Category: Laboratory Organization

Project Management for Scientists

project management notesToday’s topic in my group lab meeting is project management. It took me a long time as a scientist to believe that research projects could actually be managed. I think that I felt this way given the uncertain nature of scientific research; you never know if an experiment will actually work and you often can’t predict in which direction the research will go next. I’ve always been an organized person and it turns out that managing a research project isn’t all that different from other projects that you do in your day to day life such as go grocery shopping, clean out the garage, and plant a vegetable garden. Once I started thinking about science in the same way it’s like a light bulb went on.

I don’t recall ever having explicit conversations with my research mentors and supervisors about project management. That may be because I was fairly productive and am a planner by nature, but these are skills that don’t naturally come to everyone and that can be learned and improved over time. As a purely ridiculous example, I explicitly tell students that they should do something else with their time while PCR is running or they are incubating a sample for an hour. I’d like to think that they know this, but I have heard stories from colleagues, of students who will literally sit there for the duration of the incubation thereby wasting precious time that they could have used doing anything else. It’s like the science equivalent of watching paint dry.

Here are some thoughts on how I approach project management in laboratory science:

1) My first step is to define the project clearly and to determine what success looks like. If you skip this step you’ll never know when the project is done, nor will you know if you did it well. You need to identify the full scope of the work, what resources you’ll need (reagents, people, literature, etc.), and the time that you have available to do it in. Thinking about these limitations up front will decrease the amount of frustration that you and others experience later. At the same time, there is room for flexibility, which I will talk about later.

2) My next step is to think about the major milestones that need to be completed in order for the project to be finished. For even the most basic science experiment this will include things like generation of hypotheses and predictions, experimental design, ordering of reagents, allocation of people, doing the experiments, data collection and analyses, data presentation and communication (i.e. making figures, tables, diagrams, etc.), and generating a manuscript, poster, or talk to communicate your findings. That’s a lot of stuff to complete in order to successfully finish your project! One of the major things that I struggle with is maintaining an interest in projects that span several years of work; I often get bored part way through and struggle with staying motivated to finish.

3) Up next is thinking about the flow of tasks and their relationships to one another in your project. I like to think of the major milestones in a project as parts of a puzzle that need to be put together. When I build puzzles, I always start with the edge pieces first, and then work my way in; this means that the connection of some pieces requires the presence of other pieces first. With your project you want to determine whether some of your milestones are interconnected and have to happen sequentially, or whether some of your milestones are independent and could be worked on in parallel at the same time. For example, if you wanted to clone a particular gene in your critter of interest, you would first want to obtain the DNA sequence from a molecular database, you’d then design and order gene specific primers, you’d then perform PCR with your primers, purify your amplified DNA via gel electrophoresis and a gel extraction kit, clone your DNA product into a plasmid, and sequence the plasmid to ensure that the DNA sequence matched the one in the database. These tasks are sequential and one needs to happen before you move on to the next. Other projects have milestones that could be completed at the same time because one doesn’t depend on the completion of the other. This is also the time to identify what could go wrong. Where might your project go off the rails? Can you come up with a back-up plan to get around the problem should it arise? Can you plan ahead to avoid the problem? Can you ask for help?

4) Now you need to break your project milestones into smaller mini-projects that contain a small number of discrete steps. Ideally, you’d aim to complete a few of the small tasks every day and one of the mini-projects each week in the lab. This will help to keep you motivated as you’ll be able to measure your progress on the project and you will build up lots of little wins and that will keep your mental and emotional state positive.

5) The final step is putting together a timeline for completion. I like to set a deadline that I think is realistic, but I usually add several extra weeks and expect that something will go wrong during the course of the project. I then work backwards from that date when planning my time. I schedule in my major project milestones, my mini-projects, and my smaller tasks at a level of detail that I’m comfortable with. Some projects are tricky and it will be difficult to easily identify all of the mini-projects and small tasks up front. Do your best and don’t get off target because that can lead to project creep where the scope of the project balloons out and doesn’t resemble the scope of what you originally set out to do. You need to be flexible because plans can sometimes change mid-project, but head back up to what you defined in Step 1 if you feel that your project is getting out of control. You’ll often find that you reimagined the scope of the project without really thinking things through because you got excited by a neat result or finding. Think extra hard about whether you really want to commit to expanding the scope or redefining the success of your project before you leap in! That being said, there will be times when you need to retool your plans and timeline due to the unpredictability of lab research, but hopefully because you’ve identified the possible trouble spots in advance (Step 3) this will be minimal.

6) Execute your project management plan. Enter specific tasks and mini-projects in your daily and weekly calendar and set deadlines for your project milestones.

Some great resources:

If you need help with bigger project management concepts, Melanie Nelson’s blog Beyond Managing is great!

If you find that scheduling, prioritizing, and keeping up with your to-do list is a challenge, I recommend reading David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” . It will change your life – I kid you not!

What tips and resources do you give to your trainees in order to help them manage their research projects?

Advertisements

On-line Storage of Lab Protocols

In the labs I’ve been in previously, common lab protocols were stored in a binder in the lab for reference. Usually I’d make a photocopy for my own use as a place to start and as I optimized the protocol for my experiments I’d mark up this copy. Once I had a solid protocol worked out, I’d generate my own copy of the protocol so that it served my purposes. When I started my own lab I wanted to make sure that my students had a binder of protocols that they could refer to for their own experiments. At the same time I wanted to prevent protocol drift (i.e. the inadvertent changing of a protocol over time). I thought about the common protocols that we would use in the lab and generated several binders for these that are stored in the lab. This approach works, but it’s a bit clunky and limited the students to looking at the protocols only while in the lab. I recently decided that it would make sense to generate a central, on-line repository for our lab protocols.

A quick search of the web showed that researchers do this in different ways. Some labs make their own Wiki to hold this information, others use cloud storage or an online protocol repository, and others used a campus intranet or password protected website. I’m currently in the process of evaluating all of the possible options. How does your lab store and manage experimental protocols? I’d love to receive advice and hear about options in the comments below!

Research Budgeting for Scientists

Prior to starting my job as an Assistant Professor, I had never managed a professional budget before. I’d certainly managed my personal finances previously, but I’d never before had total oversight of a research budget and been responsible for figuring out how to spend it effectively and ensure that I wasn’t going over budget. This is one of those myriad of skills that you aren’t always exposed to as a graduate student or post-doc, although I do know some colleagues who managed research budgets before starting their faculty positions.

I’m pretty conservative with money and how I manage my funds is informed primarily by two things: I think that shopping around for the best price is a good idea and I like to know what the current balances of my accounts are so that I don’t ever run a deficit. These two approaches have served me well in the first five years of my position.

In my personal life I do not particularly enjoy shopping as an activity. The most frequent type of shopping that I do is grocery shopping and we have recently started to use the app Flipp in order to compare prices any given week and to price match items across different stores. I have transferred this idea to how I do the shopping of consumables and supplies for my lab. Usually several suppliers will offer the same or a comparable product; let’s use the example of 1.5 mL centrifuge tubes. In my lab I prefer the tubes to be clear, to seal well, and to withstand high centrifugation speeds. Taking these specifications into account, there are many suppliers and manufacturers who can provide me with a tube that will do the job. My next step is to figure out the price per unit and see who offers a good product at a reasonable price. For most items I’m willing to shop around and to try a new product, especially if the price point is cheaper than what I have previously been using. One thing to keep an eye on is whether there are shipping and handling charges in play. Often an item will seem less costly, but when you factor in the shipping costs that is no longer the case. I also have to make sure what customs charges apply if I’m importing an item from Europe or the U.S. since I’m in Canada as those charges can add a lot to the cost of an item.

In order to avoid running a deficit it’s important to plan ahead and estimate your future costs and also to have a really good idea of the current funds that you have available. Some costs are easier to project (e.g. student stipends, larger pieces of equipment) while some are more challenging to estimate (e.g. the price of agarose 3 months in the future). I’ve found that it’s been useful to go with higher than expected estimates in order to build a buffer into budgets.

I choose to run my research budget in this way because the vast majority if my research funding comes from Canadian taxpayers and they have a right to expect me to be responsible when it comes to spending those funds. I also refuse to put myself and my students in the position of running out of funds for their stipends as I feel that it is morally wrong and irresponsible. I won’t take on a student if I can’t pay for my portion of their financial support package.

I’d be interested to hear how other faculty do their financial budgeting for their research grants. Please leave your thoughts or advice in the comments!

Tips for designing experiments

One guarantee of being a scientist is that you perform many experiments in your career that do not work. I always warn trainees just joining my lab that this will happen and that they should expect it. This is an issue that I discuss in particular with undergraduate students because often the only lab experience they have is through undergrad labs run as part of a course and those experiments are designed to work and have already undergone extensive troubleshooting. I make sure to tell my students that they will run many failed experiments and that this is a normal part of doing science and is a cornerstone of the scientific method. I tell them that so far in my career I’ve only had a few experiments that worked out perfectly the first time and that a failed experiment can happen for reasons other than their abilities or talent for doing science.

That being said, there are things that you can do to decrease the chances that an experiment will fail right out of the gate. I offer some tips below:

1) The first thing that I suggest to students is that they do extensive reading of the literature and established protocols related to their experiment before starting to design it. I’ve heard the phase “one hour in the library can save you one month in the lab” and I absolutely believe it! It’s really important to understand the rationale behind a particular protocol and the nuts and bolts of why you are doing each step. In the days of commercial kits I think that many people forget this crucial step and it often causes issues later.

2) Make sure that you are including all reasonably possible positive and negative controls as part of your experiment. From talking with several of my colleagues recently it has become clear that many undergraduate and graduate students have not had explicit training in how to determine what the appropriate controls should be for an experiment or are simply not including them. By including controls in your experiment you allow yourself the capability of narrowing down where problems cropped up in your experiments. When an experiment fails, this step can save you a massive amount of time when it comes to troubleshooting and determining what went wrong. The presence of control and experimental groups also ensures that you will be able to conduct statistical analyses of your data in an attempt to demonstrate whether your results are significant.

3) Write up an extremely detailed step by step protocol for your experiment. Try to think about what might go wrong and where key steps are in the protocol. Attempt to troubleshoot the experiment before you even do it. The plans for your experiment should be written in your lab notebook and not on paper towels, scrap pieces of paper, etc. This will ensure that your experiment will be reproducible and will help you to identify potential issues before you get rolling. If someone in the lab has done the experiment or protocol before, go and talk to them. They may have tips or tricks that are not explicitly written down that are valuable. Write out the protocol in your own words with as much detail as you can. I tell my students that if they needed to perform the experiment without thinking about the steps, the protocol should be detailed enough that they could do this.

4) Ensure that all of the materials and reagents that you need for your experiment are available and ready to go before you start the experiment. There is nothing worse than getting part way through a long protocol only to realize that you’ve run out of Tris buffer and have to order more in from the supplier. Complete any prior steps that are needed before starting the experiment. Do you need to culture cells, wrangle critters, grow plants, etc.?

5) Conduct a small trial run of your experiment. Starting things off with a pilot experiment allows you to save money, time, and can allow you to discover problems with the design of your experiment before you fully commit large amounts of resources to it.

Designing good experiments is an art form that requires years of practice in order to get better at it. I am still working on designing the perfect experiment, but I have certainly improved this skill by extensive practice over the years. Due to the challenge of designing an effective experiment it is truly amazing when an experiment works beautifully on the first attempt. This is one of the eureka moments that scientists live for!

The Power of the Label maker

One characteristic that is very valuable to have as a tenure-track academic is excellent organizational skills. This job makes multiple demands on your time and is a real juggling act; keeping all of those balls up in the air at the same time is tricky business. I have found that it is very worth my while to discover and invest in tools that help me to maintain order in the face of chaos.

One tool that I have found to be indispensable is the label maker. I kid you not! Label makers have come a long way since the models of my youth. I remember vividly using archaic models with the alphabet dial on the top that worked by punching letter imprints into hard plastic. Very clunky- but strangely satisfying.

The current brand that I use is by Dymo and is their middle of the range model. I like it because you can purchase a wide variety of tape types (e.g. paper, plastic, etc.), and colours. I find the base model to be a bit clunky and the top of the line model has bells and whistles that I don’t need. Refill tapes are widely available and reasonably priced.

My colleagues seem puzzled by my love for the label maker and I’ve been the subject of gentle mocking for this proclivity. However, if you read any good productivity book or guide you will see that the label maker features prominently as a must have tool. On a day to day basis I use my label maker to label file folders. Although the bulk of my work occurs electronically, I still require paper file folders to keep track of invoices, budgets, project plans, notes from student meetings, teaching materials, grant applications, etc. A label maker allows me to label these files cleanly and professionally and makes them easy to find and identify in my filing cabinets. The label maker has also come in handy in the lab. When I first moved into the lab and organized it I labelled all the drawers with content labels. This helps me to remember where all of the gel electrophoresis equipment is stored, but has also helped to familiarize my students to the lab and has trained them to properly put away equipment. This saves time and money. If you don’t already have one, invest in a label maker; you’ll be glad that you did.

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?

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.