containers is the basis of my day-to-lab work. It didn’t get much better when I showed her the resulting chromatogram and explained the very scientific way in which these data are processed:

Me: We now need to draw little lines under these curves on the computer and record the numbers that come up.

WEK: <smiles and nods politely>

While work experience teaches students about the real world, it is also educational for those already in the real world. For example, I learned that a Year 10 chemistry student can do my job. At least, the lab component. And that’s a pretty big component.

One thing that must be learned by aspiring researchers is that the most interesting and challenging part of science is not conducting the experiments. It is identifying a knowledge gap, designing the experiments to give the required information, and, my favourite bit, making sense of the data from those experiments.

This is the fun part of research but unfortunately it is not necessarily communicated to a student on a few days of work experience. Not even with my repeated explanations that may have only served to make me feel better.

I just hope the novelty of working in a real lab with real experiments was interesting enough so that science isn’t on the list of things the WEK never wants to do again.

Coordinating the Great Research Project Conjunction


The converging of research projects in this world is almost as disastrous as a Great Planetary Conjunction in other worlds. Image:


Timing is the greatest challenge with natural products. No matter how beautifully constructed an experimental design and the hours that go into planning each experiment, inevitably Nature will come along and mess it all up. This week, despite my well-constructed project proposals with suitable distances between each set of analyses, I’ve ended up with three large projects converging on a single analytical time point.

Two projects are just kicking off thanks to harvest times coming together and one is the final time point of an existing project and none of them have any rights to be invading on the other.

After my inevitable melt down that came with the Great Realisation of the Impending Conjunction and the subsequent hours of therapy, I’ve realised that things might not be as bad as they seem. The key to controlling such as dilemma always comes back to the basic principles of Do, Delegate or Delete.

Ideally, I’d like to Do everything. This is mostly because I have a few control issues and difficulty letting go but that’s a topic for a-whole-nother therapy session. In this case I simply can’t do everything without sacrificing a few things, like sleep. And that’s not happening. So, grudgingly, I will prioritise the very long list of analyses and do only those in the absolutely-essential-must-be-done-now category.

Other tasks will have to be Delegated to colleagues who might have a spare moment from their own trials to run a few samples for me. Usually the analysis itself isn’t difficult, just time consuming, and unfortunately that’s something I’m short on. Borrowing some minutes from other people is enormously beneficial to me and not a burden on them, kind of like crowd-funding for time.

Delegating to work experience students might also be an option. Piling work on an unsuspecting student is apparently fine as long as the forms say ‘work experience’ and not ‘slave labour’, even if the latter is more accurate. Not that I’ve tried this yet, but at the moment, anything is looking good. And I’m sure the experience will be enjoyable for the student in an eye-opening, real-life experience kind of way.

As for anything else that can’t be met in the required timeframe for analysis, it might have to be Deleted from the to do list. This is where prioritisation is critical. Do I really need to measure everything possible just because I can?

In these days of being able to measure absolutely everything, we really need to assess if it is worth the amount of work if nothing is significantly different. So maybe I can cull a few experiments or samples and only look at only the most influential without compromising the integrity of the experimental design. Not that I’d actually dispose of those other samples, just in case there was a difference. I would need more a lot more therapy to get over that kind of trauma.

Things are looking much less stressful now with my new and improved planning strategy for the Great Project Conjunction. I might even have time for a coffee.

On the brink of greatness

Colombia Nobel Five Things

Research papers can lead to Nobel Prizes, but usually they just lead to more research. Image:   

One of the key things l love about my job as a research scientist is data. Months of slog work in the lab produces great swathes of data and finally getting a chance to process it and understand what is happening is pure happiness. Particularly when combined with varying concentrations of coffee and chocolate.

This is a particular characteristic of all research scientists, I’m sure. (And yes, I am aware of the irony of proclaiming a love of data and then ignoring any such data to make sweeping generalisations about a large portion of the population. But it’s for the good of making me feel more normal so I’m willing to go with it.)

Processing data is the point at which we can see if all our efforts and hypotheses have made any inroads into the unknown. If they have, either by proving or disproving a hypothesis, it is triumphant.

The process involves turning spreadsheets into works of art, although admittedly a peculiar brand of art. I enjoy turning reams of numbers in to very pretty graphs and, ideally, correlations and trend lines. Constructing those is rewarding on a level that is second only to writing the paper.

A research project isn’t finished until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal. At least, that’s my opinion. I know many scientists who disagree with me on this one. For them, the true joy lies in discovering something new and broadening their knowledge but getting the word out there to the broader communities of scientists and non-scientists is nothing but a chore.

But publications are the bread and butter of research and while the peer-reviewed process might be flawed, it is still the best system for ensuring the majority of science is carried out in a reproducible manner and that the conclusions are matched by the data.

Now, after many, many months of producing data, I have finally had a chance to sit down and process it. And it worked! I have evidence that supports my hypothesis and I have made tiny inroads in hitherto unknown regions of knowledge.

Now all I have to do is write the paper, get the co-authors (my managers and other people who helped produce the data) to read it, get them to agree with how it should be written, get the reviewers to agree that the work is of sufficient quality, incorporating all possible controls and blanks, and voila! Another science paper published. Greatness will be mine! I might just go call the Nobel Prize committee and give them a heads up. I’m sure they’ll want to know.

In reality, even without a Nobel Prize, it’s being able to shine a torch onto new knowledge after months of slog work in the lab is what makes all the effort worthwhile.

Coffee for the good of science


Coffee breaks help generate a rapport between colleagues and avoid the need to settle disputes with cage matches. Image:


Locked away in our laboratories, researchers tussle for access to equipment and resources. The overriding sensation is a tense mutual respect. We generally acknowledge each other’s space and equipment but this respect is tenuous and can breakdown in an instant.

Something can go slightly wrong on a project and suddenly next week’s deadline is ominously close and that person needs all the equipment RIGHT NOW. This then encroaches on other people’s deadlines as resources they have booked and planned to use are suddenly inaccessible, and the whole ‘mutual respect’ thing descends into cage matches.

That isn’t quite true. We haven’t got a cage in the lab yet but I’m sure it’s included in next year’s budget.

This is one of the key reasons why research institutes usually have a ‘social club’. It’s a way of forcing people to get to know each other outside the lab in friendly environments and even footing. The same can be said for such activities as ‘lunch’ or ‘coffee breaks’.

Anything that involves the coming together of people – preferably in combination with food and drink intake – can improve relations.

As science becomes more multidisciplinary, being able to get along with other people who are not quite in the same team or have the same objectives is an increasingly important skill. Getting out of the lab and gathering around food with colleagues is a simple but effective method for creating better relationships and building stronger teams.

So go on, put down that pipette and have a coffee. It’s for the good of science.

Simple science can be clever science


Science sometimes requires skills like Macgyver’s. Image credit:

Science has made leaps and bounds in recent decades with the development of sophisticated instruments that measure deeper and deeper into our world. Discoveries can now be made that confirm the existence of gravitational waves, the structure of proteins and everything in between. This is a golden age of scientific exploration.

And yet there isn’t a laboratory in the entire world that could function adequately without such equipment as a marker pen.

When we talk science and stand in awe at our capabilities and technological advances, it’s easy to forget that much of science uses very rudimentary equipment. Particularly in applied science where a new project with industry means having to measure a characteristic of a real world sample right now.

This includes, for example, the level of sediment in a tank. How do we measure it? Get out a marker pen and draw a line on the tank where the sediment comes up to. Genius.

Or when we need to compare the filterability of samples too small for the real method, how do we do it? Pour the sample through the filter paper and mark the receiver flask with the volume filtered every 10 seconds. Marker pen wins again!

The genius of early scientists was in developing ways measure the world around them. Today determining the structure of an unknown molecule, for example, is very straightforward, as long as you have a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer and mass spectrometer handy and really, who doesn’t? But a century ago this was a real challenge and involved a massive array of indirect measures to get the final structure. And some genius. That always helps.

Even in modern labs, it is an invaluable skill to be able to develop practical and reproducible methods on the fly using everyday, inexpensive lab equipment. Sophisticated equipment is essential but expensive and any cost savings to a research budget is applauded.

Particularly if there is a solid element of ingenuity associated with it. Like rigging up a large hadron collider in the basement using rubber bands and lengths of pipe. I think that might have actually been a Macgyver episode.

While high tech science paves our way to a deeper understanding of the universe, we must remember that it is also the simple things in science that help push that knowledge forward.

Death at every turn


Wolverine-like powers are a side-effect of safety inductions. Image:

I no longer fear death as I have recently become immortal. I can walk through battle fields unscathed, sky dive sans parachute and car surf without fear of injury. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s the case. It certainly feels like safety is pulsing through my veins now that I’ve undergone a safety induction.

The main point of a safety induction is to make people stop and think of everything that can hurt or kill when undertaking a particular task or even when being in a particular location.

At a winery, there are large machines known as ‘crushers’ that can effortlessly do to an arm what they do to grapes; huge open vats of bubbling, seething liquids that can suck you under like something out of a B grade horror movie; and the rolling potential agony of the forklift. Not only does a forklift have pointed prongs of pain at the front but the potential to driving over you when reversing and can drop an unbalanced load on your head.

In the lab there are chemicals that can kill instantly or slow and painfully or cause irreparable damage like blindness. A quick scan of any commonly-used lab solvent reveals the stuff of nightmares. Danger is the norm in the lab.

Now that I have been inducted into the realm of safety, I can see hazards everywhere. That crack in the footpath is a potential trip hazard and should be fixed immediately. There are cars driving at speeds that can kill an unwary pedestrian should anyone accidentally cross the road whilst texting so the speed limit should be lowered. A tree near a building might cause grievous scratches to anyone not ducking low enough under the branch and should be cut down.

This is a dangerous world and no matter how hard we try to eliminate all dangers more just keep cropping up. Perhaps a better solution is to introduce safety inductions for life. A proper walk through and checklist of all the things that can kill you at any given moment, wherever you are and whatever you are doing.

Similar to the brilliant Dumb Ways to Die YouTube clips but with a form to sign stating that you Acknowledge and Accept the Risks of Living and understand that Not Complying with the Safety Rules of Life will result in you being Removed from Life permanently.

Maybe then we can finally feel safe and in control. But maybe not to the level of actually car surfing.

Lab therapy


Ice cream makes everything better. 

I did something crazy the other day. It was one of those laboratory clean up days that precedes the arrival of important visitors and the lab was abuzz with activity. Holding a tray of 100 samples, I walked up to a group of people and stopped their conversation.

“Watch this!” I said and tipped the whole tray of samples into the bin. The crowd gasped in shock and awe and someone said “how could you?!” I just grinned in triumph.

Throwing out samples is one of the hardest things researchers have to do. Samples can take days, weeks or sometimes months to prepare for analysis and by that time they become more precious than platinum.

Even when the project is finished and even after the paper is written, even then the final stage of getting rid of the samples is still gut-wrenching.

What if one of the tests needs to be repeated? What if something else needs to be measured? Some tests only need 25 uL of sample and having to repeat months-worth of work for 25 uL is why therapy was invented. This sort of thing can take years to come to terms with.

There are, however, more effective means of therapy than sitting on a couch with a therapist. One of them is smashing glassware. Admittedly, this is only recommended when disposing of glassware that is already broken. Scientific glassware is never cheap but there’s no point gently disposing of something that has a hairline fracture when you’re having a bad day.

Another great remedy for frustration is hurling something out of a window, preferably the instrument causing the frustration. Although, given that the cost of analytical instruments can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, this one is best left to fantasy.

As for my recent craziness, those samples had been on my bench for months as a ‘just in case’. And then I realised I didn’t actually need them. The trial hadn’t worked and it was a complete do-over so there was really no point in keeping the 300 samples.

The simple act of throwing out these samples made me feel lighter, like a huge weight had lifted off my shoulders, and just plain old happy because of the giddy recklessness of it. That’s better than therapy any day.