AsianScientist (Nov. 23, 2017) – Time truly flies, and no physicist has been able to explain its aerodynamic properties. It’s been more than a year since I started this column, and in my very first post, I wrote about some hacks that could be useful for scientists (admittedly, mainly biologists) in the lab.
I thought it was about time to revisit this topic, and as I searched my own experiences and scoured the internet for useful tips, I asked myself: What exactly makes a hack? In my mind, a hack consists of three components: 1. It solves a common problem; 2. It can be easily assembled from items that are either hiding in plain sight or can be obtained cheaply; and 3. It elicits a ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ response.
Going by these three criteria, some of the simplest things that experienced scientists might be doing to sidestep critical errors (like pipetting away your cell pellet) and improve experiment outcomes (“that’s a beautiful western blot”) could be worth stating explicitly. Here’s a list of ten of them.
- Making a treasure map
- Look who’s keeping score
- Take a chill pill
- Finding Pellet Town
- Shear terror
Keeping track of all the reagents in the lab can be a headache, and the time spent rummaging through fridges and drawers to find what you need for an experiment can be better devoted to more meaningful tasks. Here’s where a Google spreadsheet detailing the location of reagents can be immensely useful.
Can’t remember if an antibody is kept in the 4°C fridge or the -20°C freezer? Just reference your spreadsheet. Even better, make the spreadsheet shareable and encourage your lab mates to help you fill it in. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.
Remember the time when you were counting cells on the hemocytometer and someone tapped you on the shoulder to ask you where an antibody is kept? You probably knew the answer, but might have withheld it because the bugger just made you lose count.
Never again. Go get yourself a manual click counter so that each time you count a cell, you click once to register it. This way, even if you’re distracted midway through, you can always pick up where you left off.
There’s always going to be that one protocol that requires ice cold ethanol and PBS somewhere in the middle of its 500 steps. You might forget to chill said reagents beforehand, leading to a mad rush to bring down their temperature in mere minutes.
This is where a good old high school trick might help. Dump some crushed ice in a container and generously sprinkle sodium chloride on it. Immerse your reagent in the salty slush, and watch it cool rapidly as you sit back and calm yourself down.
Whether you’re spinning down cells, precipitated DNA or protein fractions in a centrifuge, sometimes the amount of material is so minute that the pellet is practically invisible to the naked eye. Pipetting out the supernatant is going to be tricky as you won’t know where to point your pipette tip.
To avoid such situations, always place your tubes into the centrifuge in a specific orientation. I like to do this by making sure that the hinge on the caps face outwards. I can then be certain that the pellet has settled on the inner side of the tube and avoid pipetting in that corner.
If you’ve ever had the caps of your spin columns sheared off in a tabletop centrifuge, you’ll understand the agony of having labelled only the caps and not the collection tube itself. All your efforts to this point have been wasted if you can no longer identify your samples. Lesson learnt: label BOTH the cap of the spin column and the collection tube to avoid disaster.