Preparing for a Lab-Heavy Semester

As I began choosing my courses for next semester, I knew I had to take CBE core lab, as this is a requirement for the concentration during the spring semester of junior year. In addition, I was really excited about conducting independent work in a new bioengineering lab, which I am hoping will be the lab that I stay in for my senior thesis. With both 7 hours of core lab per week and an expectation of 20 hours of independent work per week, I know I will be spending a lot of time in the lab next semester, so I have started to prepare for that. If you are also taking core lab while doing independent work, or if you are enrolled in multiple lab-courses, such as chemistry, molecular biology and physics at the same time, you will likely need to plan ahead. In this post, I will offer tips on how to prepare for a lab-heavy semester: 

Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2013)
Lab hours can quickly add up, especially if you are not organized with your time. Begin planning your schedule for a lab-heavy semester early in order to set your own expectations for you project.

Begin Planning Your Projects Early – The sooner you begin meeting with your mentors, the sooner you can begin planning your projects. With independent work in particular, you may have to shadow a few graduate students in the lab and attend some lab meetings before you can even begin drafting a project proposal, so it helps to begin completing this early. For my own project, I will be researching bacterial persisters and analyzing the mechanism by which bacteria resist antibiotic and other environmental stresses. Because I am just now joining the lab, I began shadowing someone in the lab this semester, to learn more about the research being conducted. Because of this, not only could I choose the project I want to work on, but I will also be able to complete some of my training experiments during reading period, and will be more ready to begin my independent work by the time spring semester starts.

Plan Your Schedule with Your Adviser – The PI of your lab or the head lab instructor in the course will probably know how time consuming your project may be, so you should discuss with them how often you will be coming in to the lab. For example, when planning my schedule, I had left two afternoons free during the week, Tuesdays and Fridays, where I thought I could get the bulk of my experiments for the week completed. The rest of the week, I planned on just coming in for a short amount of time to check on the experiments I had started and to analyze data. However, when I showed my PI my class schedule and my availability for lab, he suggested I switch some of my class sections. He explained that for my project, I would probably be growing bacterial cells to stationary phase before beginning any of my experiments. Thus, I needed to keep one afternoon and the following morning free during the week, since bacteria grow with overnight incubation, which means I need to begin growth at night and complete my experiment the next morning. My original schedule included 9 am classes everyday, so if I had not considered my course schedule in advance, it would have been difficult to complete my experiments every week. 

Work on Reports During Wait Times – Depending on your project, some procedures may include different wait times in the middle of your experiment. Whether you have a 20 minute or a 2 hour wait time in between two steps, work on your lab report and data analysis during that time. A lab-heavy semester likely means you will also be writing or presenting frequently. For example, every core lab rotation concludes with a written report and a long presentation, and independent work requires weekly updates with your PI as well as written report and a presentation at the end of the semester. This means in addition to a lot of lab time, creating figures and writing the reports will also be time-consuming. To avoid feeling overwhelmed as a lab deadline approaches, try to use your down-time in the lab effectively.

While balancing lab time, class work, and different projects at the same time, it is important to stay organized and balanced with your time. If you begin planning and discussing with your adviser early on, you will be able to properly set small goals and check-points throughout the semester, which will help you stay on task with your project. I hope these tips can help you manage the large lab commitment. 

Saira Reyes, Engineering Correspondent