20.109(F13):Guidelines for maintaining your lab notebook

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20.109(F13): Laboratory Fundamentals of Biological Engineering

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The purpose of keeping a lab notebook in 20.109 is two-fold:

  1. To develop good lab practices for the future.
  2. To have a one-stop place to remember what you did each day and what the result was.

This semester we are piloting a new way to keep lab notebooks -- one that we think (hope!) will be easier and more accessible for you. As everyone is moving more and more towards digital record keeping, we have decided to try out electronic lab notebooks for 20.109 F13. We will be using Evernote, a free-ware that is installed on all lab computers. You can download Evernote to your Mac or PC and access your lab notebook in the cloud while outside of the lab. This will allow you to prepare for lab by adding the relevant protocol and prepping Excel sheets (or other data crunching software) for your calculations, etc. Furthermore, your results (gel images, ppt files, graphs, etc) can be attached to each page, making data accessible for easier report preparation.

Finally, Evernote notebooks can be 'shared' with your TAs and teaching instructors to facilitate easier grading. In addition, we will keep Evernote notebooks that contain pre-lab lectures and other helpful information and share them with you! We hope these small changes will make a big impact, keeping even more of the 20.109 process transparent for everyone and allowing easy and instant data sharing.

No two scientists organize their lab notebooks identically, and there isn’t one “right” way for you to keep yours. There are some common elements that all lab notebooks share and some important habits you should develop in keeping your notebook for this class. All lab notebooks should be...

1. Complete

Your notebook is a place to collect descriptions of experimental goals, experimental procedures, all the data you collect, and your interpretations of results. Numerical data and calculations should be entered directly into your notebook, ideally not on scraps of paper to be entered later. Data in the form of photographs, printouts, etc., can be attached directly to your EN notebook.

2. Organized

Some scientists arrange their notebooks by date, others by the question being tested. What works best depends on the research itself and the researcher. Since this class has three experimental modules that are performed sequentially, your notebook will, by default, be organized by both date and project. You will keep a record of every lab meeting, including both the date and the Module/Day in your notebook.

We suggest keeping one EN notebook for each 20.109 Module. You may then share that notebook with the TA for that module and keep your records easily separable.

3. Up to date

For this class, that means coming to lab with the date, Module/Day, title, and statement of purpose already entered in your notebook. It will occasionally be helpful to have data tables ready or some calculations performed as well. “Up to date” also means leaving lab with wiki protocols clearly cited, paraphrased, or copied/pasted in, any amendments you made to said protocols clearly noted, data entered, and perhaps some initial interpretation written up. Your notebook does not need a table of contents, but you should realize that most research notebooks do.

4. Permanent

This is a tricky element to preserve when we enter the digital world. There is a legal reason for noting changes from original pages -- if you have a great idea, you need to permanently record the date for patent applications! While it would be fantastic to file patents covering your data in 20.109, it is not likely to happen. However, getting into the habit of changing font color or making a *note to show where you have updated text/figures/calculations will be useful for the future.

Some other things you should know about lab notebooks

  • They are the property of the research lab itself. Researchers who join the lab after you have left it will get to know you through the notebooks you have kept there. Ideally, your notebooks will reflect your most organized, clear and thoughtful side.
  • They are legal documents. Labs in industry have special rules about lab notebooks since patent disputes and court cases often hinge on lab notebook entries.
  • They are both personal and public. It is considered impolite and an invasion of privacy to read someone else’s notebook without their permission. Most people are happy to show you their notebooks when asked.
  • As you read these details, you may have asked yourself how an electronic notebook satisfies the 'old school' way of keeping lab records. This is a great question -- and one that we will learn the answer to together during the semester as we try out this new system!


Grading your notebook

The 20.109 teaching assistants will examine your notebook pages for a specific day once per module. You will not know in advance which day will be collected. For example, on Module 2/Day 8, the notebook pages summarizing Module 2/Day 3 might be collected. In addition to the three graded spot checks, you will have one ungraded opportunity to have your notebook evaluated, on Module 1/Day 3 (covering material from Day 2).

Each time, notebooks will be evaluated by the following rubric:

 Lab Notebook				Evaluation
 Date of experiment			√-	√	√+
 Module#/Day#		        	√-	√	√+
 Title for experiment			√-	√	√+
 Brief statement of purpose		√-	√	√+
 Protocol		        	√-	√	√+
 Tables for data entry			√-	√	√+
 Calculations entered			√-	√	√+
 Data labeled		        	√-	√	√+
 Summary/interpretation           	√-	√	√+	
 Overall	     			√-	√	√+

Due Dates

  • Module 1, Day 7: either Day 3, 4, or 6 will be collected
  • Module 2, Day 8: either Day 3, 4, or 6 will be collected
  • Module 3, Day 6: either Day 2, 3, or 5 will be collected

Things to remember

Remember that the goal of your notebook is to help you repeat your experiments with the same results. You should copy, paraphrase, or clearly cite each wiki protocol as you go (ModX-DayY-PartZ), and also include any useful methods details that are either not specified on the wiki or that you deviate from, including

  • Dilutions and how they were prepared
  • Final concentrations (if only stocks are listed)
  • Lot # or date prepared of buffers and other reagents
    • when more than one is available
  • Electrophoresis: running voltage and time
  • Washes: number, volumes
  • Incubation times and temperatures

You should also note any unusual changes to the protocol such as

  • unexpected delays (“waterbath wasn’t ready so tubes kept on ice for one hour”),
  • unanticipated conditions (“roller drum found off in AM”)
  • unusual observations (“a large number of cells seemed to be floating”)