Optimize Your Bench to Achieve Maximum Research Productivity and Efficiency

When a life science researcher comes to judge his toolbox, what would he put in it? A complete set of pipettors, a vortex, a centrifuge, some tubes, a good set of protective equipment (gloves, lab coat, protective goggles). Have you ever considered your bench as a tool within your researcher's tool box?

Whether sharing one or soloing on a shiny-white 5 feet long bench, it is one of the most important tools a researcher acquires, though it is one of the least maintained ones. Some of you will wonder "Maintenance? An epoxy-coated wood board??" The answer is: yes! In maintenance I refer here to the need to keep your bench clean and in order. The way your bench is organized directly reflects on your research progress, and that is no surprising news. We all know it, whether we're grad or undergrad students, postdocs, Lab Managers or Principal Investigators. Once your bench is all tidy and neat, you'll begin practicing research in keeping with your newly organized bench. You will then find it hard to understand how on earth you managed to work beforehand, within all that chaos.

The way your bench is organized directly reflects on your research progress...

The way your bench is organized directly reflects on your research progress...

Why not begin 2013 fresh and clean, and provide a good start to our research projects and experiments too? The holiday season is long gone. We are all back at work for a while now. February is about to begin. Let's make a rather late, but still an important, New Year's Resolution: Order on the Bench!

Clean your bench every morning

Your bench is your experimentation environment (at least, for most experiments). Keeping the surface clean of dust, chemicals and liquids will make you feel more comfortable when placing your pipettors, stands, tubes and solution bottles on it. Part of a lab's potential contamination hazard comes from dirty surfaces. In addition to cleaning your bench each time there is a spill or a bottle leaks, for example, you should do your best to clean it at least once a day routinely.

Inspect your bench's space

Assuming you will be working on the same bench for several years, this will be your second home day-in, day-out. Make sure it is comfortable at least as your home is, as there will most likely be periods when you'll spend much more time on it then on your sofa!

If you have been working on your bench for some time, I suggest you wipe it clean from EVERYTHING, and give it a good clean with a swab of water and then another one with 70% ethanol.

Now, look around the bench and first identify your boundaries on it, as well as how many shelves can be used for storing your stuff. If you will be sharing shelves with the rest of the lab then ask the Lab Manager to arrange for a colorful adhesive tape, which you can use to mark your bottles of chemicals and media. This will make it easier to notice and fetch them from the shelf. If you have a cabinet you can close - use it to store solutions, tip boxes and chemicals which are sensitive to dust contamination.

Do you have communal equipment within the boundaries of your bench? See that the electric cables are poised to the sides of the bench as much as possible.

Do you really need this tube rack??

Look at the stuff you keep on your bench and ask yourself this: "Do I need this equipment/solution/tube/bottle for everyday use?" If the answer is "No", put these items aside for further evaluation. If the answer is "Yes", place these items arbitrarily on the bench for the time being.

You may find solutions, chemicals and all kinds of samples that have long passed their expiration date (or they're just contaminated with a fascinating white fungus). Buffer solutions which are too old should be thrown away, especially if they have been contaminated. Don't be lazy and don't save your PI's money by filtering them or just keeping it – you never know what a certain bacterium or fungus can secrete into the solution, and it might contribute to inconsistent experiments results.

Placing things in their place

After making the selection, now you know what is critical for the daily work and what can be spared for the added value of comfort, if possible. The purpose of the list bellow is to serve as guidelines to arrange your bench, such that your experiment samples will be centered on the bench and surrounding them will be your supporting equipment and solutions. Remember, bench space is "expensive" and will affect your bench and experimenting experience!

  • Pipettors – Are you left or right handed? Place your pipettors on a stand according to your stronger arm. Do your best to mount your stand/pipettors on the wall or on the shelf, if possible, so you'll save bench space.
  • Trash bin – Experimenting usually generates trash, and a lot of it! make sure the trash bin on your bench will be placed on the strong-arm side for easy tip ejection. Find a trash bin which has a wide opening so most of your ejected tips will fall in the bin and won't end up wandering around on your bench. If you don't place a biohazard bag within the bin, sterilize the bin once a week with 70% ethanol, so no bacteria will have enough time to grow.
  • Tip boxes – These boxes, one of each volume range, should be placed within arm's reach while you're sitting but not in the middle of the bench. If you have additional boxes place them on a shelf. One additional point – if you're doing molecular cloning it is recommended to set aside a separate tip boxes set, for PCR and bacterial manipulation, in addition to the "everyday" tip set. Mark these "special" tip boxes, and make sure you restrict their usage to the above "special" applications.
  • Solutions – Take a look at your "positively-selected" solutions (see previous section), and arrange these at the opposite side to your strong hand, the most commonly used solutions the closest.
  • Racks – arrange them at the backside of the bench, center-wise. These will mostly house your day-to-day samples, so you'll want these accessible but not blocking the main area of your work.
  • Disposables – These should be placed close to the center of the bench but leaving enough space for working on your samples with the rack. If you're less likely to work with 2ml eppendorf tubes put them on the shelf. Keep on your bench only the most required tubes and disposables, that will enable you to work efficiently.
  • Miscellaneous – These should be confined, if possible to the outskirts of your bench or to the shelves. Arrange them in a group-wise setting, by the experiments they're related to, so it'll be easier for you to fetch them all when you perform a special application.

Adjust your chair

The last but not least item is your chair. Some find it easier and flexible to work standing up, though for monotonous work, which requires less movement, a chair can be a saver for your back and feet.

When sitting on your adjustable chair make sure your backrest is set such that you're sitting erect, its height is adjusted such that your elbows are resting on the bench easily, and that your feet have a hold on the footrest. Resting your elbows against the bench can ease some of your muscle's strain when intensively pipetting.

Do you have any additional tips for the best way to organize your bench? Please share!