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Employment

The unwritten rules of sharing in the laboratory

Chemjobber on when hoarding chemicals and lab equipment becomes a problem

by Chemjobber
July 10, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 29

 

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Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Do you really need to stockpile those chemicals?

Ever shared someone else’s toothbrush? I didn’t think so. I certainly haven’t, and yet there are some things that we’re perfectly willing to share, like a pen or perhaps a jacket. These unwritten rules are all around us, and they follow us into the lab as well.

Have a fume hood all your own? I bet that you’ve never done much chemistry in other people’s hoods—it would probably feel weird. You’d probably react poorly to one of your lab mates reaching into your hood and pulling out your stir plate. It probably doesn’t belong to you, but it is yours—you’re the one who uses it most often, and you’ve had it the entire time that you’ve been working in that hood. That possessiveness you feel, it’s one of those funny unwritten rules of the lab.

This possessiveness doesn’t stop at fume hoods, or simple equipment like stir plates. Put enough blood, sweat, and tears into a GC or an HPLC, and you’ll find yourself saying, “Don’t mess up my instrument!” to your untidy colleague who is borrowing it.

Chemists can be even more possessive of chemicals, especially when they have been ordered for a specific purpose or they have a limited shelf life. Break into your lab mate’s new bottle of dibutylboron triflate solution before they had a chance to use it for their Evans aldol reaction? You may receive coal in your stocking at the group Christmas party.

In some labs, the unwritten rule seems to be “No sharing whatsoever!” Everyone is very possessive of their equipment and glassware, and the number of shared materials is very low. Often, there is surreptitious pilfering, and as a consequence, people begin stowing stashes in odd spots. People defend their materials by labeling with their initials obsessively or perhaps by posting a picture of Chuck Norris staring down the would-be thief.

One way organizations can encourage sharing and discourage hoarding is to be generous. Want to make those stashes disappear? Have a stockroom full of fresh supplies waiting to be used by the enterprising chemist.

The environment within a laboratory can also be an unspoken treaty. It’s unwise to move the thermostat up or down significantly without talking to your fellow lab workers. Many laboratories compromise on the noise level by keeping laboratory settings relatively quiet. Like blasting really loud music while you’re running columns? It might be time for you to start working late at night or early in the morning when your lab mates aren’t around. Or it might be time to get a set of headphones. (Just be sure it doesn’t interfere with your ability to hear safety alarms.)

Just as many unwritten and unspoken rules exist about who receives credit for an improvement or a discovery in a laboratory. Think up an idea in a group setting? I think it’s wise to credit everyone who contributed to the idea, even if only one or two people actually performed the key experiment. But that’s just my opinion; your laboratory’s traditions around authorship are likely set by your principal investigator if you’re in academia, or by the rules of inventorship if you’re in industry. Because these contributions are so valued in the scientific community, I don’t think it is a coincidence that this is one of the places where the unwritten traditions of authorship can become a serious source of conflict.

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I admit that I have broken unwritten rules. When I was a senior graduate student, I had a moment of weakness when I seized a group resource and carried it furtively back to my hood. I’m not proud of it, and I am glad that someone confronted me.

Many of life’s unwritten rules are about sharing, like giving other cars room on a crowded exit ramp. So it is with many of the laboratory’s unspoken rules: They are about creating an environment where people from different backgrounds can minimize conflict and work together to solve scientific problems. Just ask before you use my favorite stir bar, OK?


Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at chemjobber.blogspot.com. Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at cenm.ag/benchandcubicle.


Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

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Comments
Suzanne Black (Wed Jul 11 16:20:29 EDT 2018)
Loved the article on lab hoarders! I tried a system in which a user leaves a sticky note in the vacant space usually occupied by what they borrow. All that was needed was name, where the item is, and when it will be back. But (no surprise) the hoarders don’t use the stickies... Any other ideas ou there?
Michelle Moats (Wed Jul 11 16:20:30 EDT 2018)
Neat article. We need to have better rules and practices for authorship, and a better way for undergrads and “entry level” grad students to file their legitimate claims if a principle investigator wants to limit authorship to his senior student even if a project was a collaborative effort (or any other decision not seen prudent by a student). I’ve seen too many students try to talk to department heads only to be heard but never actually fought for, in other words only to be dismissed. This often lead to hostile laboratory environments and people sometimes leaving and having to go to a new lab. Authorship and credit is serious and I’m glad I got this perspective from other students before I have my own research lab in the future as an MD-PhD. We need better regulations and support for students, especially with authorship.
Reply »
can't (Thu Sep 20 08:59:01 EDT 2018)
More regulations you say? It's clear you haven't haven't started your career with your own lab. It's good you want to learn from others how authorship should be handled, and then want to do it the right way when you are in charge. However, regulations on issues like this more often than not would end up forcing you to assign credit in a way you don't think is appropriate. And then you're stuck doing the wrong thing. Perfect regulations are very hard to write, and will always miss certain situations. They do give administrators something to do.
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Christine Tafoya (Thu Jul 12 14:41:42 EDT 2018)
This article did not make sense for how it was titled and sub-titled.. there was nothing in the text that describes anything about hoarding chemicals or the problems this causes... e.g. pure wastefulness and duplicate inventories, decomposing bottles, explosive crystals on old peroxide formers, acid bottles that lose their integrity, etc...
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Igor V. Kolomitsyn (Fri Jul 13 09:42:36 EDT 2018)
Chemists have to be really careful with sharing. Cross-contamination is a common problem in the chemistry world. Therefore, it is essential that chemists are tracking their resources and managing them very carefully. It is up to the lab. supervisor/PI/professor to help young chemists to understand the laboratory's ethics. There is a delicate balance between sharing and ownership of supplies and chemicals.
Can't (Thu Sep 20 09:00:28 EDT 2018)
I'm not sure that suggesting students should spend more time working alone at night is the best advice.

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