Month: March 2014

Purchasing Major Pieces of Scientific Equipment for Your Lab

Several times since starting my tenure-track faculty position, I’ve had to purchase major pieces of scientific equipment. I define this as scientific equipment that costs greater than $5,000. For many of my colleagues in the U.S. this would not be a large amount of money, but it represents a significant portion of my yearly research grant, which means that I need to make a good decision about what I’m purchasing.

 

My first step in this process is to brainstorm a list of what I need the equipment to do (e.g. features, attachments, flexibility, etc.) and any physical limitations that have to be taken into account (e.g. Will it fit somewhere in the lab? Does it have particular power requirements?). Taking a few minutes up front to clearly define the minimum requirements that you have for the equipment saves a lot of time later, so don’t skip this step.

 

The next step is to gather information about the type of equipment that you are looking for. I do this by talking to colleagues and getting recommendations, thinking about any previous experiences that I have had with this kind of equipment, and browsing websites and catalogues. Once I’ve collected these data, I put them into a table so that I can compare the different models of equipment offered by different suppliers. Often one model will emerge as the front runner, and sometimes I can effectively rule out a particular piece of equipment by doing this comparison.

 

Only after I’ve identified the models that I’m interested in, do I contact scientific companies to ask for quotations. When I make a quotation request I include: i) the specific model that I’m interested in, ii) any accessories that are necessary for my research, and iii) information on the regular warranty that is offered and the pricing of an extended warranty. I send the requests for quotations out on the same day and time as a way to gage the responsiveness of the sales representatives as this information sometimes factors into my decision making process.

 

Many of my purchasing decisions come down to price, so it’s helpful to be comparing apples to apples instead of apples to oranges. I comparison shop when I buy my weekly groceries; why wouldn’t I do the same thing when it comes to buying scientific equipment?

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Advice on Setting up a Laboratory: Where Old Equipment goes to Die

I count myself extremely fortunate that I inherited my lab space from a retiring faculty member. This researcher was extremely generous and left me a great deal of equipment and supplies that literally saved me thousands of dollars in start-up funds. This was in contrast to the horror stories that I heard whispered in the hallways as a grad student and post-doc about retiring professors leaving archaic equipment and garbage behind for unsuspecting new faculty.

After I had a handle on the physical aspects of the lab space, it was time to honestly assess the pieces of scientific equipment, reagents, plastic ware, etc. that were in the lab. This involved using a triage method of sorts and deciding whether items were: i) currently useful to my research program, ii) potentially useful to my research program in the future, or iii) likely not to be of any use to me now or ever.

The easiest group to identify were items in category iii; these were either obviously broken or expired items, items that I would never use, and in some cases unidentified items whose purpose remained a mystery to me. If it was broken or expired it went into the trash or chemical waste for disposal. Mystery items and items that I would never use were put into a pile to be dealt with later. It’s very important to be realistic about what you might use and not to save things for a rainy day. Chances are you’ll never use that piece of weird equipment and it will take up valuable lab space acting as a very effective dust collector.

I gathered up the pieces of equipment that I did not need and placed them on an empty benchtop. I then asked the departmental administrative assistant to send an email to all faculty members and teaching staff indicating that I had free pieces of equipment available on a first-come, first-served basis. My colleagues appreciated free items that were useful to them, and I was happy to clear the stuff out of my lab, so it was a win for everyone. Each year I purge the lab in this manner and get rid of items that are needlessly taking up space.

I had to take some time to assess whether other items fell into category i or ii. If I thought it was something that I would definitely use or that I could envision using in the next 2-3 years then I kept it. If not, it joined the items I would never use pile. I am still using many category i and ii items in the lab today including a PCR machine, light banks, vortexer, etc. Other items I used for the first couple of years that I was here until they ceased to function, or until I could afford to upgrade to a more convenient or efficient model. This included a centrifuge, pH meter, balance, and several sets of pipetmen. When I replaced this equipment, I first offered the old equipment to newer faculty members in an attempt to pay it forward.

It is really worth your time to take inventory before you purchase any items for your new lab. This will reduce the chance of you purchasing redundant equipment and is also cost effective. Doing this kind of inventory also serves to make you very aware of what you have, what you don’t have, and helps you to prioritize future lab purchases.

Advice on Setting up a Laboratory: Physical Space

Training to do science in graduate school and as a post-doc is great for teaching you how to conceptualize and do science, but it’s somewhat terrifying to be hired into a tenure-track position and realize that you now need to set-up your lab. It needs to be a functional space where excellent research can be conducted. Where to start?

It’s helpful to start from the ground up and take a good, hard look at the physical space of the laboratory that you’ve been given. This might be a laboratory of your very own or bench space in a shared, open-concept lab. Hopefully you’ve already been successful in negotiating a decent sized space in an attractive location (i.e. space that is not the size of a closet, actually has some natural light, and isn’t too far from your office).

It sounds very simple, but one of the first things I did in my laboratory was to spend a morning taking dimension measurements of bench tops, alcoves, cubbies, shelving, floor space, doorways, and other surfaces. While this may seem like a lot of time to invest up front, it pays off when you are trying to determine whether that new fridge that you want to order will actually fit in that particular corner of your lab and whether you can get it through the door.

It’s also worth determining whether any of the fixtures in your lab can be moved as this increases the flexibility of space. Are cabinets on casters? Can the height of shelves be modified? Can shelving or cabinets be moved and remounted elsewhere? For example, I relocated a pair of cabinets from one location to another in the lab in order to fit a Laminar flow hood; this had the added plus of giving me more shelf space in an area of the lab where it would be useful. Some fixtures can’t be moved (e.g. safety showers and eye wash stations, sinks, gas lines, electrical outlets, built-in benches, etc.) and will therefore impose some limitations on the space unless you are willing to spend some money to relocate them.

Now that you have a handle on the physical space within the lab, the next step is to take stock of what is in it. If you are getting a lab space that is part of a new building or a recent renovation the space may actually be empty, but many of us have inherited our lab space (and therefore equipment and materials) from a previous occupant.

Book Review: Promotion and Tenure Confidential by David D. Perlmutter

As a newer faculty member, the goal of earning tenure is a big and omnipresent one. I’ve approached this goal by doing my best to be strategic about where to invest my time and energy. In order to do this effectively I’ve sought advice from colleagues, administrators, websites, blogs, and books. One book that I recently finished reading is “Promotion and Tenure Confidential” by David D. Perlmutter. While the book was published in 2010, which is now four years ago, I believe that what Dr. Perlmutter conveys in the book will stand the test of time very well. This is because he chooses to focus on what he calls the 3P’s: “the people, the politics, and the personal conundrums”. Regardless of how the academy changes in the future, the 3P’s will always hold heavy sway in tenure decisions. His writing style is engaging and honest and he uses humour quite effectively throughout the book. I was also amused to discover that several pseudonyms used in the book reveal him to be a “Game of Thrones” fan.

He takes a chronological approach to the tenure track by starting with the doctorate and concluding with the awarding (or denial) of tenure, but much of the advice offered in each section of the book will be applicable regardless of the career stage of the reader. In contrast to other books that I’ve read that only warn of potential problems on the tenure track, in his book Dr. Perlmutter identifies the problem, offers several ways that it could be addressed, and then goes on to describe the likely outcomes of different scenarios. It is this compare and contrast approach to solutions to problems and the admission that “one size does not fit all” that makes this book useful. The scenarios described are realistic and the advice offered is extremely practical.

I’d recommend this book to later stage Ph.D. students who are preparing to defend their thesis and are thinking about going on the job market, post-docs who are preparing academic job applications, and tenure-track faculty members who are just starting out or who are in the process of preparing their applications for tenure.

The Academic Curriculum Vitae (CV): Service

The final section of my CV highlights my service activities. Service activities take place at various levels of organization, both within your institution and outside of it. If we start with external service, this might include serving as a reviewer for grant applications (e.g. NSERC, CIHR, grants from other countries), serving as an external examiner on M.Sc. or Ph.D. defenses, and reviewing manuscripts for peer-reviewed journals. You may be chairing sessions at academic conferences, serving as an executive member of a professional society, judging student awards at conferences, and organizing scientific conferences. All of these roles are contributions to your profession. You may also be involved in community or campus events such as judging school science fairs or serving as a guest speaker and performing outreach by representing your science to a broader audience. Within your institution you may be taking part in many service activities. For example, I sit on several university-level committees such as the Biohazard Safety Committee and the Women in Science Committee. In the past I’ve served as the president of a post-doctoral association and the graduate student association. You may be performing service within your Faculty by attending convocations, meet and greets, and student recruitment events. When you are starting your academic career you will likely perform most of your service within your department. This might include organizing the departmental seminar series, sitting on hiring committees, and serving as a departmental representative at various events on campus. It is often through service activities that we gain important “soft skills” that are applicable to a wide variety of careers.

The Academic Curriculum Vitae (CV): Teaching Experience

The next section of my CV describes my teaching experience. When I was in graduate school my teaching experience consisted of teaching assistant and course marker assignments and several workshops that I had presented. My current CV lists the undergraduate and graduate courses I’ve taught at my current institution (e.g. academic year, course code and title, and the enrollment). I also list my contributions to other courses; as an example I’ve served as a guest lecturer in colleagues’ courses several times. If you are a graduate student an excellent way to get teaching experience is to ask a professor in your department whether they would be open to you delivering a lecture in one of the classes that they teach. I also list any independent study courses and undergraduate thesis students that I’ve supervised and mentored in this section as well as research assistants and volunteers that I’ve taught in my lab. I have a sub-section called “Other Teaching Experience” where I list workshops that I’ve prepared and delivered on a variety of academic topics.

In my next blog post I’ll discuss the section of my CV that deals with professional activities, membership, and service.