Documenting Specimen Collections - Get it Right

Let’s do an experiment. Stop everything you do and explore your neighbouring labs. Now, going through the benches of all those eager students and researchers, observe how people document and organize their specimen collections. Most probably you will notice one of the following types:
  • Notebooks type - These researchers work closely with their notebook and meticulously document everything (or the majority) of their observations and doings.
  • Stickies type – Their bench and desk are filled with sticky notes and draft pages loaded with scribbled calculations, notes, observation, and results - all in a seemingly disorderly fashion.
  • Grey cells type – These ones use their memory for documentation. Their notebook is likely on their desk, though most probably closed. On their bench you’ll find one or two pieces of paper for complex calculations and that’s it. Their protocols are in a binder, for an occasional event of blackout regarding a specific step of antibody staining.

Of course, all of these types represent the whole spectrum from mediocre to excellent scientists, from those that fail to produce a single paper to those whose CVs are filled with top-tier journals. That’s because excellence in science (which is mostly translated to publishing papers) requires a list of factors including good perception, excellent handling, smart project choosing, topic trends and, yes, also luck. So where exactly does proper organization and documentation fit in the list above? Well, proper conduct actually serves as the basis for maintaining excellence’s continuity.  A lab can have an excellent postdoc or grad student but what will happen after he/she graduates? A lab will maintain excellence only if science is conducted properly by all or most of its members. manage-specimens-with-labguru- Lab excellence can be achieved with proper documentation and specimen collection for the following reasons:

  • Knowledge transfer – If a grad student developed a successful protocol, it is important to properly document it. Sometimes the resolution of the documentation should go down to the specific handling. Think what would happen if only the essence of the protocol is scribbled on a piece of a paper stuck somewhere in a binder? How much time will be wasted to locate this document?
  • Data maintenance – Sometime previously established data will be used as a template for new publications. Just think how many data files are located in your own folder and now imagine how much time it will take to find a similar file in your colleagues folder? Are you getting the feeling that a headache is around the corner??
  • Specimen – One of the most frequent time wasters. For example, a graduate student worked on a construct for most of his thesis. Three years later the PI wants to revive it as new published results stirred the community and now that construct can serve as a platform for new publication. How do you find a single tube in a deep freezer with more than 10,000 tubes located within 100 boxes??
  • Invention Proof – This doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, it can make you grab that headache pill. You’ve just stumbled upon a great new invention. However, a grad student didn’t document all the procedure properly, so the invention can't be reported until he/she repeats their experimentation with proper documentation. Another time waster.
  • Coming back from vacation –You just came back from a month of vacationing. At the lab, you suddenly realized that you can’t remember where you put that new construct you’ve made. Only after searching for 2 hours the lab manager tells you she saw a tube with no clear markings on her stand and since nobody had any claim over it, she tossed into the waste bin a week ago. How bad that can be??

It’s quite clear that proper documentation and specimen collection storage are paramount for excellence continuity within the lab and also within one’s graduate studies. Make sure you use proper tools and techniques to have yourself covered.