Guest post by Heather Cassell

Over the course of your life in the lab you can get to learn many different experimental techniques, and for most people this can be both very interesting and very exciting – the intrigue of novelty. But you can also get stuck using just a few techniques over and over, which can be frustrating and reduces the excitement to drudgery. Sometimes repetition is necessary if your experiment doesn’t go so well, if the process needs optimising, or if you have many similar samples to process in the same way. If the repetition is simply due to a large number of samples then perseverance is required to get the results you need. If the quality of your science depends on a little drudgery, then that’s what it takes.

Groundhog in Minneapolis – Image by Marumari at the English language Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL

But if there are problems with the experiment itself, a good place to start is repeating the experiment without change, to eliminate the possibility that something was set up incorrectly. If the experiment fails repeatedly, you need to activate your little grey cells for a bit of detective work. Is something is missing from the reaction? Have the reagents or samples used degraded with time? Is your protocol is correct, or could there is problem with the machine? With these clues checked it’s time to introduce small changes to the set up and running of the experiment to try and make it work for your controls and samples.

But you don’t have to be a lone gumshoe, spending shoe leather in the lab to solve your puzzle. If you are struggling with how to optimise your experiment it is a good idea to ask advice from other lab members with more experience of the technique, as they may have some useful hints and tips, especially if they have done their own detective work. If it’s a technique you don’t use often, it may be worth considering updating your training – if you are just muddling through, pressing buttons and trying to work it out for yourself you may never get the results you need. If you are lacking helpful lab members the internet can be a great resource – seek out technique-based webinars, video tutorials or Frequently Asked Questions.

But sometimes things just don’t work however hard you try. This means you need to try an alternative method to find the answers you require. But giving up on a technique isn’t the end of the world – you now know the process really well and so next time it may be easier to get things working.

Or maybe not, that’s part of the fun of working in a lab.

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Groundhog day in the lab, 7.8 out of 10 based on 4 ratings
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