…by Sophie / from the United Kingdom / PhD Tissue Repair / 4th Year

Recently, I’ve been supervising a couple of students and teaching them all I know. So like, four things. Back in the day when I was the rotation student, my friendly* post-doc supervisor told me that the way to learn something is first I would watch her do it, then she would do it alongside me, then I would do it alone. I did it the same way, giving them the protocols to follow along with and make notes of any specifics.

In this process it occurred to me quite how much I’ve deviated from (optimised?! Lets go with optimised) the protocols I printed out and was selling as gospel. And it also made me realise what things I am incredibly precise with and some things are a little more… woolly. It’s the difference between baking, where precision is key, and cooking, where you can be a bit freer.

Where I am as precise as a baker

  • The very first time I do a new protocol
  • Scientific language and phrasing (so important to be clear)
  • Teeny tiny volumes (0.1uL vs 0.2 uL is DOUBLE guys just easy with the P2)
  • Time of day to do any animal behavioural experiments
  • Making up reagents, buffers with lots of ingredients
  • PCR and bought-in ELISA kits
  • Anything with commercial cell lines or stem cells
  • The counting and the statistics

Where I am relaxed as a cook

  • How much media I put on my primary cells
  • How long I culture some cells (‘til they’re confluent!)
  • Time taken to block my slides (I mean, supposedly 1 hour but usually til after lunch)
  • How much buffer to slosh my western blot in
  • Big volumes (100mls, 100mls, who cares)

After a couple of years in the PhD I’ve realised a lot more what things are really crucial to be specific with, but of course this really differs with the exact technique you’re learning. Once you know something well enough you can tell where you can relax a little.

To new PhD students starting out, I suggest erring on the side of caution initially. Ask every question now, don’t assume anything is too stupid to check. Stick to the protocol and advice but don’t be afraid to work out where things can be improved. Often the answer to “Why do you do it this way?” is just “That’s the way we’ve always done it!” but that’s a bit rubbish. If it doesn’t make sense to you, see if you can make it better. Maybe we are putting emphasis on the wrong part and a fresh set of eyes can help.

What are the things you are precise about and the things you are more relaxed about in the lab?

*occasionally scary

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