Saturday, January 26, 2013

Millipore SNAP i.d. protein detection system

SNAP i.d. is a vacuum-driven apparatus to block, stain and wash your Western blots. It promises to shorten your time to as little as 30 minutes from the moment you finish your transfer to the moment you are ready for detection. It's definitely a significant improvement from almost 24 hours.

The concept is simple you put your membrane in a special cassette which allows even distribution of liquids, you first put the block on top and the vacuum sucks it through, then you continue with the primary antibody, etc. Blocking takes the time for 30ml of solution to flow through the system and antibody stainings which are done in 3 mL of liquid are 15 minutes. Washes are immediate. There is even a little plastic collector you can put under the cassette to recover your antibody, if you wish.

Does it work? Yes. We were really on the fence on whether we wanted to buy it. At $1,500 it is not cheap, but would it provide such huge time savings to be worth the price? If you are a biochemistry lab working on a finite set of antibodies and repeating the same assays over and over again, absolutely. We calculated the cost per run and since the antibody itself is the most expensive fraction of the cost, the $2 per cassette is quickly compensated by having to use less total antibody (though they recommend 3X concentration). At the end the cost per run is the same with traditional methods than with the SNAP i.d. In addition, cassettes can be reused a few times for the same antibody which would make it even cheaper.

Scilogex Analog Tube Roller
The problem is optimization. Every antibody must be optimized as far as concentration and incubation time. Reviews on the internet (here and here) indicate that sometimes you cannot skip the usual overnight primary incubation because the fast antibody absorption just doesn't work and that you have to play with the antibody concentration because of reduced sensitivity. One possibility we considered is to use it just for secondaries, which would shorten the washes-secondary-washes portion to 20 minutes instead of 3 hours.

As a new lab, I decided to pass for the moment because the upfront cost and the cost of consumables does not justify the expense. Instead we bought a Scilogex tube roller, which cost around $250, so that we could incubate our primaries in rolling Falcon tubes instead of shaking plastic cassettes cutting down the antibody solution to 2-3mL at the usual concentration, which saves us from using the 3X concentration required from the SNAP i.d. And the thing about the tube roller is that you can use it for a lot of other things. One day when I am rich, I'll buy a SNAP i.d.

Remember to look at the Lab-things we like page for more products and reviews.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Establishing lab culture in a new lab

Every time a common supply is finished and not reordered, or a common piece of equipment is broken, a little voice goes off in my head "When I have my own lab, this will not happen!". But, will it? And if it does, what do I do about it?

It comes down more generally to the lab culture, that set of rules which will reflect how you like to do science, how the lab will be run, how the lab members will interact with each other and conduct their experiments. A survey published a few months ago in the Harvard Business Review (here) showed how employees would follow a particular culture or strategy only when it originated directly from top management and how middle managers were often powerless to implement change by themselves. I have seen similar situations in multiple occasions, where things will run amok unless the Principal Investigator provides a set of credible boundaries. Lab culture is very important and as a new PI you get to establish and refine your own. It seems that in general lab culture reflects how the PI likes to work whether it's a conscious or unconscious effort, but recognizing the way you like things to be done, making an effort to establish positive culture and/or just to hiring people who will fit nicely in the existing culture can make all the difference.

A good culture promotes cohesiveness and assures you that experiments are done the way you want and with appropriate controls. So, I started thinking about what I would want for my own lab:

COMMON PROTOCOLS AND REAGENTS: I have worked in labs where you could not deviate from protocols currently used and labs where everyone had their own protocols, reagents, sometimes equipment and you could even choose whether you'd prefer to run your DNA gels with TBE or TAE. As a small lab having common reagents is a must and I believe maintaining common stocks promotes responsibility towards your fellow lab members. I also think there should be a reference folder with common protocols, which everyone can access. At the same time, protocols are often in flux as improvements and new reagents are used, so innovation must be taken into account and people have to be free to change and provide updated versions of common protocols. The risk of an extremely individualized environment is the complete loss of knowledge (and custom reagents) once an lab member leaves.

Image appropriately taken from a BLOTTR article on copyright
SHARING DATA AND IDEAS: There are lines of research where you can be 2 years ahead of everyone else and others where you could have toiled for 5 years to get to a major finding that someone else can reproduce in 2 weeks, so when and what to share is sometimes a tough decision. Personally I prefer being in an environment open to sharing information, because I believe results will come faster if you can work with others, discuss ideas and involve collaborators. I have been in situations where I had to think long and hard before sharing a piece of data and where multiple emails of mutual assurances of honesty had to cross before data was shared with me. I look at it like running a small business: if you work retail, you factor a percentage of your profits lost to theft, and if you provide a service, there will be cases where you won't get paid and you won't be able to recover the loss. It is fundamentally the same in science: some people will steal your ideas and run with them, it's a fact. I just do not believe that this should stop you from sharing, since talking about your work, being part of a community, collaborating and discussing your results are some of the best parts of being a scientists, at least for me. For this reason I will be completely open to sharing and will push my people to do the same within the lab and outside.

WORKING TOGETHER: I am very gregarious, yet in the lab I am a loner. I have always worked alone on my own ideas, which sometimes made much slower and less productive than I would have wanted because there was simply too much work to do for a single person. Now that I have people working for me, everything goes so much faster and constant interactions allow us to keep asking the right questions instead of just plodding along. On the other hand, working in teams in the lab can lead to a lot of conflict if the team structure is not correct: two lead postdocs on the same project can be a recipe for disaster because of authorship attribution. So I am going to promote a combination of independence and teamwork. It will be good for lab members to help each other and be in each other's papers, but each student and postdoc should have a primary project which is only theirs in addition to a secondary project which is shared.

Now, I just need to figure out how to inventory and share all my protocols and reagents, and how to hire the right people....I see more posts in the future.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

20% protected time to generate new ideas

A laboratory is a factory of innovation which should generate new ideas to move your field forward. As a new Principal Investigator (PI), I have to decide how to drive the advancement of my lab. While I have more projects in my head than hands to complete them, how do I teach the members of my lab independence and spur even more innovation?  In a new lab you do not have a lot of grant money or startup to just give away for random pilot projects, but I have always been in labs where I was given complete freedom to work on whatever I wanted, so I never had to deal with a PI imposing a project on me and I shudder at the idea. What if one of your lab peeps comes up with a really cool idea you would have never thought of yourself?

A few months ago I found out about the 20% rule in technology companies, where employees are given 20% of their time (one day a week) to work on whatever they please to keep them engaged and foster innovation. The idea is to give employees the freedom to think independently and without direction, and it is widely applied at Google, leading to the development of tools such as Gmail or software fixes they would not have had time to work on during regular hours (here). Dan Pink discusses this approach at length in his book Drive, where he explores new approaches to increase motivation which I discussed in a previous post. However, Pink was not the first person to mention such a strategy. In speaking with senior PIs at Harvard Medical School during a mentoring session, I found that giving a portion of protected time to their postdocs to develop their own projects is a common strategy: "From 9am to 5pm you work for me, after 5pm you work on whatever you want".  This allows the postdoc to explore new ideas for their own labs which are clearly distinct from the PI's, but at the same time furthers the PI's line of research and supplies data and publications.

Everyone always tells me "Your hires are not you!". Depending on their previous training, not everyone will want to take up the challenge to develop something new and a lot of money may be wasted in trying if the learning curve is not steep enough, which is a serious concern. At the same time it would be great exercise for grad students, and a step towards independence for post-docs. Large labs with vast resources can afford for some people to falter or take 5 years to to develop a new idea, because if 4 out of 15 postdocs generate data for 4 major publications a year, you are still doing exceptionally well. Also, large labs already normally attract very ambitious and independent young scientists looking for the freedom to develop their own ideas. As I have learned from friends and colleagues ahead of me, the new PI must be very careful about how their hires perform and how the money is spent. There are two primary requirements which should be met in a small lab trying the 20% rule: 1) the person given the freedom must be innately independent or have a history of independent thinking; and 2) the PI must be willing to take the time to learn about the new project and provide appropriate guidance.

One more thing to try which may lead to success or doom....

Remember to check out the Management page for more related posts.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 4, 2013

Words of wisdom for 2013: lab management tips

Boston fireworks
I thought I'd start the New Year with a collection of advice I have collected over the past few months. Every time I talk to a senior PI at work or at a conference or even at random dinner parties I ask for some words of wisdom, so here it goes.

1) HIRE SLOWLY. This seems to be the first and most common advice. Don't feel lonely in your empty lab and go hire the first person you can find. The first few hires determine the efficiency and the culture of the lab and the wrong people can sink a lot of money and ruin the energy.

2) HIRE PASSIONATE PEOPLE is a corollary to the first rule. In addition to having a good work ethics, the new hires must be passionate about science or if they are not already scientists, at least be passionate about something so that you can drive their passion for science. Non motivated employees are less productive, while passionate employees will be able to also drive others.

3) YOUR HIRES ARE NOT YOU. This is another very common advice. You cannot expect the same drive, passion and knowledge from everyone you hire. They don't know what you know and they are not supposed to. They may not think like you and have different learning processes. You have to learn to undestand other people's strengths and weakenesses and harness different ways of thinking to spur innovation.

4) COLLABORATE A LOT AND COLLABORATE WISELY. You are small and cannot do as much as you could in the big lab where you might have done your postdoc. Create a network of chosen people you can work with. Good collaborations may be hard to come by, but can be very productive and mean the difference in the level of publication. Budget a lot of time at the beginning to start and manage collaborations.

5) DON'T SAY "NO" FOR THE FIRST 2 YEARS, THEN START SAYING "NO". At first you have to accept every invitation to speak, to write something or to participate in your field because you need to establish yourself and get people to know you. Then after a couple of years you can start saying "No".

6) ENJOY THE START-UP WHILE IT LASTS. or 7) SAVE SOME OF YOUR START-UP FOR A RAINY DAY. #6 and 7 are in stark opposition and I'm not sure which one to pick. I've talked to people who have spent like crazy in the first few years to generate a lot of high profile data and others who have saved part of their start-up funds for 20 years to tie them over in a funding drought. Both approaches make sense and I guess it's like investing and you need to figure out how risk-averse you are.

These are the highlights for now and I will post more once I have new ones (here).