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I managed my lab anxiety by being comfortable with bad results and keeping good track of my work

One weekend when I was working in the lab repeating optimization experiments for developing a strawberry pathogen detection assay, I was picking up noise in my data. Desperate to get rid of it, I checked all my procedures, but they seemed correct, and I had previous experience developing these kinds of assays. I tried all available solutions and read a lot on the Internet but in vain. I felt burnt out and had to take a break. Then after some days, when I was biking to work, a random idea came to my mind that solved my dilemma with the unexpected noise.  

Suppose you have worked in wet laboratories (also known as experimental labs). In that case, you have likely encountered similar issues, and sometimes a problem can make you anxious and even make you feel burned out. This was the case for me in my early years of wet lab experimentation, but with time I learned to manage my wet lab anxiety and even started enjoying the work, especially the troubleshooting process. 

In my early years of wet lab work, I often repeated experiments without properly documenting them. I saw it as a waste of time to record details of failed experiments. Once I got positive results, I would document them in detail, I used to think. Besides, I was confident I could remember the important details – even if I didn’t know what details were and weren’t important at the time. I also had an urge to hide bad results thinking they could damage my reputation — even if they just sat in a notebook. I was, of course, wrong.

I have now had to learn the hard way that recording all parameters, settings, and raw results of all the experiments during the set-up process, is the best tool you have for troubleshooting when things go wrong, which they will do. I was for instance recently troubleshooting a custom analytical assay that was occasionally generating inconsistent results. I tested a wide range of analyte concentrations over several runs and noticed that the low concentrations of analytes generated acceptable results in some experiments but not in others. I dug through my lab notebook to see if I could find any reason for those failing experiments.

Although I could not find any explanation after comparing different experiments and results, I suspected the assay could have an inherent problem. I plotted all my results in a single graph and finally noticed that the assay was consistently generating precise and accurate results but in a different range of concentrations. So, I did some further tests and resolved the problem by redefining the detection range of the assay.

Some anxious experiences pushed me to invest time in documenting and consequently, my work quality improved. At the same time, I also became more comfortable with getting no results or negative results. This gave me the possibility to be able to pause, reflect, search online, observe patterns, get advice from colleagues, and design future experiments. Sometimes I could find solutions from the internet where other scientists were discussing the same problem on online platforms. Sometimes suggestions from a colleague helped, and sometimes reading the methodology sections of the related research papers or writing to technical teams of reagents suppliers proved fruitful.

Working in different research labs in academia and industry, I have noticed that some places have strict standards for lab work documentation, while others are pretty flexible. Similarly, lab work is documented either in handwriting or digital form. Handwritten lab notes can be flexible and handy, but they also bring different challenges. I find it difficult to understand the writing of others and sometimes even my own.

Moreover, finding past data from a handwritten lab notebook is sometimes very time-consuming, while it only takes a few seconds to retrieve desired data from a digital notebook. I prefer a digital form of the lab notebook, such as MS Word format, but I also keep some papers with me in the lab to write observations, thoughts, and ideas during my experiments. I save those papers or transfer the information to my digital notebook. I also keep a backup of digital lab notebooks by emailing them to my head and sometimes to myself. I try to standardize the names of procedures and formats of the dates to facilitate the data retrieval process. For instance, if I am documenting a growth assay for some cells, I will do it as follows. 

23 March 2020 (Morning) 

A growth assay was done for XY cells as per the protocol ‘Cell growth assay protocol_ version 3’ available in the ‘Protocol’ folder. Cells for seeding were taken from the plate labeled as ‘XY cell plate, 20 March 2020_ MM’. The XYZ instruments were utilized and raw data was saved in ‘Raw’ folder.

Besides good documentation, I feel the lab environment is also an important factor affecting lab stress. Some labs have a safe environment and researchers are encouraged to discuss potential problems, seek support in troubleshooting, and admit their mistakes such as spillage, pipetting errors, or miscalculations. In contrast, labs that are more of a toxic work environment put high-performance pressure on its members and an intimidating environment may push researchers to hide their mistakes to avoid being outed in the group.

Even in supportive lab environments, researchers are assigned several additional duties such as providing training or mentoring juniors, managing labs, teaching, or arranging events. So, it is important to care about health and look for hobbies outside work. Lastly, I feel writing thoughts alongside procedures, especially during times of trouble, is also a form of therapy and I encourage early career researcher to include scientific feelings in their lab notebooks.

Featured Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

About the Author
  • Mustafa Munawar

    Mustafa Munawar has a diverse background and experience. His first technical degrees taught him several medical laboratory techniques including microtomy and molecular biology methods. He has also accomplished a master's degree in biotechnology with minor studies in computational system biology. His master's thesis was in the field of synthetic biology. In his Ph.D., he worked with a nucleic acid amplification‚Äźbased technology (NAAT) and some strawberry plant pathogens. Mustafa is interested to contribute in biomedical research and he is currently looking for a postdoc position in the field. He also has some skills in modern microscopy and coding.

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