Imagine the scenario… You’ve got a deadline coming up and you just need the data from that final experiment; it’s all planned out, the equipment’s booked, those precious cells have grown and expanded, you carbo-loaded the night before ready for your marathon session in the lab, you’re collecting your reagents together to begin that big experiment, and then you realise that that reagent hasn’t arrived. Disaster. Do you just make a beeline for the exit, already tasting that pina colada on the beach where lab experiments don’t exist?
Most scientists don’t have to imagine, this will have happened at least once during their training. Or variations thereof; maybe a rodent model was ready ahead of schedule, or a rescheduled surgery yielded a patient sample earlier than planned or that reagent has expired/gone missing following delivery. A big part of scientific research is problem solving, but to someone new to research, not having all the tools at hand may feel overwhelming. Especially if getting everything together in preparation for the experiment has already taken several weeks of hard work. But before you hang up your lab coat and give up on your career as a scientist in favor for being a [insert-your-favorite-non-scientist-career-option], below are a few ideas that may save that all-important experiment.
Reach out to your network
A good network of scientists and non-scientists is so valuable. You’re not the first person to be in this situation, people understand and more often than not are very willing to help. Check with the rest of your lab first, especially your lab manager/technician, and then reach out to your extended network. Is there a mailing list you could use to send out a plea for help to your department/building/institute/cohort? Maybe there’s another lab close by that uses similar techniques, and they could lend you an aliquot. Scientific sales reps can often get access to reagents much quicker than through the typical ordering system, maybe your local rep can get you a sample to tide you over until your new stock arrives.
Is there an alternative method you could use?
There’s often several methods to achieve the same goal – you could consider using an alternative kit or using a totally different approach. A quick Google search can often provide a whole range of alternative methods. Researchgate Questions in particular is an incredibly useful resource for finding a variety of scientific methods.
Can you pick the reagent up direct?
This isn’t something that was available to me at previous institutions, but your institution may hold supplies of common reagents at a core service, so you could pick up the reagent yourself, providing that it’s in stock. Alternatively, if there’s a supplier or manufacturer for that reagent in the area, you could try contacting them directly to see if they can expedite a delivery.
Can you make the reagent?
It’s often easier, and sometimes cheaper, to buy a reagent already in solution, but most labs have a great stock of chemicals in powder form that can be used to make up reagents. For cell culture/ animal model applications this may not be the most favorable solution (pun intended) but it may be better than saying ‘goodbye’ to that whole experiment.
Can you delay the experiment?
This one may be the trickiest, especially if you’re working with animal models, but an extra day may be all you need to get everything in hand so it’s worth considering. Maybe you can freeze the cells of interest down and resurrect them at a later date.
Consider an alternative experiment
You’ve tried steps 1-5 above, with no success. But that doesn’t mean that you have to throw everything away, and wait for your reagent to arrive before you try again. Maybe you can use those organisms you’ve carefully cultivated for an alternative, but still informative experiment. It may not be the order of experiments you originally intended, but at least you will get some data to show for your efforts.
Take a time out
Whether you’ve found a way to rescue your experiment or not, or even whilst you’re trying to find a solution, take a break. A quick stroll around the building, or taking a coffee/lunch break will help you regain focus on the problem you’re trying to solve. You could take one of your colleagues with you so you can bounce ideas off each other. Science is collaborative after all, whether it’s in the lab or at happy hour!
Sometimes it’s not possible to find a solution, but don’t despair, even if you end up having to discard the experiment, you’ll be all the more prepared next time you come to do the experiment, and just think of all those things you get to work on and tick off your ‘to-do’ list in the meantime.
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Lucie is a Franco-British post-doctoral researcher at UCSD, with a research interest in developing 3D human cell-based models of disease. Outside of the lab, Lucie enjoys all things outdoors, good food shared with friends and family and communicating science to a variety of audiences.