How To Effectively Manage A Large Laboratory, Part 1

Of the many personnel components that make up a modern academic research laboratory, none is more critical to a lab’s function and upkeep than the laboratory manager.  Without question, this position is one of the most diverse and multi-faceted in all of science.  Depending on the range of a laboratory’s needs and expectations, a manager’s responsibilities could include performing independent research, ordering supplies and reagents, coordinating research needs between various postdocs and graduate students, enacting biosafety guidelines and standard operating procedures, acting as a conduit to the Principal Investigator, among other duties.  In addition, effective laboratory managers must possess a skill set unique to the challenges of academia:  knowledge of science, comfort interacting with scientists in a demanding team-oriented setting, organization and multi-tasking, and leadership.  As you can see, a good lab manager is not only essential to a successful laboratory, but also incredibly valuable.

To gain a bit more insight into how to effectively manage a large laboratory, BioData spoke with Natasha K. Griffith, MS of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles.  Ms. Griffith is not only the director of the MIMG Biosafety Level 3 Laboratory, but also a world-renowned containment expert and laboratory training consultant and recently served as an advisor to Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh on the making of his upcoming movie “Contagion.”  She offered general tips and guidelines that any current or aspiring manager can build on and channel towards improving their lab.

Griffith broke down her style into two primary components and responsibilities, personnel management, and laboratory maintenance.  Both are interwoven and ultimately hinge on excellent coordination and organization, but also on what she defines as true leadership.  “There is a difference between leadership and management,” Griffith noted.  “Management is really about motivation to do X, Y and Z in the lab on a specific day to day basis, while leadership involves getting the team committed to the same purpose.”  A manager might micromanage and nag—what Griffith calls the “little kid” management mold—but a leader, which is ultimately what the position really inspires teamwork and a shared sense of purpose within the laboratory.  Pursuing this model effectively calls for an enormous amount of communication.

Paperwork-wise, Griffith recommended that managers enact a standardized documentation model separating large orders and consumables.

Large orders (this includes things you will buy once in a blue moon, such as freezers, refrigerators, cell incubators, etc.).  Make sure and document: •Who installed the equipment, along with pre-negotiating that the warranty will start on the date of installation and not on the date of purchase. •Points of contact if the equipment breaks down (both local and the company that makes the equipment) •Maintenance schedule for the equipment, usually recommended between six months and a year, depending on usage

Consumables: •Keep notes on everything the lab has ever ordered, even if it’s a rarely ordered item.  This will make reordering much easier, especially for new managers that take over in the future. •Separate documentation by common reagents such as chemicals, buffers, pipette tips, etc. from protective equipment or consumables that are used in a specialized laboratory •For laboratories that are specialized, such as high containment labs like Griffith’s, she recommends that managers put together a packet of recommended consumables so that if a guest researcher or collaborator needs to jump-start a project, it minimizes the work for a manager to recommend orders •Pre-made order sheets for routinely ordered items including company and PO number to save time

Check back for part 2 later this week as we continue to discuss how you can effectively manage a large laboratory.