Saturday, 31 May 2014

Twenty skills for a lab technician in 2014

Experimental science, whether it is analytical (diagnostics and forensics for example) or discovery based (basic or applied), requires the "mastery" of a set of practical skills. But what skills? When I look at the lab skills that form part of the schools' curricula in chemistry and biology, I see a major mismatch with those in my own research lab at the University of Sheffield. There are undoubtedly fundamental skills in many of the common experiments: titrations, dissections, separations etc. All of which I too benefited from as a scholar in the '70s. However, charged with the preparation of UTC students for University research labs and the work place before the first cohort leave in 2015, I thought I would define the 20 most important skills. I am now seeking opinions and alternative suggestions from our partners, but would like to widen the net further and this "Micro-Blog" is aimed at getting the ball rolling. Before I make my final list, the order isn't meant to signify importance, although this might emerge through dialogue!

1. Using and calibrating a pH meter
2. Using and respecting the cleanliness of a balance (top pan and fine balances)
3. The ability to make a solution at a given molarity (and recognising the appropriate apparatus to use)
4. Using and maintaining a "Gilson" (or equivalent)
5. Safe use of a centrifuge (from bench top to floor standing)
6. Sterile technique for microbial growth on plates and broths
7. Preparation of nucleic acids (genomic DNA, plasmids and RNA)
8. Microbial cell disruption for protein preparation
9. Agarose gel electrophoresis
11. Column chromatography (ion exchange, affinity and possible gel filtration)
12. Keeping a legible lab notebook
13. Ability to produce a daily work plan
14. Understanding the storage requirements for experimental samples
15. Logical and organised storage of reagents and materials
16. Appreciation of visible and UV spectroscopy (others are more specialised)
17. Basic plasmid transformation and mini-prep methodology
18. Designing PCR primers and basic end-point PCR
19. Knowledge of a method of molecular cloning and restriction analysis
20. Use of a light microscope.

What do you think? Any missing, any that should be deleted? I look forward to your responses!

1 comment:

  1. Very good points. May I comment by way of an example.

    Trypsin is a widely used enzyme for digesting proteins into short peptides. While bulk trypsin is available, it is more usual to buy a premium 'sequencing grade', microgram amounts lyophilised into small Eppendorf tubes. Such trypsin is expensive, but is widely used as it saves time and contributes to experimental reproducibility. Rather than being the "property" of one researcher, often a lab will hold such reagents in common. Most biological reagents, enzymes, antibodies, etc. are supplied in this way. So far, so good.

    To use requires taking it up in a small volume of buffer of given molarity and pH. So you must know how to calculate molarity, measure pH and measure small volumes ("Gilson"). These are basic lab skills. But there's more (often unwritten): you probably will not use all of one tube of reagent, so do you discard or store the remainder? Often the latter, but for how long. So, without delay, label the unused reagent tube with the date and your initials, and record the same in your lab notebook. Store unused reagent under correct refrigeration (not necessarily the freezer). Ask yourself if you would commit your protein or DNA to a stored reagent prepared by someone else. Would others trust your reagent? Knowing when it was made up is a good start! You can build trust by working cleanly and carefully. The same applies to pipetting. Would you share your 'Gilson' pipettes? (Often this is not a choice - there is but one set). I have seen more argument over contaminated pipettes than anything else - though dirty balance pans and overfilled fridge/freezers run a close second! Managing a laboratory can be an important role for senior technicians, and their word is law.

    Plan your work before you arrive at the bench: make sure you have everything you need. If you use the last of something act responsibly - tell someone or re-order it yourself if you have such powers - don't just walk away. Safe working is essential not optional and you will find Industry takes safety very seriously: wearing safety spectacles in the laboratory is usually mandatory. For a chemist this is second-nature, for biologists…well, the picture at the head of the post makes my point :)

    So core competencies I look for are:

    1. Working safely, mindful of others.
    2. Planning ahead.
    3. Using a balance.
    4. Measuring liquids.
    5. Accurate note-keeping.
    6. Clean workspace.

    I'd be interested in your final list.