Cure for Bench Chaos

by Chen Guttman, Labtimes 06/2013

Photo: Labguru

The pitiable sight of a messy bench is not only discouraging when starting the workday. Working in a disorganised lab may also cost you time and money.

When I started grad school, the word “organisation” was synonymous with “time spent not invested in research”. With time, however, I learned that through organisation, I could actually save both money (for my PI) and time (for myself). This is simply because being organised means being efficient – and efficiency means using fewer resources to reach the same goal. That simple!

Through trial-and-error and lots of reading on the web, I have developed a systematic way to organise my bench, store samples and document experiments, all to be easily searched and identified. Is a messy bench the sign of a busy scientist or a disorganised one? Though it requires a bit of planning and some upkeep, a smartly organised bench can lower stress, reduce errors and is the simplest way to increase your efficiency.

Consider seven starting tips:

  • Keep all your pipettes and tools on the side of your dominant hand.
  • Place the trash bin on the same side.
  • Set frequently used solutions on the other side of the bench.
  • Store stock solutions and less commonly-used solutions or devices on the upper shelves.
  • Keep the number of stands and tip boxes to a minimum so that the centre of your bench is an empty workspace.
  • Lay your lab notebook as far as possible from the experimentation area and potential chemical spills.
  • Retain your own scissors, labelling tape, paraffin, Kimwipes and marker. Doing so, eliminates frequent walks around the lab and encourages good labelling habits at the bench. (It’s not a bad idea to write your name on these items, too.)
  • Reward yourself

    One way to encourage good habits is to subject yourself to operant conditioning. Try the Martini Method: reward yourself when you have had a productive week or one, in which you were well organised.

    A group of more than 400 researchers answered a recent survey on the lab ordering process, conducted by the makers of the research and lab management software, Labguru ( The results painted a worrisome picture. Although PIs or lab managers approved most orders, approximately half of the respondents reported that their lab wastes money each month on duplicate orders, resulting in an estimated yearly cost of at least €1,800 ($2,400). Three-quarters of the respondents reported finding their stocks unexpectedly depleted each month, which delayed most respondents’ experiments by approximately six weeks per year. That’s a lot of time wasted simply due to a lack of organisation.

    In the lab of Raz Zarivach at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, where I conducted my PhD studies, there is a strict rule – only the lab manager can place orders, not even the PI himself has access to the ordering system! This solution eliminates any order duplication and requires lab members to raise a flag when a reagent or a chemical is close to depletion. The result: our lab has never wasted money on duplicated samples.

    Identify weak spots

    Another method to increase efficiency and reduce experimental error is “Good Research Practice (GRP)”, the sibling of the ­biotech industry’s “Good Laboratory practice (GLP)”. The goal is to identify weak spots and required controls before you encounter them in real-time and have to repeat the experiment. According to GRP, one should take the following measures before conducting an experiment: plan and allocate materials and resources, think through the physical motions of performing the experiment, identify potential pitfalls in the protocol and have your PI or lab manager approve a documented experimental plan, if possible.

    While it might sound tedious and elaborate, GRP can eventually become second nature. In fact, this was my method of work in the first and crucial year of my PhD, when I learned the ropes of protein expression, purification and crystallization. Each day, I planned an experiment during my two-hour commute to the lab and consulted with my PI about the protocol once I arrived. Then I would run my experiments, collecting the data as digital images. On my way back home I would organise all the data, results and conclusions. If time allowed, I planned and reviewed the follow-up experiments. I’ve continued in this manner for the rest of graduate school but with fewer check-ins with my PI, since I’m no longer a novice.

    Digital lab organisers

    As the size of a lab grows, it is increasingly difficult to coordinate lab meetings or any other lab event. Moreover, a lab can have several instruments that if not scheduled or maintained properly can produce bottlenecks and throw a wrench into experiment plans. If your lab still uses a whiteboard or pen and paper, stop! Advocate for a research management web app or Google Calendar for booking instrument time or lab chores. This has the added benefit of providing an overview of everyone’s workload, too. You can also try apps like Doodle for finding a good meeting time for a big group.

    Can’t be bothered to implement these tips? Consider this point: In that same Labguru survey, researchers were asked if they felt their lab was efficient. Nearly 80% of respondents said “no”. That’s four days out of a five-day work-week. Now extrapolate the data: How many weeks or months does inefficiency delay a graduate student’s defence or the submission of a manuscript? As I see it, academic labs are not doomed to this fate. It is the responsibility of all lab members – students, lab managers and PIs alike – to proactively develop more professional habits to get the most of their resources and to do more good science.

    Last Changed: 10.10.2013