Sunday, May 15, 2016

Archiving and Documentation Skills (an Introduction)

In most labs (read: all labs), good documentation is absolutely a necessity, and it's something you should begin to learn in college.

What if you're not in research? Well, here's why it's important:
  • It's a chronological log of your work. Data, when documented properly, can be read from start to finish. If people can't understand what you did, then it basically didn't happen.
  • It defends you when people aren't happy with your work. This happens very often in research. Higher ups see data they don't like and will order an investigation. Good thing your data is well documented, right?
  • It benefits researchers for years to come. Let's face it, you probably will jump from lab to lab, building skills. People who follow in your footsteps will know exactly what you did, from cradle to grave.
  • It boosts your credibility as a scientist and researcher. When people look at your data weeks, months, or years from now, what will they think if your data is disorganized? What if your boss sees messy cluttered data, and when you list that boss as a reference, they say your data is always a complete mess? Now, think about what could happen if they can boast about your good documentation.
  • Data becomes very, very easy to find. Think about what would happen if (in reality, when) your boss asks for data from three months ago. How will you find it? How will you know what you did?
(As a fun anecdote, I introduced one of my college buddies to these skills. He missed three labs in one of his courses but ended up getting a better grade than most of his lab partners because his data was so well documented.)
  • Federal Regulations. The FDA and EPA require documentation of work done. If the documentation isn't there, then guess what: it didn't happen. It doesn't matter how much you insist the work was done.
There is one major drawback, however:
  • Time. It takes time to properly document your work. There are ways that documentation time can be minimized. Ultimately, documentation will take some time out of your actual work in the lab.

That's all for now; stay focused for next time.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

New Skill: Multichannel Pipettes

Any time I'll be talking about a new instrument you might not have used, the title will have "New Skill:". Want to see all the posts about these? Search for the tag label "NewSkill".

The Instrument:


Multichannel pipettes, while intimidating, are no different than any other pipette. It has a plunger by which you take a sample, and transfer it somewhere else.

These pipettes are used for running reactions on plates, typically.

A plate is a piece of .. well .. plastic, in which there are wells (96 wells is typical) where you can put samples and run tests.

Now, think about this: Would you rather pipette something 96 times, or use a tool designed to do 12 wells at once? Thought so.

Here enters the multichannel pipette. The designs vary, but are essentially the same. There are multichannel pipettes that are electric or manual, and have a variety of different dispensers. Some pipette tips will not fit other models, and some models are built traditionally, or have a more ergonomic feel.

Here's what you need to watch out for
  1. Lighting. Poor lighting, or not being able to see clearly, will likely result in cross contamination. Make sure you can see what you're doing. 
  2. Check your pipette tips before and after testing something. Even today, I had to throw out an entire box of tips. Every single tip in the box, I kid you not, was completely bent/destroyed. Age? Shock from autoclaving? Who knows. Those tips were trash, and I would have failed my tests if I didn't check the tips before using them.
  3. In my experience, I've seen that the data resulting from the middle wells (wells 4-8) have the lowest CV's, where the end wells (1-3 and 9-12) have the highest CV's. Arrange your samples so that the most important samples are in the 4-8 range.
  4. Consistency. No matter what you do, your results will not be superb unless you follow the same tiny quirks every time. Did you wait for the samples to reach room temperature? Have the samples been vortexed? Are the pipette tips cleared before I move to the next set of wells? These are all things you should be thinking about while using a multichannel.
  5. The plate itself. Plates are designed to be used in conjunction with plate readers. Plate readers measure the absorbance of many sample by sending a certain frequency of light through the bottom of wells. However, if you touch the bottom of the plate with anything (and I do mean, anything) you run a very high risk of adding interference to the readings.
  6. Just to say it again, do not touch the bottom of the plate with your glove/hand. You will mess up your readings.
  7. Plates, and multichannel pipettes, by their character, are designed to handle a very small amount of sample. That's all fine and dandy. But, remember, small sample amounts lead to higher error. You need to be careful with your technique. If adding A to B, make sure to prewet your pipette tips with A and then, after transferring A to B, thoroughly mix A and B together using a circular motion and cycling the wells multiple times using the same tips. Cycling means to pull the A+B mix up, dispense it, pull it up again, and keep repeating until you feel confident that the wells are mixed.
  8. Every multichannel pipette is different and has its quirks. Ideally, any pipette you use should be calibrated (indeed, in a regulatory setting, all pipettes you use will be calibrated by a professional). You should notice that the image I showed above has a sticker on it. This marks that the pipette has been calibrated. Learn to use your pipette, because no multi-channel pipette is perfect or similar to another.

    Obligatory yer a wizard 'arry:

Yes. Multichannel pipettes are just like wands. Some just won't work for you.

Remember: Multichannel pipettes are just like any other pipette. Remember to make sure your pipette tips are secure, and that you pull your sample in a consistent manner.

That's all for now; stay focused for next time.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Lab Technicians, What even?

While pursuing my degree in biochemistry, I had this crazy notion that somehow when I go into the world, I would quickly ascend the ladder.

I had dreamed that I would contribute to the cures for diseases like Ebola, "Cancer", or HIV. These were diseases that I had heard about when I was young, and decided I wanted to do something about them.

To all you hopefuls out there: This won't be the case.

The world of research isn't this magic place where everybody works together for the common good of humanity. Sorry to burst that bubble. Scientists play favorites, and can be very uncooperative.

The world of research has bosses and managers, just like any other job. There are expectations and deadlines. Gone is the forgiving world of academia. Research, and the life of a lab technician, is a treacherous minefield.

People who are in the field are often close minded and afraid of change. New ideas are risky, and potentially costly. Research is as much a game of politics as it is searching for the keys to the secrets of the world.

Expect to work with these people, and be prepared for the reality of product centered research.

That's all for now; stay focused for next time.