Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Keeping a good lab notebook

Originally written April 2010

I feel like I learned a lesson today that IBH [the Integrative Biology Honors program at the University of Illinois] has been trying to drill into our heads from day one.

I came into [my professor's] lab today with instructions to set up some opossum matings + tapes and then prepare some primers for PCR. The opossum matings went fine; I've been doing this every Monday since the start of the semester and lately it's been going really well. I got back upstairs, hung up the lab coat, put away the keys and i-card (I'm still not authorized downstairs) and got to my lab bench and...

Now what? I stared at the two boxes of primers for a moment before rifling through my bag to look at the notes I had taken from two weeks ago, when the P.I. and I did this for the first time. They were brief and scattered but had immense holes in them - did I add the ddH2O directly to the capsules, did I centrifuge first (and for how long?) and then add the water, did I add 10x the mass of the sample as uL or nL, was DEPC H2O ok if ddH2O wasn't available? I actually got scared, holding hundreds (thousands?) of dollars of technology in my hands and not knowing what to do. My P.I. was gone and the other students in the lab were busy doing their own projects. I've felt guilty making them take time out of their day to bring me up to speed, the new kid who's just a weight on the lab until he starts pulling his own weight. I looked at my notes again but didn't know where to start.

Fortunately, one of the other members of the lab saw me struggling and came over to help. She gave me her notes (much better ones, I might add) and gave me some advice on what to do before getting back to her work. After a question or two for clarification, I started prepping the samples and merely minutes later messed up because I hadn't read my notes (and hers) carefully enough. This happened again twenty minutes later, probably because I was a little tired as well.

When I finally put the solutions into the PCR machine and hit "Start," I knew that I needed to really get serious about the notes I took during lab. In IB 270 and 271 [two of the core IBH classes], it's important that we take notes so that we can know what we did when it comes time to write the lab report or (in 271) do the experiment again. But in those cases, I was with other students, working together in something that at most will cost me a few points in the long run with the semester. Now I was in the same situation but with the trust of a professor, where my work is really an extension of her work, her career. I was handed something worth enough money that messing up would make me look pretty bad. And I almost couldn't do it.

Dr. Cheeseman [former head of IBH] keeps telling us that everything in IB Honors happens for a reason (wow, replace "IB Honors" with "life" and you have something philosophical going on). Jokes aside, I understand what he means now... the lab journals, the sleep. It's easy to brush the advice aside when we're working late into the night on something we put off, but in reality the man's right. I don't want what happened today to happen again.

Off to Walgreens to buy a fresh lab notebook,

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