Hey, Who Moved My Stuff?


Hey, Who Moved My Stuff?

— from the Researcher's bench

Recently, we received a request for help (edited here for brevity):

Thanks for all your great posts. As an undergrad in the lab, I'd like to know what your advice would be if your materials go missing. No one else in my lab uses it, and I have never used it myself. I have spoken to my coworkers to ask if they know anything about it, but no one has responded. I was just wondering if you had any tips regarding safeguarding one's materials in a lab? I feel surprised and a bit angry that somebody would move something not belonging to them in a lab.

Dear Undergrad In The Lab,

I understand your frustration and I’ve experienced the same on occasion.

You’ve probably already done this, but if you haven’t, do a thorough search of the lab for your reagent. First, check to see if it was pushed wayyyyy back on a shelf in the refrigerator, or moved to a different shelf, or to a different refrigerator. Then, check the lab shelves around the refrigerator where your reagent was stored because someone might have thought it would be better stored at room temperature. Also, if your lab has a fume hood, check the inside and the cabinet underneath. As you search the lab, don’t make a big deal about your it, and don’t show frustration, anger, or resentment towards the situation (or any person). Try to approach it as, “I’m ruling out all the possibilities,” and go about your search calmly.

That being said, it IS annoying and frustrating when someone moves our stuff. And now you’re left wondering if your reagent is temporarily lost, or has been thrown out, and no one in the lab is sharing information to help you solve the mystery. That uncertainly makes it worse.

Unfortunately, finding out that our stuff has been moved by a labmate is a common occurrence in many labs. (This is for a variety of reasons that I won’t address in this post.) And it happens to researchers at all levels—undergrad, grad, postdoc, senior scientist…you see where I’m going.

Whether in a lab, office, or home, anytime there is shared space possessions get moved. Sometimes there is a good reason to do so. For example, in a lab If a researcher stores a short bottle on a tall shelf, someone might move it to store a tall bottle. This might not apply to your situation, but it is a common scenario in a shared lab space. I realize that this knowledge doesn’t make it less irritating that your reagent was moved—but I hope it helps to know that you’re not alone.

As far as your labmates not being forthcoming with helpful information, it might be because someone is hesitant to speak up, or that no one actually has information to share. Please know that it’s quite possible that no one actually remembers what your container looked like or can recall moving it. (Especially because you are the only in the lab who uses it.) So it really is possible that they can’t help you—not that someone “knows” something and is unwilling to say something. Grad students, postdocs, and research scientists work under sleep deprived conditions, trying to focus on too many things at one time, and we do sometimes forget details that aren’t relevant to us at the moment.

I’ll share examples from my own research life to illustrate. First, I almost never know what day it is (truly, most days I have to think about it and often need to look at my iPhone to confirm). Second, I have, more times than I can count, woken in a panic because I couldn’t remember adding antibiotics to my culture, buffer to my enzymatic reaction, or putting my dialyzing protein back in the cold room before heading home. All these are directly related to my success as a researcher, and I have years of experience doing the procedures, so you’d think I would never have a doubt. But alas, muscle memory is a blessing and a curse: its great when it helps us at the bench, its awful when we have no recollection of parts of our day during a 3 AM panic.

However, that doesn’t mean that you must to resign to having your stuff moved all the time and just live with it. Although there are no guarantees that you’ll be able to eliminate the chance of a reagent disappearing in the future, you can try a strategy to lessen the chance it will happen frequently.

Moving forward here is a strategy that might help with your situation:

  1. Make sure you’re not storing anything in a reserved or designated space. That sounds obvious, sure, but you are a new researcher and might not yet know the lab culture in this area. You might want to ask a labmate or two for specifics about your lab if no one has discussed it to you. In my lab, we have a combination of personal and public working spaces, and have designated storage areas for certain items. For example, all media supplemented with antibiotics goes in a designated storage area and nothing else is placed there. If a new researcher put something else there, another labmate would move it without thinking much about it.
  2. For the future, as you mentioned, label, label, label everything. Labeling helps prevent something from looking abandoned, and is important for safety reasons. Here is what I require all labels to have in my lab: contents, researcher’s name, and date. Your lab supervisor might have other or additional requirements so definitely ask.
  3. Store your stuff in the less convenient places as long as you aren’t breaking any lab or safety rules. The front and center shelves in refrigerators and freezers, and shoulder height shelves in the lab, are premium spaces because they are the most convenient. Your strategy moving forward could be to store items on bottom shelves, or towards the back of freezers and refrigerators. Note: this isn’t hiding them, which you should never do, but if you don’t store your stuff in “premium real estate” others will be less likely to move them.
  4. If possible, use a small bin, tray, or box (around the size of a shoebox or smaller) to store your supplies. Make sure you only store compatible reagents together (no acids and bases etc.), and make sure the bin you choose would not cause a safety hazard if anything leaks. Label the outside of the bin with your name. Not only does this help you stay organized by keeping things together, but your solutions and reagents look like they are in use and not abandoned.