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How to Deal with Clumsiness in the Laboratory

Awkwardness with the practical side of science shouldn't be a barrier to pursuing it as a career

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A major reason why I never pursued science beyond a few first-year university courses was a deep-seated fear of lab work. I was so nervous about performing experiments that I’d often become flustered and make mistakes. One that stands out is the time in high school chemistry when I accidentally launched a test tube full of my group’s just-completed ester across the room, where it smashed on the floor. As I cleaned up the mess, my chemistry teacher said that he “could see that coming” as soon as I attempted to pick up the tube with the test tube holder. I remember thinking to myself, “Well, why didn’t you say something if you saw I was doing things wrong?” 

Perhaps my instructor hoped to teach me a lesson by allowing me to make a mistake, but the result for me was only increased anxiety about doing lab work. And I don’t remember ever being taught how I could have avoided the accident. I still maintain that there was something wrong with that test tube holder! 

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The point of this story is that while there’s a lot that clumsy lab workers can do by themselves to improve, the support of the lab manager is also essential in helping nervous workers overcome their fears. 

Fear of lab work not rare

From a quick search on Google, it’s clear that I’m not the only one who has experienced clumsiness or nerves in the lab. There are many online forums filled with young students asking how to overcome their awkwardness with the practical side of science and, for many of them, it seems the clumsiness is due to the anxiety of performing, rather than poor coordination. 

For example, in a Yahoo! Answers forum, one young student mentions doing well at sports but sometimes “being really clumsy” in the lab due to the time limit for completing the experiment. That same student mentioned being at the top of the class and loving chemistry, but was afraid to pursue science because of that fear of lab work. Other forums include similar examples of students who score high on the theoretical side of things but find themselves having anxiety attacks or spilling acid all over the floor when doing practical labs. 

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And students aren’t the only ones who’ve experienced issues with clumsiness in the lab. According to the book, Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science by Marjorie C. Malley, Kazimierz Fajans, a Polish American physical chemist and pioneer in the science of radioactivity, “endured good-natured teasing about his clumsiness in the laboratory.” However his awkwardness didn’t stop him from developing an equation that “led to the discovery of hitherto unknown isotopes.” Maybe this isn’t the best example, but according to a KnowledgeNuts article by Adam Wears, Julius Robert Oppenheimer—otherwise known as the father of the atomic bomb—“initially wished to study experimental physics, but was prevented from doing so because of his ‘clumsiness’ in the lab.”    

Luckily many of the online forums where students express their fears about lab work also provide lots of advice for overcoming clumsiness in the lab. Here are the five main tips for lab workers that cropped up most often: 

5 tips for overcoming lab clumsiness

  1. Prepare: When writing or typing out the procedure for your experiment, take the time to memorize the steps you’ll need to take and which consumables and equipment you’ll need to use. Find out where everything you need is located in the lab, so you aren’t running about in a panic trying to track items down (or getting stuck with the defective test tube holder). Know all the safety procedures and the personal protective equipment you’ll require and how to use it. For lab managers, ensuring your lab’s procedures are as clear as possible and being available to answer questions and enforce rules is important. 
  1. Practice: Mistakes will happen when you’re just learning a new procedure or how to use new equipment in the lab. Setting aside extra time to practice or have the lab manager or an experienced colleague demonstrate a technique you’re having trouble with can make all the difference. For lab managers, being flexible with lab hours and available to coach your employees is helpful in ensuring they get enough practice so that new procedures become second nature. 
  1. Familiarize yourself with the equipment: Make sure you get the proper training on the instruments you’ll be using and practice using them in a safe setting. Some forums even suggest assembling and dissembling equipment (with the lab manager’s permission) to get a better idea of how it all works and fits together. For lab managers, ensuring that proper training is provided is critical. 
  1. Don’t rush: While many high school or college labs have time limits, and industry labs have time pressures as well, rushing often leads to mistakes and can exacerbate anxiety. Taking a few deep breaths, double checking the steps you need to take, and just taking your time can help you calm down and avoid major errors. As a lab manager, maintaining a calm demeanor will rub off on your staff. Deadlines have to be met, but not at the expense of mistakes. 
  1. Ask for help: This is one of the most obvious steps, but one many of us avoid for fear of looking stupid or bothering others in the lab. But there’s nothing wrong with asking the lab manager or a more experienced co-worker to repeat steps or re-demonstrate a key technique. As a lab manager, reassure your staff that you’re always open to questions, or put a senior staff member in charge of helping new employees if your workload is too heavy. 

Another thing many scientists on online forums stress is to not worry if you do make a mistake. This may be easier said than done, but most mishaps aren’t fatal and will at worst require you to pay for that test tube you broke or clean up a spill. This is where it’s important for lab managers to be patient and understanding with their new or inexperienced employees, which will go a long way in helping ease anxiety and reduce clumsiness in the lab.

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