Tips for Maintaining a Clean Lab

Lab cleanupIn a previous post we discussed how the lack of order in the lab leads to waste of resources (time, money and supplies), reduced efficiency and a chaotic atmosphere. In this post I will show you how a lab should ideally be managed. Don't be fooled: order doesn't come cheap as it requires investment of resources (mostly time but sometimes a little bit of money can help too).

Your Bench - Entropy in Action?

It is common knowledge that if you're doing work you'll be making a mess unless you invest further energy to the process of keeping everything in order (look at your bench at the middle of an experiment and see what I mean). Of course, if you and any lab member invest more energy toward thinking and working in an orderly fashion, you can actually maintain order and keep your bench tidy until the end of each day's work. Yeah, it takes energy and time and it might not help you enough to get a stellar publication, BUT it will make your experimenting much more pleasant and even more importantly, it will lower the clutter of stuff in front of your eyes, a classical protocol to getting a clutter head, getting out of focus in the middle of an experiment and eventually, making a mistake and at best noticing the error and throwing the whole experiment to the nearest biohazard baggy. Which brings up the question "How to correctly arrange your bench?" The answer is as subjective as the way different people arrange an apartment with the same furniture. One will put the TV on the left wall, the other will put it on the right, and third one will throw it to the trash. In a future post I will discuss some of the strategies to adapt your bench to your personality and your own body physics.

Communal Equipment Maintenance

Order in the lab should and must not be confined to your three square feet of your own bench. Communal equipment in many cases will be dispersed among your colleague's benches (and a few items will even have a permanent seat on your own bench!) and some of them can be a real source for disorder (balance tubes for centrifuges rolling around, analytical weights with powder leftovers). It is recommended that the PI/lab manager enforce a lab cleanup at least once a year (twice a year is better) so to make sure that each member cleans up his own bench as well as the communal places and equipment. This is also a good time to calibrate the equipment (pipettors, weights, pH & conductivity meters) as well as fastens the bolts of the centrifuges. Good maintenance increases both the safety of using the device as well as the life span of the device without the need to order a technician (which will result in both loss of time, money and canceled experiments).

Airing Out Freezers & Refrigerators

Such a lab effort should be made also for  cleaning refrigerators and freezers. Over time, a lab usually accumulates thousands of tubes containing old samples which at best have some faded marking but are not relevant any more (or in other words - junk). Freezers are more prone to such neglect than refrigerators and in many cases it goes hand-in-hand with lack of proper samples documentation. Combined with the natural tendency to retain rather than throw away samples leads to chock-filled freezers, making retrieving samples a truly cold nightmare.  This is why it is crucial that all lab members throw away old or non-relevant samples, "airing" their boxes and checking that tube and box locations match their samples repository lists. If sample's documentation is missing then lab members should take the time to fill up the gaps in their lists as it will save them even more time down-the-road when searching for a precious sample. Indeed, some of you will complain that the time required to list all the samples' positions can take so much time that the samples will return to room temperature and will be compromised. The solution is quite simple – fill up an ice bucket with liquid nitrogen and submerge your box onto the cold bath (another option is to spill some liquid nitrogen onto the box and let the liquid nitrogen "cold-fry" your samples). Samples kept at -80 Celsius will be safe and -196 will feel right at home. Remember, unorganized freezers will most probably compromise your samples without you noticing it and with no control on your part!

Chemical Shelves, Dust and Students' Office

There is nothing as frustrating as looking for a misplaced chemical bottle on the shelves. A lab cleaning is a good opportunity to make amends and reposition lost or misplaced bottles. Remove dust and powder remnants from the bottles as these might lead to contaminations. Talking about dust, all shelves and top cabinets should be dusted off. As well air-conditioning filters should be cleaned from years of dust accumulation, assuming they can be pulled and washed. Dust is a known source of allergies, houses viruses, microbes, and chemical particles and might lead to contamination.
And one last place – don't forget to cleanup your student's office. True, in these rooms there are no chemicals, solutions or precious equipment that needs maintenance. But, many of you find yourselves in there a couple of hours a day, resulting in piles of printed articles, ads from various vendors or just a clattery PC desktop with pens and trash. Believe me, cleaning up this room will make you want to finish up your experiment even faster than you wanted before!

Do you have any ideas on how to make the lab a tidy place to work in? Please share!