I’ve never managed a lab. After doing undergraduate research while studying neuroscience at UCLA, I found I was much better suited for life outside the lab coat. But I was fortunate to land a job at Quartzy, where I get to merge my scientific interest with my desire to work alongside a wide variety of people.
In my Customer Engagement role, I also have constant interaction with lab managers. I’ve had thousands of conversations with them via phone, email, and online demos. Through these exchanges, I’ve realized that effective lab management is tough. As is affecting change within a lab. So much so that common questions include:
- “What’s the best way to manage inventory?”
- “How do labs typically get started?”
- “How do I convince my 30-person lab that we need to get organized?”
The difficulty is largely because managing a lab is like managing a company—but more chaotic because there’s no inherent structure. Many labs don’t even have actual lab manager roles, so members must collectively handle management—or one of them bears all the extra work. And few labs have just one person, so communication and consensus on process can be arduous and detracting from time better spent on experiments. With that in mind, I wrote this guide to share ideal steps toward effective lab management.
Where to start?
The ideal first step is identifying your lab’s needs and areas of possible improvement. This can seem daunting. You’re probably even thinking, “Everything is fine right now.” Or, “We already have a system that works.” And you may be right. But do your lab a favor and answer the questions below—just to be sure. If no problems arise, your lab is amazingly efficient, and I congratulate you because I’ve worked with many labs and seldom seen optimal organization. If these questions get you thinking about all the little things that could be better, start creating that laundry list and we will tackle it in the next section.
Questions to ask:
- What does the lab need to get experiments/work done?
- How do lab members get supplies they need? Do they order themselves?
- Who keeps track of all inventory?
- How do members communicate to the person who does the ordering?
- Do supplies ever run out, leading to delayed experiments?
- How much time is spent organizing orders, searching for lower prices, and purchasing?
- Is there ever accidental double ordering?
- Are items misplaced/forgotten once received?
- Do you have a shared inventory that everyone can access and update?
- Can lab members easily search through past orders?
- Does the lab track spending?
- Are there any mandates or regulations the lab must satisfy?
If you identified any small or big points from that list, it’s time to dig deeper and get feedback from your lab. Whether by casual conversation while pipetting or a full-fledged meeting, gathering the lab’s feedback is paramount. Change won’t occur without collective identification and consensus on areas for improvement. Time and efficiency are precious to all lab members, so everyone will likely have valuable and thoughtful considerations to add to your list. Here are some commonly desired improvements:
- Access to information online
- Easy notification when items are received
- Improved time efficiency
- Maintaining sufficient inventory to avoid supply shortage
Once your lab’s issues are clear, the fun begins: implementing tools and processes to meet those needs. And while I won’t push a particular product or method on you, there are questions to consider as you contemplate solutions:
- Is it free? If not, what’s the cost?
- How long is the setup process?
- What’s the day-to-day time cost for everyone to use it?
- Why type of record does it keep? Is it secure?
- Is the information/data easy to search?
- Does it meet all your needs and solve all identified issues?
- Is outside support available if something breaks or someone has questions?
- Is it easy to transition your current information into the new system?
- Do the new system's long-term efficiency benefits outweigh the short-term time cost to implement?
- Is it allowed by your company/institution?
Boom. If your posed solution passed those questions, you’ve reached the last, hardest, and most important steps in the process: communicating and affecting change. When scientists and lab managers tell me they’ve chosen Quartzy as a solution, they want to know how to get started. They often ask these questions:
- "What data does my lab and Quartzy need to begin?”
- “How do I train everyone in my lab?”
- “What instructional videos should I watch?”
Those are all great tactical questions, but change isn’t successful unless the entire lab is philosophically on board from the onset. Think about it: Would you want to change your habits or work toward new process without knowing why or how? Here's how to begin implementing your solution.
Meet with your lab:
- Communicate why the change is occurring, and list all the reasons it’s needed
- Explain short- and long-term benefits
- Assign and detail responsibilities
- Set a start date for switching to the new management system
- Gather feedback to iterate process after implementation
While every lab is different, efficiency and effective management are universal desires. The most common way I’ve seen labs successfully optimize management and implement new process is: identify needs, collect feedback, find and analyze solutions, and effectively position and communicate the change’s value and implementation. With this approach, you will change your lab for the better and, most importantly, accelerate its research. If you have any questions, thoughts or other approaches that you’ve found successful, please feel free to reach out.
Quartzy is the world’s No. 1 lab management platform. We help scientists easily organize orders, manage inventory, and save money. We’re free and always will be. Visit Quartzy.com or reach out at email@example.com.
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Leslie studied neuroscience and conducted research at UCLA. She now works with labs to streamline workflows and save money.