By Zully Santiago, PRISM Undergraduate Researcher, Spring 2013 through Summer 2014
Part 1: Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
1) Mistake: The same day you plan on doing the experiment is the same day you gather all the reagents, glassware, and any other materials required for the experiment…only to realize that you do not have the reagents or materials needed to actually conduct the experiment.
Solution: Plan your experiments two weeks in advance. So if you plan on making a gel next Thursday, make sure you have all the necessary reagents to make the buffer and the gel itself today. Also, today, you should check and make sure the tank is working and that you have all the parts. If you need your glassware autoclaved, make sure you do that in advance. Make sure you have everything you need way in advance of doing the experiment, so look over your experiment in detail before considering running it.
2) Mistake: You want to do an experiment, but you are afraid without someone guiding you through it, so you keep putting it off until someone shows you.
Solution: The more you read and understand how your experiment works, the less guidance you will need. If you start thoroughly understanding your experiments when they are easy (usually in the beginning), the easier it will be for you to become independent. Ask questions regularly, but attempt to answer them yourself first! Seek out answers from various sources. This facilitates critical thinking. When you get stuck or you want to confirm your reasoning, then go to your mentor. Remember, however, that you are supposed to be the expert and the most knowledgeable person about your project, so go do it.
3) Mistake: You are not able to finish an experiment in time.
Solution: Plan your experiment in advance (see Mistake #1). Even if you are doing an experiment for the first time, before you even attempt to do it, make sure you have all your reagents and materials that are needed. After, read through the protocol again and look for incubation periods. If there are any time periods, double the time required and add an hour just for prepping (gathering/cleaning glassware, labeling and so on). This should give you enough time to actually do the experiment (provided you don’t make any mistakes or have to start over). If you are using instrumentation, make sure it works and is calibrated in advance. I personally like to have a whole free day if I am doing a brand new experiment or working with a brand new instrument. I won’t touch an instrument or apparatus that I have never used before until I have read and watched videos handling them. YouTube has everything, and often company websites have videos on how to use their instruments. Sometimes you can imagine doing the experiment and planning out what glassware and materials you will need, but there always seems to be something overlooked, so give yourself more time to make mistakes.
4) Mistake: You haven’t been in the lab for a while because of school or other projects. You are not sure where you left off, but you attempt to continue your experiment as planned and the next step fails horribly.
Solution: Check your samples and instruments before you use them! Run a small sample and see if it is working before you proceed to the next big step. For example, if you had proteins or DNA in storage for a while, run a gel and see if you are getting the bands you are supposed to. The same rule applies anytime you use an instrument. Run a standard and see if everything is working properly before you use up your samples.