Five tips for trying new protocols
One of the great aspects of working in a research lab is that, from the moment you start, the opportunities for learning something new never end. At first, every protocol you encounter may feel new and exciting, but even after you master the techniques that are frequently used in your lab, I guarantee you will still get into situations where you need to try something new. As exciting as it is to try new techniques, it can also be stressful! Mistakes can cost time and resources, two things many academic labs are short on. Don’t get me wrong, mistakes happen and they are not the end of the world! But you’ll thank yourself for developing practices that enable you to take on new protocols with aplomb. Over time, you’ll figure out what practices work best for you, but here are a few tips to get started.
Read the whole protocol Before you begin anything, read through the whole protocol. As you read, start to underline important information such as incubation times or temperatures. The following few tips will get into more detail on what information will be important to note, but this first tip is meant to highlight the importance of ensuring that you understand the protocol before jumping into it. You might even imagine yourself taking each step and asking questions like: Where are the things you need? How do you add reagent A to Tube B? Which side is up? Imagining yourself going through the protocol helps you identify what steps might need clarification. Before pressing on with your experiment, find a mentor, labmate, or online resource to help explain any confusing steps.
Collect all your materials Some protocols will list out all of the reagents and materials that you will need, but if not, read through the protocol again to make your own list. Then, locate everything in your lab and check that you have enough of each reagent to make it through the protocol. Make any solutions that can be made ahead of time (our post on Lab Math might help with this step). Note which reagents may need to be thawed before you can use them and write yourself a reminder to start thawing them a little before you begin your experiment so that you aren’t stuck waiting for frozen solutions in the middle of a critical step. Conversely, note whether any reagents will need to be pre-warmed or if any equipment like incubators or waterbaths need to be preheated.
Make a checklist I am a fan of checklists so, another preparation step that I like to do before starting an experiment, is to translate the protocol into a checklist so that I can physically check steps off as I go. You could also print out a copy of your protocol and check steps off of it directly. Essentially, you want to find a strategy that will keep you on track through even the most complicated protocols.
Plan for extra time The easiest way to add stress to your life and make mistakes is to rush, so as you read through the protocol start to estimate the amount of time each step will take. And by “each step”, I mean, the steps that have explicit timeframes but also the steps where you might be pipetting five million separate solutions - all that pipetting takes time too. As you are planning out your time, also check that any shared equipment that you might need will be available when you need it.
Keep notes (and make sure they end up in your lab notebook) Ok, you’ve read the protocol, visualized yourself doing it, gathered everything you need, have your checklist at the ready, and set aside time. You are as ready to embark on your experiment as you will ever be and there is nothing left but to get started. As you proceed, be sure to keep notes of protocol changes you might have to implement (or mistakes that you make), calculations you had to do, intermediate results, etc. The goal is to make sure that you have all the information you need to interpret your results, troubleshoot if the experiment fails, and to collect tips for yourself if you need to do the protocol in the future. Some folks will put everything directly into their lab notebook as they go, while others might prefer to keep notes on scrap paper and then enter everything into their official lab notebook later.
If the five tips described here still seem overwhelming, keep in mind that they could be condensed down to: plan ahead and keep track of what you have done. As you take on more complex protocols, even the best preparation will not entirely prevent you from making mistakes, but that’s ok! Being prepared will help minimize mistakes and keeping track of what you have done will help you learn from those mistakes. If you keep these two essential points in mind, I promise you will save yourself time and headaches in the long run.