Opinion: The Clumsy Chemist’s Guide to Lab Survival

A collection of lab materials displayed on the author, Novi sophomore Killian Altayeb’s desk. Altayeb is ingrained in lab culture to the point of carrying biology lab stickers everywhere (Photo illustration by Killian Altayeb).

In my first semester of college, I found myself enrolled in two lab courses. Looking back, my initial exposure to the lab was an afternoon course in a subject I’d never encountered in high school, let alone had any idea how to tackle.

Admittedly, my first pre-lab assignment yielded a grade of only 40%, partly because I didn’t even know what a pre-lab was. Despite this setback, I kept going and eventually declared a major in Biochemistry, which the U.S. Report and World News calls, “largely laboratory-based.” 

Nowadays, I spend more time in the lab than in my dorm room; in a modern adaptation of the wire mother vs. cloth mother experiment, beakers have replaced my parents. As a result, I’ve grown used to the routines established in the lab; those which help me forget that I’m confined to a windowless room for four hours at a time.

With fall semester registration fast approaching, you might be wary of letting a lab course derail your otherwise perfectly planned schedule. Your science-minded friends – like me – may boast about enrolling in three labs in a single semester and claim they’re a breeze. 

However, I recognize not everyone shares our enthusiasm for lab courses; unfortunately, a liberal arts education means taking classes you’d otherwise never step foot in.

If you fall into that category, take my gloved hand, and let’s infuse some wonder into lab life.

Step One: Getting the Right Gear

If you’re enrolled in a natural science lab, chances are you’ll be told to buy a set of lab goggles and a lab notebook with carbon copy pages. However, a simple lined notebook will suffice if these don’t fit your budget.

Additionally, if you’ll be working with light-sensitive materials, your instructor may recommend wearing darker clothing. If your wardrobe typically reflects a vibrant personality, now might be the time for a temporary style adjustment.

Most importantly, make sure you have personal protective equipment, which according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration is “equipment worn to minimize exposure to a variety of hazards.” For most labs, this will entail closed-toed shoes, gloves and protective hearing devices.

If you happen to make a mistake in your chosen gear, at least then you’ll have a story similar to visiting Assistant Biology Professor Joanna Sblendorio.

During an undergraduate chemistry lab, Sblendorio said she found herself  “putting something plastic on the burner and (melting it) straight onto the burner.” 

My most tragic lab mistake revolves around a spilled bottle of ferric chloride and what happens when you don’t wear gloves…

Step Two: The Methods

It’s a good idea to approach your lab instructor with questions before stepping into the lab for the first time. 

Sblendorio said she recommends students ask about class expectations and how to prepare. For her, this entails showing up to your lab class both mentally and physically prepared.

For those who can’t bother to show up, I recommend walking to the second floor of Ferguson, taking a right and filling out a form to switch classes. All of the lab courses I’ve been in have strict attendance requirements, so I’d assume yours would as well. 

Step Three: The Data

Enrolling in a class with a lab might seem like enough work, but the fun doesn’t stop there. Some lab courses require pre-labs to be completed before each session; you know, that thing I got a 40% on during my first lab. 

Berkeley’s Graduate Student Instructor’s Teaching and Resource Center defines a pre-lab as “tasks or homework that students complete before arriving in class for the lab period.”

Although those assignments may appear pointless, they ensure that you have read the lab manual properly before class and are ready to participate actively.

Kinesiology Technical Lecturer Holly Hill said that by not completing the pre-lab, “you’re making your job harder as a student because not only do you have to learn what we’re doing, you also have to do it,” adding that, “the point of a pre-lab is so you can think (the lab) through and have some comprehension before you’re walking through the door.”

Step Four: The Results

Once you’re in the lab – having diligently read the pre-lab like the stellar student you are – the race starts. Although you might be aching to sprint through the procedure as fast as possible, it’s better to treat each lab session like a marathon, rather than a sprint. 

“Taking the time in lab to actually engage with all of the material that we have and answer questions well and do your experiments well creates a positive experience,” Sblendorio said. 

As crucial as it is to take one’s time with a lab, it’s equally imperative to rely on your notebook effectively.

According to Oviya Muralidharan, a writer for The University of Toronto’s student newspaper,You have a lab notebook for a reason — use it! Write down all the steps, record all reagents and materials used, observations made, and data recorded.” 

Writing down your thoughts and processes not only aids in writing lab reports and reviewing for exams, but it also gives you something to look back on. I still use my lab notebook from my first-semester molecular biology lab for calculating chemicals and conversions. 

“There are things in labs that I did when I was in my undergrad that was 12 to 15 years ago that I still remember today because they were such great experiences for me,” Sblendorio said. “They really shaped the way that I thought about certain scientific concepts later in my career.”

Another important point to keep in mind is that your notes don’t need to be perfect. They’re intended to serve you. Whether that entails entire pages crossed out or filled with scrawled footnotes, embrace it! 

Step Five: The Discussion

Though it might not seem essential as you envision yourself on the brink of curing cancer in an introductory biology lab, be sure to make an effort to talk to those around you. 

Often in labs, you’ll either be paired with a partner or assigned to a group. Collaboratory, a platform dedicated to connecting scientists for projects, advises students to find people with complementary skills: 

“The more diverse your skill sets are, the more likely it is that everyone will be able to contribute equally when it comes time for finalizing your report or presentation.” 

If your lab instructor allows you to choose your partners, The University of Waterloo’s Chem 13 News Magazine recommends finding “someone that puts you at ease, because labs can get stressful fast.”

“A good lab partner is someone who has come prepared, has done the pre-lab and has watched the videos that I’ve given you before class,” Hill said.

Step 6: The Conclusion

Above all, remember this: a lab course can be a great experience if you keep a few key things in mind.

From Hill: 

“The lab is supposed to be the fun part. You’re getting hands-on experience,” Hill said.

From Sblendorio: 

“Bring a sense of curiosity, wonder for nature and understanding of the world around you,” Sblendorio said.

And finally, from a clumsy chemist (me): 

“If you drop something, and it shatters, blame it on your lab partner.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to navigating a lab course. However, armed with this article, guidance from instructors and the right mindset, you have all the tools to inject some excitement into those four-hour weekly sessions. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with a windowless room and a lab manual!

About Killian Altayeb 24 Articles
Killian Altayeb is from Novi, Michigan and is a second-year student at Albion College. They are a Biochemistry Major with a journalistic interest in all things public health. Contact Killian via email at NA12@albion.edu.

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