Nine Tips for Surviving Lab

Thomas Allerton
Class of: 

No matter the major, every SLU student must take a class with a lab component at least once before they graduate. People who major in the sciences will take a lot more than one. In fact, many science majors find themselves taking at least one and often two labs every semester. For many people, lab is the most intimidating part of taking a class, as it is the part that people are often the most unfamiliar with. As a neuroscience major and chemistry minor, I have taken my fair share of labs, and this semester I am working as a Teaching Assistant (TA) in one of the organic chemistry lab sections. Working as a TA has given me the opportunity to reflect on what works and what doesn’t in a lab setting.  So, here are nine tips to survive your labs, many I wish I had known when I was a first-year student.

1.     Come Prepared

It seems basic, but the more you prepare before arriving at lab, the better off you’ll be. If you understand what kind of experiment you are about to perform, or what kind of things you’ll be looking for under the microscope, then you’ll be ready to jump in and get done everything you need to do. I can always tell if someone has prepared for lab before arriving by how quickly they set everything up and how well they seem to know what they are doing, and the same students who look like they know what they are doing are the ones who succeed at the end.

2.     Be Safe

This one also seems obvious, but in many of the labs, especially chemistry labs, you will often deal with dangerous chemicals that can cause serious damage if not handled properly. Doing simple things like wearing gloves and goggles can mean the difference between having an uneventful lab and losing your sight. I’ve seen people accidentally puncture their skin with broken glass that wasn’t cleaned up properly, so staying safe in lab is critically important to your own health.

3.     If You Don’t Know, Ask

No matter how much you’ve prepared beforehand, there may be some uncertainty of what your next step is or how to perform a certain technique. Some people feel ashamed to ask for help, because they don’t want to “sound stupid,” but there is nothing stupid about making sure you are doing the lab correctly and safely. If you aren’t sure how to properly dispose of a solvent, ask. If you aren’t sure at what temperature to heat your solution to make sure it won’t boil, ask. If you aren’t sure which button to press on our $280,000 confocal microscope to make sure you don’t damage the lens, ask. Get the idea?

4.     Keep an Organized Record of What You Do

This step is so crucial most labs require it. Keeping a thorough lab notebook can be a lot of work, and it isn’t the most fun, but it makes writing that lab report so much easier while also helping you out while you are still performing the experiment. Unsure if you added 5 or 10 mL of hydrochloric acid or how long you refluxed your solution? You’ve got it written down because you know how important these details can be in determining your success.

5.     Relate Lab Back to Lecture

This is perhaps the tip that is the least followed. When a class has a lab, the material you cover in lecture is almost always discussed in lab as well. There’s a reason for this. The experiments are designed to help you learn the lecture material, while also demonstrating important lab techniques. If you can use the experiments in lab to promote your learning in lecture, then you’ll succeed in the class.

6.     Utilize the TAs, They’ve Done Exactly What You’re Doing

Nearly every lab will have one or two TAs walking around. We are there for you. Ask us questions. We have likely done the exact experiment you are working on, and we may even know some tips and tricks as to how to be successful beyond what your lab manual says. We wouldn’t be TAs for a class we did poorly in, so if you have questions beyond lab about lecture material or how to study for exams most effectively, ask us those questions as well.

7.     Technique, Technique, Technique

Often, the reaction in a chemistry lab or what’s under the microscope in a biology lab isn’t actually the important part of the lab. What’s important is developing the skills to carry out the reaction or use the microscope to the best of your, and its, capacity. Lab is a time to practice and hone your lab techniques, but also don’t think that you will be expected to be perfect the first time. Your lab instructor and TAs didn’t know how to do it at one point, either.

8.     Realize that One Bad Lab Won’t Fail You

This tip is perhaps the most important one of the entire list. Sometimes lab just won’t go your way. You’ll be carrying out the procedure to the letter and at the end you have no product, or you’ve been trying to culture cells and they just won’t grow. It’s okay. You will be okay.  It’s easy to get fixated on one bad lab, but you have to realize that it’s science. My professor for Research Methods in Fluorescence and Confocal Microscopy once said, “Ninety-five percent of science is failure, but it’s what we learn from that failure that’s important.” The labs you’re doing have been proven to work, so you won’t fail 95 percent of the time, so while it may be frustrating, it’s important to realize that every great scientist has failed too. Don’t let it ruin your view of the lab.

9.     Know that TAs Genuinely Want You to Succeed

This tip is the last because it’s the one that I most recently discovered. I was grading some pre-labs for my organic chemistry lab when I realized how much I genuinely wanted every paper to receive a perfect score. I can’t always mark them that way, of course, but I want to because I want everyone in my lab to understand the material and not have a negative experience. TAs and lab instructors are people too, and we all want our students to perform well, so the next time you get nervous about lab, just remember that everyone is on your side and wants to see you do your best.