A lot can go wrong in experimental science, but proper planning and attention to detail can prevent accidents, wasted resources, and damaged reputations.
As the saying goes, we learn by our mistakes. And so it goes for virtually all research scientists, with most mistakes occurring during their formative years when they are still being mentored. While missteps in the research process are not usually catastrophic, the risks of allowing them to occur unchecked are many: personal safety is at stake, as are the careers and reputations of individuals, departments, and entire institutions. All of these risks can be significantly mitigated through proper training at the early stages of a researchers’ career. Here, I describe ten common mistakes (listed in no particular order) that occur in laboratory research settings.
- Mistakes can occur at many levels, and sometimes they turn out to be due to innocent reliance on common or specialized methods – even published protocols – that are less than optimal. All experiments should begin with a well-planned protocol. If the protocol is investigator-initiated, permutations of steps should be built into the protocol to determine the optimal methodological approach. If the protocol being used is a peer-reviewed method, there’s no guarantee that it will work for everyone. It’s a mistake to assume that the protocol will work flawlessly the first time you use it in your research. Practice makes perfect, but you also need to consider the possibility that a published protocol may have failed to provide important caveats (e.g. the method doesn’t work well when cultured cells are in S phase of growth). That can cause experiments to fail or yield inconsistent results.
- Failing to troubleshoot by at least attempting to get advice from others who have successfully used a method is also a mistake. You can reduce the risk of failed protocols by reaching out the investigator who published the protocol.
- A third research mistake concerns the need to pay close attention to all of the reagents used in a given experiment. Reagent expiration dates need to be assessed before using a given material in an experiment. Reputable manufacturers pre-test their products in quality control studies to determine their products’ shelf life.
- A related mistake is the use of reagents that haven’t been stored properly (e.g. refrigerated instead of frozen). This is particularly common when using perishable biological reagents.
- Another research mistake that is absolutely avoidable concerns how experiments are documented. Laboratory notebooks must contain detailed information if an experiment that works is to be consistently reproduced. Everything should be recorded. This includes all materials used, nuances of methods applied, anything that may have happened during an experiment that’s not typical (e.g. a brief power failure). Even so-called simple things such as the water used can impact an experiment one way or another. Be consistent!
- Disregarding the “consistency imperative” is a big mistake. If your experiments require the use of distilled, deionized water, always use distilled, deionized water.
- Avoid taking short cuts. If an incubation period is 30 minutes, be patient and wait for the entire incubation period to be completed before moving on to the next step. When you plan an experiment, know what your time investment will be.
- Failure to optimally maintain equipment is another mistake that can plague the most seasoned investigators. Standard maintenance is critical, especially when equipment is designed to protect users from environmental hazards (e.g. fume hoods). Is the equipment’s certification up to date?
- Failure to perform manufacturers’ recommended calibration of equipment is another equipment-related mistake. A personal pet peeve is the failure to calibrate micropipettes used to measure minute volumes of reagents. When a protocol calls for one microliter of a reagent and the micropipette used to aliquot that volume hasn’t been appropriately calibrated, significant variance in the amount of reagent used can occur, resulting in significant variance of results from experiment to experiment.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a set of related mistakes that occur in laboratory settings are caused by failure to adhere to good laboratory practices. While most of us are good citizens who try to adhere to and advocate for these practices, we sometimes fail to comply with what our laboratory safety officers tell us to do for our own good. That’s a big mistake – one we can’t afford if we want to keep ourselves and others safe in our work environments.
The list of related mistakes (the “never” imperatives) is long and includes:
- Never bringing any food or drink into the laboratory and do not eat, drink, or smoke there.
- Never smelling or tasting any chemicals or other lab samples for any reason.
- Never working alone or unsupervised.
- Never working when you are exhausted or emotionally upset.
- Never leave experiments running unattended in the laboratory.
- Never wearing loose or sloppy clothing that could get caught in any equipment or come in contact with any chemicals. Long hair should be pulled back out of the way of any reagents or machinery.
- Never forgetting to wear the appropriate gloves, safety glasses or goggles, and a clean lab coat when handling chemical and/or biohazardous materials.
- Never leaving the lab wearing protective personal equipment (PPE). How many times have you seen someone wearing protective laboratory gloves pressing an elevator button? If you do, do all of us a favor and tell that person why it’s against laboratory safety rules.
- Never pipetting by mouth.
- Never assuming that an accident that happens in the lab can be swept under the rug. If an accident or spill happens, be sure to notify your supervisor so that the appropriate protocols can be observed.
- And finally, just like your mother always told you when you were growing up, never forgetting to wash your hands. Always do this before you exit the laboratory and especially after handling biohazards or chemical reagents.
The ever-present possibility of mistakes in experimental research should always be taken seriously, but should not be discouraging; all of these mistakes are preventable when researchers are properly trained and remain vigilant. By reducing mistakes we not only create a safer, more productive environment, but we do better science as a result.
Richard Coico, PhD is Professor of Cell Biology and Medicine, and Vice Dean for Scientific Affairs at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Dr. Coico earned his PhD in immunology from New York University. His research has focused on the study of the role of immunoglobulin D (IgD) in lymphocyte regulation.
This article is also published on the OUP Blog.
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