The Art of Laboratory Feng Shui: What It's Like to Work in a New Lab

Over the past few months, we've been following the laboratory set-up ordeals of Klaus Nuesslein, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, and enjoying his advice and time-saving tips on making the move to your own lab.

Nuesslein, who moved into his lab last year, has since spoken about the kinds of things he did to get ready before stepping into his lab--like drawing out a floorplan--and also what he did once he arrived and began to get settled. A year later, his laboratory is teeming with eager researchers, and Next Wave thought you'd like to hear from those researchers, and not only their supervisor, as to what it's like to work in a new laboratory.

The group photo includes five of Nuesslein's current team, but all seven team members voice their opinions about the lab, and highlight the features they like best.

Julie Hokans, Technician

I have been the lab technician/lab coordinator in Klaus's lab since December 6, 1999 and have contributed significantly to the evolution of the layout. My current duties in the lab include implementing health and safety policies and carrying out lab administrative tasks as well as conducting two molecular projects with adjunct faculty.

My daily accomplishments often include rearrangement of equipment or supplies, or juggling lab and bench space for the most convenient and efficient use. In my view, this is a never-ending job because students come and go, new projects are launched, equipment is acquired and retired, and disposable items are used up and replaced with similar or different items. The constant rearrangement and flux of students makes the computerized "Drawer and Cabinet Inventory List" (which is constantly updated) a valuable commodity.

My intention is to keep stocks of chemicals and reagents in the most convenient of places. I then store the back up stocks, (which must be well labeled!) in less convenient corners of the lab. I am also very strict on my policy that only functional and currently useable equipment comes into the lab and all fallow equipment be recycled or stored in a storage facility in the basement at the university. But the organization of the lab could not be complete without taking the interests and comments of the graduate students into account...

Peter Martel, Graduate Student

I have been a student in Klaus's lab since January, 2000. This is my first time in a microbiology laboratory, and this lab is all I have known as far as a microbiology research laboratory goes. The research I am currently undertaking makes use primarily of molecular techniques, particularly with DNA and the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).

The lab is arranged in a seemingly logical order: There are specific areas associated with media preparation, pre-PCR work and post-PCR work. One of the goals that I have concerning this lab is to keep it clean and "new looking." People come in and say that we are lucky to be in a new lab. This is true. There is more room to grow and to acquire just what I need. We are also lucky because we have the opportunity to keep this lab clean with minimal work. There are no old reagents--or solutions that are mysterious!

We have scheduled cleaning days once a month, (today happens to be one of them) in order to purge older solutions as well to clean all of the corners and equipment that normally does not get cleaned. Some people say that cleanliness in next to godliness. Well, I do not shoot for godliness, I just hope for some contamination-free plates!

Lisa Stout, Graduate Student

I am interested in plant-microbe interactions, especially the response of bacterial communities to pollutant stresses and the importance of bacteria in phytoremediation. I am currently studying the bacterial community on the roots of Lemna minor, a small floating aquatic plant.

I think that the lab is well designed. Aside from the convenient location of the lab and the large windows (which let in lots of light) the lab is very organized. The drawers are numbered, and a corresponding computer-based list with the contents of the drawers is constantly updated.

The idea of a separate room for handling PCR products is one I like, but as the lab grows and we need more spaces for equipment and projects, it is becoming more difficult to keep the rooms separate. The 'post PCR room' also works well as a 'dark room' because all of the gel imaging we need to do. Other lower light activities, such as microscopy, are also performed there. I think that for the most part, the stations for different equipment and projects are well defined and do not interfere with other areas.

If I were starting a lab, I might try to incorporate a central desk/computer area if there were space. Some of the desk and computer areas in our lab are close to work areas, but for the relatively large space, our equipment, and the people in our lab, it works out pretty well. I would also implement a drawer organization system similar to the one we have here. Our lab is one of the most clean and organized I have seen, and I think that it makes working much easier for everyone here.

Brian Gibney, Graduate Student

My work consists of extracting microbial RNA and DNA from contaminated soils in order to measure the community structure and biodegradation activity of the indigenous population.

I think the arrangement in the lab works well for how we use the space. As time goes on, clear "work triangles" within the lab begin evolve where tools specific to a task (e.g. gel running, staining, and visualization) are all located in a consolidated space. This makes it easy to find what you are looking for and prevents people from bumping into each other in transit (usually!). Likewise, areas for noncompatible procedures (PCR reaction preparation and sample isolation or RNA and DNA work) have been kept in distinct areas, limiting possible contamination. Aside from the room organization and bench layout, I also enjoy the common area that can be used for informal meetings, eating, and non-bench research.

If I had to start up my lab, I think I would use the Klaus's lab as a model. Though I may change small organizational features, I think that many of the larger design aspects would remain the same.

Cristine Chaves Barreto, Graduate Student

I am interested in studying the impact of horizontal gene transfer in evolution. I chose to study a microbial community in an abandoned copper mine in northern Massachusetts using molecular tools. In the future the data I generate will be used for controlled experiments within the lab, or in experimental microcosms. That is what I like the most about this lab: The opportunity to combine laboratory and field work.

In terms of organization, I really appreciate having a competent lab technician who saves me time by taking care of daily worries such as buying and organizing reagents. Lab meetings where we discuss data are also very stimulating, since discussing technical problems with lab mates improves my productivity. I also learn from the person that works on the adjacent bench.

What I find a little counterproductive is the pre/post PCR organization. I find it confusing to keep certain DNA samples in one room and do environmental DNA isolation in another room, which is the pre PCR room. I think that as long as we keep the PCR hood "DNA free" we would avoid contamination issues. The best thing about the lab however, is the great social environment created by stimulated students that find in their advisor someone who gets really excited about their data.

Chris Vriezen, Graduate Student

I think that the arrangement of equipment the lab is good, It took a short time to find my way around. I would prefer, however, a centralized computer area. Probably because I am used to it, but also because if someone has to write, you need more space around the computer. The way it is set up now, you always bother someone else. Another reason is that several programs are easier on certain computers. If someone is writing and has to go back and forth between programs and machines, you need the whole lab and you loose a lot of time running.

Vicente Gomez, Graduate Student

[Gomez is the newest member of Nuesslein's lab, stepping foot into the lab only earlier this week! But he is already well aware that he's probably going to be off to a great start]: "This is such a well organized lab I think I can be very productive in here!"

And there you have it ... A few words and suggestions from those whose laboratory is their research sanctuary. Next time, we'll unfold Nuesslein's floorplan and compare "before" and "after" designs. Then we want to see how much you've got out of this series so far by inviting you to set up your own lab in Next Wave's Lab Design Competition! Check in next time for details.

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