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Mind Your Manners!

How proper laboratory etiquette can make lab life better

by Donna Kridelbaugh
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Defining proper lab etiquette can be difficult because it can be open to interpretation. However, there are some common annoyances that everyone can agree on, such as the lab mate who always leaves a mess or uses up all of a reagent without re-ordering. These behaviors can result in loss of productivity for other lab members and pent-up frustrations that create a hostile lab environment. So, how can lab managers promote good lab behavior among team members? We took to social media to see what lab professionals had to say.

Creating a positive lab environment

Casey Greene, a computational biologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says lab etiquette fosters a positive lab environment for his team. He explains, “In research, we’re trying to understand things about the world that are currently unknown. This means that we should expect to have to overcome challenges. A safe, supportive environment provides the space for folks to take the risks that they need to take in their scientific endeavors.”

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Further, Steven Burgess, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, points out that science can be quite stressful and may put a lot of mental strain on scientists. Anything that others can do to improve lab conditions by creating a “positive, supportive, and fun environment” will go a long way to make lab life easier.

Scott Barolo, an associate professor at the University of Michigan Medical School, recently shared on Twitter his advice for incoming graduate students. On the topic of lab etiquette, he says to “be a good lab citizen” and “take lab safety seriously.” These are the qualities that labs are looking for in a researcher because, as he puts it, “nobody wants to share a bay with a slob, reagent hoarder, chemical-waste menace, or centrifuge exploder.”

Being respectful toward lab members

Mostly, good lab etiquette can be distilled down to one basic principle: be respectful of your fellow lab mates. In general, Burgess says, “Part of this is understanding how your actions can have an impact on others and how best to foster an enjoyable workspace.”

For example, Frieda Wiley, a former chemistry lab professional, suggests avoiding giving unsolicited advice when it’s not needed, especially in regard to nuances on how a fellow scientist should analyze a solution or interpret data. Sometimes a scientist may think that his or her method should be best practice when, in reality, there’s more than one correct way to perform the same task. Such nonconstructive criticism can create lingering resentment not conducive to a positive lab environment.

Lab manners also extend beyond the walls of the laboratory to other professional interactions. For Scott Hamilton- Brehm, assistant professor of microbiology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, this includes setting expectations with students for communications (e.g., response time, methods). Paris Grey, a research lab manager at the University of Florida and cofounder of the website Undergrad in the Lab, also says scientists need to understand when a conversation is urgent (e.g., safety issue) or can wait until a later time. If someone is busy at the bench or the computer, then be considerate and avoid interrupting them.

Additionally, Jillian Dempsey, associate professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, comments that professional etiquette is “necessary in order to create an inclusive climate that facilitates the sharing of science.” That’s why she also sets expectations for team members on conference etiquette (e.g., treating attendees respectfully, not taking pictures of posters or slides).

Setting expectations for lab behavior

Proper lab etiquette begins with training lab members early on and setting clear expectations. As most scientists get their start in academia, this means training programs play a major role in reinforcing good lab behavior that will prepare students for future careers. As Irene Andreu, director of operations at the Rhode Island Consortium for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, shared on Twitter, “Lab etiquette is basic for success, in landing jobs, and in life.”

When students were “getting sloppy with basic lab rules,” Sadie Otte, organic chemistry laboratory coordinator for Claremont Colleges, introduced a system of lab etiquette points to reinforce these rules and motivate students to be good lab citizens. She provides students with clear guidance on what lab behaviors earn points. These include housekeeping and safety tasks, plus other factors such as helping out a classmate and data integrity. Upon implementation, and in combination with visibly posting related signs (e.g., safety procedures) in the lab, she noticed an “immediate improvement in lab cleanliness and safety.”

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A lab manual or wiki is another valuable tool to set expectations and boundaries within the lab and serves as a reference moving forward. Greene has shared his own lab manual with others online, which is a great example of a document that includes useful guidelines on lab conduct.1 It also is a “living document” with team members able to propose changes as needed to improve overall lab operations. Burgess also says to pay careful attention to phrasing when discussing lab etiquette. Instead of using negative wording (i.e., the don’ts), try rephrasing in a more positive manner that emphasizes what should be done.

Elizabeth Stout, a doctoral candidate in biotechnology and biomolecular sciences at the University of New South Wales, also recently wrote an entertaining and informative blog post for her lab’s website on the dos and don’ts of lab etiquette.2 While the post was written with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, she found outlining expectations with some humor was a good way to teach new lab members what is expected of them. Other lab professionals had some practical advice for setting expectations. Andreu says to be clear about what lab tasks need to be done (i.e., what, when, and how), suggesting lab members multitask to do basic lab maintenance when they have down time, and encouraging researchers to ask questions when they don’t know the answer. Wiley also recommends setting up a chore calendar and modeling good lab behavior by demonstrating what is expected.

Importantly, Grey advises to make it convenient for lab members to do the right thing. As a case in point, she relayed a story about a frustrated lab manager who reached out for advice on what to do about lab members leaving dirty spatulas by the measuring scale instead of across the lab in the dishwashing area (as the lab manager preferred). Grey suggested making a compromise and placing a dirty bin by the scale. “Granted, this was an easy issue to solve, but the guiding principle is similar for most situations that aren’t safety related: be open to compromise, and don’t dig in or make a big issue out of a small one,” she concluded.

Resolving lab conflicts immediately

If you take to social media and search for “lab etiquette,” there are endless cases of scientists venting frustrations with lab mates, from pictures of messy lab benches and equipment lined with passive-aggressive notes to voiced anger of having been called out in a lab meeting with no notice of what was wrong.

Unresolved lab conflicts can create a toxic work environment and may trigger retaliations, such as threatening sabotage of another’s experiments. As Stout commented, “Not only can poor lab etiquette severely impact productivity, this all can create tension and discord within the lab. I joke (although it’s quite true) that I see my lab members more than I see my own family. This is not an environment in which you want discord.”

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Therefore, lab conflicts should be addressed when they arise. Greene also suggests a reporting mechanism be put in place with guidelines on how to remediate issues both within and outside the lab. It’s also critical to understand any root causes as to why a lab member may be behaving poorly (e.g., overworked with limited time to do basic lab maintenance) so that corrective measures can be taken.

Grey notes that when a researcher reaches out to her for help, it’s often for a specific conflict with a lab mate that has grown beyond the point of being a simple solve. In this case, she mentions the need for lab members to seek out support from a PI or mentor. However, trying to prevent such conflict in the first place is best policy.

Overall, Stout says that it’s rare for a person to be behaving poorly in the lab intentionally, but rather it’s that they don’t know what behavior is expected or are unaware of how this affects others in the lab. In most cases, she says a quick conversation with the person can resolve the situation: “Once people realize that poor lab etiquette can affect others, you find that people in the lab will do their part.”

Sharing best practices with the lab community

Burgess says that social media and online communities are productive platforms to share advice and resources with the lab community and make connections with other scientists seeking ways to improve lab culture. He belongs to the eLife Community, which also has a Slack group to share advice and documents.3 Other Slack groups he recommends are NewPISlack and FuturePISlack.4,5

Professional societies and trade publications also publish useful howto articles. As an example, a recent article in the ASBMB Today magazine outlines how one PI took to Twitter to crowdsource tips for creating a lab manual with links to sample lab manuals and resources.6

Lab members also can be encouraged to seek out advice from the lab community. There are online forums like the Lab Rats subreddit.7 Grey also regularly shares information about lab etiquette on the Undergrad in the Lab website and their social media accounts using the hashtag #BeAGoodLabMate, which is a beneficial resource for new researchers and their mentors.8