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Book Review: At the Bench: A Laboratory Navigator

After years at the laboratory bench, Kathy Barker has seen many neophytes enter the lab and blossom into competent scientists. The first week in a new laboratory can be exhilarating, bewildering, and chaotic, and while Barker has observed many fledgling researchers struggle to make good first impressions, get organized, and learn new techniques, she has also witnessed their common mistakes. In At the Bench: A Laboratory Navigator, Barker assembles a body of practical wisdom that should help you avoid the pitfalls that traditionally plague newcomers to biological laboratories--especially graduate students. Her advice and instruction provide moral support and entertaining anecdotes that can help any newbie hit the ground running.

Barker describes the manual as being "meant to help lab people become familiar with their surroundings and be able, from the first day, to become independent, to know what questions to ask and why, and to function as scientists." She has organized her book into three sections:

  • 1) Getting Oriented

  • 2) Plotting a Course

  • 3) Navigating

Resources include a comprehensive list of abbreviations commonly found in biomedical labs, a glossary, and an index. Instead of one large reference list at the end of the book, each chapter closes with handy print and Internet references pertinent to the chapter's content. Barker additionally provides a helpful one- or two-sentence explanation for each URL that allows the new researcher to choose and search appropriate sites efficiently.

1) Getting Oriented

Getting Oriented comprises three chapters of general advice that cover socialization (with an emphasis on courtesy), lab policies, and staying organized. Barker names each piece of equipment and briefly describes its use. Some of her descriptions contain useful information that only an experienced lab member would know: A buzzing CO2 incubator may indicate a lack of CO2 or the need to fill the water jacket, for example. Through such tips, Barker imparts the advantage of experience to the neophyte.

At The Bench: A Laboratory Navigator

By Kathy Barker

The Rockefeller University

New York City, New York

1998 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press

ISBN: 0-87969-523-4

Concealed wire-bound, hard-back book

451 pages

After Chapter 2, which includes useful illustrations by Jim Duffy of typical lab equipment, Chapter 3 covers organizational strategies that should help you set up a functional lab bench as well as manage the inevitable paper triage. Barker provides a thorough checklist of indispensable items for the bench, ranging from permanent markers to an ice bucket. She also offers tips to help the neophyte organize information at the desk so that it is readily accessible at any time.

2) Plotting a Course

Plotting a Course contains three chapters that provide useful information to help the new scientist set up experiments, record data, and present results. Barker believes a key to success is learning through doing. She encourages new researchers to discuss and design a project with the lab head and then try an experiment--all in the first week! This advice seems difficult to reconcile with the numerous prior caveats regarding lab safety and the potential consequences of ignorance in a biomedical lab. However, Barker makes the point that novice researchers will learn more effectively once they have gotten their feet wet, a philosophy that rings true for all scientific disciplines.

One of the most helpful chapters in the manual is devoted to the content, maintenance, and ethics of the laboratory notebook. (Would that I had read this chapter 4 years ago!) It's all too easy to get busy doing experiments and neglect the lab book. Barker recognizes this and suggests weekly hourlong sessions where you compile all of the data and figures written on paper towels, summarize the prior week's work, and make a plan for the next week.

At The Bench: A Few Key Points

These top five nuggets of advice come from the chapters aimed at all scientists. They are:

  • In the first week, if you are offered the chance to work closely with someone (rather than to work completely independently), grab it!

  • Treat all members of the lab with the same respect you give the lab head

  • Don't use a piece of equipment without the instructions. If they have been lost, call the manufacturer to obtain another copy.

  • Avoid letting a piece of paper touch your hand more than once. Deal with each bit of information as soon as you receive it.

  • If you can't communicate your data, they don't exist. Presenting your data well is not something merely for the ambitious. It is necessary for your survival.

Presenting yourself and your experimental results makes up the final chapter of this section. Everyone, new and seasoned, could benefit from this valuable chapter! Barker provides communication tips for native and nonnative English speakers in a variety of forums ranging from journal clubs to international symposia. She also offers advice on presentations to an audience not immediately within one's field of study. When giving a formal seminar, the presenter should first state the research problem and why it's important. This lets the audience members know why the talk is worth listening to--an incredibly obvious point that is frequently overlooked.

3) Navigating

The final section addresses specific techniques used in biomedical laboratories. This section includes chapters on making reagents, eukaryotic cell culture, bacteria, DNA, RNA and protein, radioactivity, centrifugation, electrophoresis, and light microscopy. In these chapters, Barker's wealth of experience comes through in witty and supportive instructions. Two other chapters in this section, on storage and disposal and on working without contamination, are of interest to researchers in any field.

The publisher--Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press-emphasizes that the general aspects of the book provide advice and guidance that scientists in any discipline would benefit from. I was surprised and disappointed, therefore, to find that fully two-thirds of the book is written specifically for new biomedical researchers, and not for all types of "lab people." I imagine the entire text is a gold mine if you have just become a member of a biomedical lab. However, as a systems neuroscientist, I found the first six chapters extremely useful, four others helpful, and the remaining six not particularly useful.

So, if the prospect of beginning life in a new lab seems overwhelming, I would recommend reading at least the first two sections of At the Bench: A Laboratory Navigator. As a new biomed student or researcher, you might want to invest in your own copy. But if you are in another field, check it out of the library or share the expense with others.

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