I. KEEPING A RESEARCH LABORATORY NOTEBOOK
Present scientific research builds upon the information and techniques generated by previous scientific research. Therefore, one of the most critical factors in scientific laboratory research is repeatability. Having performed a particular experiment and obtained a particular result in a biosciences research lab, the findings will normally not be considered legitimate or convincing unless they can be repeated one or more times. In order to repeat an experiment, one must know exactly what was done in the original experiment.
The key to repeatability is keeping a good lab notebook. The notebook should contain the date on which the work was done, a brief summary of the objective(s) of the work or experiment, and an outline of the steps anticipated, made before performing the work. All calculations for preparation of chemical solutions should be recorded, as well as anything else that might reasonably affect the outcome of the experiment. Any deviations from the outlined steps should be indicated as the work proceeds. The results of the work or experiment should be recorded carefully, in "raw data" form, with a summary of the general results added after the experiment has been completed. It is also good to write down immediately any ideas you may have for improvements, or for different approaches. Such ideas can be lost very quickly!
Quite often, original experiments in a research laboratory do not work properly the first time they are tried, and even with repetition and improvements they may not work as anticipated. It can be frustrating to spend time recording such negative results carefully, and yet, there is much to be learned from even these experiments. It is possible, for example, that you may discover an error somewhere at a later date, or something that you did slightly differently from other researchers who obtained different results. Such errors or slight differences in procedure can lead to discoveries.
The best way to learn how to keep a good lab notebook is to go ahead and keep a lab notebook! You will run into questions about whether this or that detail is worth recording, and will have to make decisions. A good way to tell whether you are doing a proper job is to take notes for several days, then go back to your notes of a few days before and see if you can tell what you did! Can the work be repeated on the basis of what is in your lab notes? What critical information is missing, or unclear?
EXAMPLE: "WHAT NOT TO DO"
Professor Bungler is performing an important experiment on the growth of cells in cultures, and is testing a variety of growth factors to see if they will enhance the rates of cell growth. To save time, he does not plan the details of the experiment in advance. Instead, he does several calculations in his head when making up the test growth media, intending to write them down as soon as he gets a chance. In the middle of the experiment he gets a time break, but cannot find his notebook. Suddenly someone knocks on the door, and then the telephone rings. After responding to these interruptions, the Prof. declares "Now, where was I? Oh yes, the notebook!". Still not finding it, he grabs the best thing available, a paper towel, and carefully writes down what he remembers adding to the cultures, intending to transfer the information to the notebook later on. Then, as he is weighing out one of biochemicals to be added to the medium, some of it blows into the air, causing him to sneeze. He grabs a nearby paper towel, blows his nose, throws the towel into the waste basket, and proceeds with the experiment. At the end of the experiment, Professor Bungler finds his research notebook, but - where is the experimental information? Oh yes, he remembers that he wrote it down on a paper towel, but - he cannot find it. Guess where it is! It doesn't really matter anyway, since the Prof. had made numerous errors when writing things down after having been interrupted.
EXERCISE #1: NOTEBOOK
Obtain a Techniques Facility laboratory notebook, which you can keep in the Tech Facility Workbook binder. Write your name and the date in it, and use it to record all of your Techniques Facility activities and data. Try not to emulate Prof. Bungler in the process!
Always remember that a research lab notebook is something that cannot be replaced if lost or destroyed. It represents long hours of hard work, and the data in it are often the only tangible remains of that work. For this reason, many researchers keep at least one extra copy of their lab notes in a separate place, in case of disaster. You should never handle your lab notebook carelessly (such as by letting it get wet), and you should not lose control over its whereabouts, such as by loaning it to someone, or shipping it by mail or in a suitcase. Even if you think that it does not contain much information of value, treat it as if it contained prize-winning data! As indicated earlier, experimental results are frequently not fully understood or appreciated for years after the work has been done!