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The Art of Laboratory Feng Shui, Part Two: Views From the Lab






Klaus Nuesslein is an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Massachusetts, where he recently went through the process of setting up his laboratory. Nuesslein provides useful advice and insights for those planning to start their own labs.

It was still April 1999 when I hung up the phone accepting to start an assistant professorship at the University of Massachusetts later that fall. In addition to finishing up my postdoctoral research, I had to now think about setting up my very own laboratory! After combing through the library and the Internet, I found little guidance on how to establish your first laboratory, and that is why I wanted to contribute to this series and share my recent experiences: The challenge of transferring a new and empty laboratory into an efficient working environment!

After finishing my Ph.D. at the Center for Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University, I had worked in two different research groups as a postdoctoral researcher, which gave me some experience in lab design. My field of study is microbiology--I work in the department of microbiology, here at the University of Massachusetts, using mostly molecular research tools to study the ecology of microbes.

Three Steps to Planning

I found that preparing and setting up your lab takes place over three distinct stages:

  • Getting prepared before you accept the position.

  • Getting organized between accepting and starting.

  • Getting started once you're physically in your new lab.

  • Right now I'll discuss stages 1 and 2 first, and stage 3 later.

    Step 1: Getting Prepared Before You Accept

    In most interviews you will be asked what you need in terms of start-up support, and what equipment you require for your work. To show that you mean business, have ready a list of resources you'll need to perform your research. Not only will you hit the ground running by impressing department negotiators, but such lists will also show you are an independent and organized planner--qualities all departments crave.

    Ideally, you want this list of resources to be pretty much complete with company names, prices, and order numbers. To help you get started you might want to get a copy of a lab set-up list from another junior faculty member in your area of research who has recently set up his or her own lab. I found that by talking to sales representatives at your current institution, you can find out who just started up a lab--the salespeople might even have generic start-up lists themselves, which can be really helpful.

    Step 2: What To Do Between Accepting and Starting

    After I accepted the position, my wife and I traveled to Massachusetts and revisited the area around the university to look for housing. Before we arrived I asked the department office to send me a copy of the floor plan of my future laboratory. I recommend you do the same: I found you really need to visualize what your lab looks like months ahead of time in order to design all of the work areas you need.

    During that house-hunting weekend, I spent an hour in my future lab measuring all the rooms and counting the sinks, workbenches, and other features of the laboratory space. I also took photographs and made a brief list of the equipment available at the department level. When I arrived back home, I redrew my own floor plan and entered all the information I had gathered.

    I consider myself very lucky with the space offered to me: The laboratory is a continuous suite of three rooms with my small office tucked away in the middle. The entire west side has windows that overlook the campus pond. Six people can work in the lab, each with roughly 240 square feet of student bench space, which is quite common at this and other universities. The lab is centrally located--across from the department office and the mailroom, and on the same hallway as the seminar rooms--which ensures great opportunities for communication, which proves to be very conducive when enlisting the interest, help, and advice of my colleagues.

    Designing Workstations and Preparation Areas

    In the case of my research, I needed to establish four main work areas:

  • A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) set-up room to prepare PCR experiments and to do most of the molecular experimentation.

  • A post-PCR room to analyze and manipulate PCR products.

  • A general eating and office area for graduate students and postdocs, and

  • My office.

  • I liked the placement of workbenches and the location of all the common fixtures such as natural gas, compressed air, tap water, and distilled water, so I didn't need to change these arrangements. Within the remaining space I had to place certain workstations and preparation areas. On my layout I created workstations for up to five lab members, plus a central one for a technician.

    My preparation areas included:

    • a PCR preparation area

    • an RNA work area

    • a solution preparation area with balance and pH meter station

    • an optical bench for different microcroscopes

    • two dishwashing stations

    • a chemical hood for phenolic extractions and sonication procedures

    • a gel electrophoresis bench and a gel staining area

    • a gel documentation area

    • a thermocycler area

    • waterbaths

    • several centrifugation stations

    • a laminar flow hood

    Furthermore, I also needed space for refrigerators and freezers in every room, and storage for frequently used disposables, tools, and hazardous waste--I even designated space for separate coat hangers for street coats and lab coats! Everything had to be placed strategically.

    You might guess by now how important it is to draw that floor plan!

    After I designated physical areas of the lab, I had to identify where particular types of research were going to be performed. My goal was to identify the focal points of the laboratory and set up efficient working areas around them--much like the placement of refrigerators, stoves, and countertops within kitchens. I wanted to create work "centers" that had the smallest number of steps within them, around which I could place the work areas mentioned above.

    Items that should go into a laboratory start-up list:

  • Shared equipment assumed to be available in the department (Ultracentrifuge, drying oven, icemaker, darkroom, photo equipment, walk-in cold room, incubators, etc.)

  • Shared equipment assumed to be available on campus

  • Personal equipment assumed to be already in rooms x, y, z (your rooms)

  • Required equipment and supplies

    • Heavy equipment (refrigerators, hoods, lab shakers ...)

    • Computing and printing

    • Microscopy

    • Molecular biology equipment

    • General lab equipment

    • Supplies

    • Chemicals and reagents

    • Professional activities (travel, lodging, conference registration, journals)

    • Reference books

    • Grand total

  • Salary for technician

  • Hourly money for undergraduates

  • During this planning time, I suggest you ask your new department for any repairs and installations you may need, such as having the walls repainted, getting more distilled water faucets installed, or having freezers hooked up to emergency generators, for example. Also, while you edit your floor plan over and over again, you might want to update your equipment list to become an actual shopping list. I ended up buying about 75% of all the equipment that was on my original shopping list.

    In the next installment, I will discuss how to get started once you've actually moved into your new lab. Try out some of my described thoughts and preparations to help you plan for that move--I hope it will be useful and of great help to you! See you then.

    Next time, we'll see how Klaus's lab floorplan evolved after he designed his research areas, and we'll get his advice on what you should do once you've moved into your new research sanctuary. Stay tuned for more, as the Feng Shui experts get ready to reveal all...!

    Email Next Wave, if you have questions for Klaus or if you'd like to know more about setting up your own lab.

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