Using Equipment for the First Time? Ask Before Starting.

Using Equipment for the First Time? Ask Before Starting.

—from the Lab Manager's bench

Self-directed learning is a reasonable expectation for all lab students, and should become part of your core as you develop into an independent researcher. But if you’re an undergraduate researcher, before working with a piece of equipment that is new or unfamiliar to you, always first consult with an experienced labmate—even if they are not your official research supervisor.

Here are three reasons to avoid a “figure it out on my own” approach to working with lab equipment:

  1. Safety concerns.
  2. You can be a danger to yourself or others by improperly operating equipment. Granted, some equipment has safety features that engage with improper use, but no piece of equipment is designed to anticipate all possible misuses. Plus, it’s important to know what a malfunctioning piece of equipment looks/sounds like so you can immediately stop it if there is a problem—but you also have to do this correctly. If you’re self-taught, you might mistake a dangerous/warning sound for a normal one, or might not know the best procedure to follow if a piece of equipment does fail. (Sometimes, equipment fails because it’s old or improperly maintained—it’s not always operator error.) If you’re interested in learning about some scary old-school equipment fails do a web search for ”Ultra centrifuge fails.”

  3. Wasting your time, energy, or precious research samples.
  4. Your time matters, and if you’re using certain pieces of equipment improperly, you can waste so much of it. For example, we are fortunate to have a confocal microscope in our lab. Because of this, we often host graduate students and postdocs from other labs on our campus and train them how to capture and analyze confocal images.

    When researchers arrive at our lab after they have had problems obtaining useful images elsewhere, often we find that they have been improperly adjusting various image capture settings (gain, exposure, laser power), because they were never adequately trained on how to use the microscope. Research is hard enough without the added emotional drain of failure because of improper equipment operation. And here’s the thing: I can guarantee that there are students we haven’t worked with who are struggling with the same confocal issues, but are unaware that it’s basically a problem of improper use.

  5. Breaking equipment.
  6. Improper use of equipment can cause it to malfunction. Most labs are self-insured which basically means that the cost of repairing or replacing broken equipment is the responsibility of the principal investigator—not the institution. Depending on the price, there might not be a large enough pile of magic money to cover the cost, and in some cases, a piece of equipment might be irreplaceable. Even when the money is there, waiting for the repair might cause substantial delays to your (and your labmate’s) research progress.

To sum, self-directed learning is a reasonable expectation for all researchers, but being responsible for determining out how to use expensive, potentially dangerous equipment on your own—not so much.

A version of this article appeared on P.H.Grey's Quora account.