Thursday, 25 July 2013

Notes, notes, notes...

I have been rather busy over the past month, working on a project involving genetic basis of behaviours. I haven't done much molecular work before and so I had a lot to learn. I have been also building my first PC and writing up some project reports and protocols created over the  last year.

It is incredible how much difference can be made by well kept lab book and by detailed notes.

To start with, the protocols. I wrote and tested some of them last summer. A few are rather lengthy and complicated - several pages A4 long, take a week of work to complete. When you are running a time limited project losing a week of work can be catastrophic and so it's really important to get it right. It's of course easier to follow it when you are in the lab and you carry out the same protocol time after time. However, after a year of not using the protocol it could be really tricky to avoid mistakes. It's also important that the protocols are written clearly enough for other people to follow without additional instructions. I wanted to type up some of those old protocols from my lab books, as I needed to include them in one of my reports. My obsessive note taking turned out to be really useful: I have lots of notes, clear, numbered, organised, with important parts marked, with safety notes included. Writing the reports up was just a matter of typing them up and in some cases making them a little bit more formal. It wasn't difficult though, just time consuming. If my notes weren't clear it would have been much more complicated - I would have to consult several sources and manuals to ensure that I include all the necessary steps and caution notes for all procedures.

Things look similar with the project I'm working on now. Everyone in the lab is incredibly helpful, but also rather busy - people usually only have the time to explain something once, twice tops. It's necessary to ensure that after being shown how to use a machine or how to carry out a procedure you can actually do it. What's more, since I'm working in a training lab I should be able to not only carry out the procedures myself, but also to walk new students through any procedures I know and can teach. Again, it's crucial to have good notes and communicate things clearly.

During work in the lab it's also very important to ensure that all the samples and solutions are labelled correctly and kept track of - during molecular work there is no other way of recognising and telling apart the samples/solutions once you taken them out of their respective containers. They all look alike, have no distinctive characteristics or even worse: they can't be seen with a naked eye or are toxic and dangerous, while looking like something harmless, e.g. like water. Label things and once again: notes, notes, notes! It's a good idea to keep a lab book in addition to any digital notes you take and it's necessary to back up your digital data too.

Now off to write some more reports and do more data analysis. While writing protocols and reports up is relatively straight forward (although can be lengthy and a bit tiring) data analysis and stats are proving to be a lot more complicated and tricky. Each step I attempt to make seems to require learning a new program!

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