20.109(S08):Guidelines for maintaining your lab notebook

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20.109(S08): Laboratory Fundamentals of Biological Engineering

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Lab notebooks are kept to document and organize your experimental plans and data. Every lab requires each researcher to keep one. Yet 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 written directly into your notebook, not on scraps of paper to be entered later. Data in the form of a photo should be taped into your notebook. Printouts and X-ray films can also be taped into your notebook or if reams of paper and large films are being collected, they can be organized in a separate binder and referenced in your 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.

3. Up to date

For this class, that means coming to lab with the date, Module/Day, title, purpose, and description 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 your protocol and any amendments you made to it, data, and perhaps some interpretation entered in your notebooks. Your notebook does not need a table of contents, but you should realize that most research notebooks do.

4. Permanent

Use pen when you write in your notebooks.

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.


Grading your notebook

The 20.109 teaching assistants will collect the duplicate copy of your notebook pages and evaluate them as follows:

 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	     			√-	√	√+

Things to remember

Remember the goal of your notebook is to help you repeat your experiments with the same results. Information you should record includes

  • Centrifuge settings: temperature, speed, time
  • Incubator settings: temperature, time, and shaking speed if applicable
  • Size and types of tubes used
  • Buffers (and their pH)
  • Media
  • Dilutions and how they were prepared
  • Concentrations
  • Volumes used
  • Washes: number, volumes, temperature, solutions used
  • Antibody: dilutions, lot or tube #s
  • Electrophoresis: Agarose or acrylamide percentages, voltages, times
  • The names of people who helped you with your experiment

You should also note any 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”).