An organized game plan for running science experiments

It is important to appreciate the value of proper organization when running an experiment, whether or not documented rules and policies are in place in either an academic or industry lab setting. Training typically occurs personally, as the senior, experienced scientist mentors the person unfamiliar with the ways of the lab. But not every single aspect or nuance is covered, and the trainee is expected to observe and absorb certain things on the fly. The reasons behind these considerations may be unclear to lab newcomers, so here is some reasoning and advice for proceeding with an experiment in an organized fashion.

Yee.jpg Michael Yee

I have learned after much hair pulling why it is important to have an organized experiment. These lessons came from personal experiences during my PhD (Biomedical Sciences) and Master’s (Cell and Molecular Biology) work, as well as from mentors—senior graduate students, postdocs, and PIs—who also learned the hard way and wanted to relay their wisdom. During meetings aimed to analyze experimental results, any oddities such as outliers were pinpointed, and a review of the technical steps of the experiment ensued. The first possibility on the chopping block was that the outlier could have arisen as a result of my own mistake. Was it the experimenter’s blunder that came from pipetting the wrong reagent, pipetting inconsistently, or pipetting into the wrong tube? Or was it contamination as a result of placing reagents in a less-than-ideal location where solutions can accidentally spill over? I could have mistakenly transposed the tubes, too. These are all valid possibilities to address.

Consider this first-hand observation (of which I am also guilty): In one instance, many tubes were labeled for an experiment, but they were not arranged in order and were chaotically scattered around the ice box. The person running the experiment seemed confident in being able to pull the correct tube and check each label every time. In this case, it took more time to look for the right tube and more effort to keep track of which tubes were already analyzed. Couple this with a long day's worth of preparations and potentially increased impatience as the night progresses, and the probability of human error increases.

Conversely, I have seen experiments in which 200+ tubes were lined up neatly in several ice boxes, and there was a clear method for moving down the line and placing each tube in a different location once it was used to differentiate between tubes that have been analyzed and those yet to be. Sure, this analysis was going to take a long time to complete, but with a clear, organized approach, the probability of human error decreases. Furthermore, knowing that someone is taking this approach instills greater confidence in this person’s work and in the reliability of the results.

What can be done to avoid unforced, time-wasting errors? Here are some tips to help you organize your first or nth experiment.

1. Anticipate necessary time and items.

Consider the time it realistically takes to design and prepare for each part of the experiment—especially for students with classes scattered throughout the day. Type out a list of the items needed, such as reagents and equipment. Not all items may be listed in protocols—either from manufacturers or other labmates—so it takes time to understand and investigate exactly what is needed, make any solutions in advance, and order items that may be missing.

2. Create thorough tables and checklists.  

Type out and print the protocol with a checklist and a table. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first time or your 100th time performing the experiment. When you have a printout, you can mark and check off each reagent as you use it. When you are going to run an experiment—regardless of whether it is a six-well plate or a 96-well plate—create a table formatted to represent each well and label it in advance. This allows for some time to give the experimental design more thought and planning. Furthermore, this leaves a paper trail and a record that you can refer to anytime—even years later, when you might have forgotten exactly what you did. This shows that you are organized and accountable no matter how experienced you are, and it should aid in reproducibility while avoiding the possibility that outside factors may have affected the experiment (i.e. human error).

3. Systematize your tubes.   

If you are using a large number of tubes, label them and place them in order a full day in advance, if time permits. Or on the day of the experiment, allot a considerable chunk of time to label and organize your experiment. If possible, use different colors so you can quickly differentiate groups of tubes. Use different racks, and place tubes linearly in the order in which you will use them.

4. Proceed consistently to aid efficiency.

Maintain consistent methodology when repeating an experiment (barring any technically essential iterations). This aids reliability of the results and strengthens your muscle memory—both of which improve overall efficiency. This, in turn, frees up much-needed time: a bonus result that will please both you and your PI.

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Mike has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences from the University of California, Riverside, a M.S. in Cell and Molecular Biology from San Francisco State University, and a B.A. in English from the University of California, Berkeley.