Important information for lab undergrads

When I first started at Georgia Tech, someone recommended to me that I do an orientation with all new members of the lab, where I went over basic information. This was a really good suggestion (even if I can no longer remember who it was who suggested it!), and got me started on a file where I include the basic information that I want all undergrads who are joining my lab to know. I have expanded this file over the years, so that it is now substantially longer than that first sheet that I used at Georgia Tech.

However, when I moved to Michigan, I got out of the habit of going through this information formally with all students when they joined the lab. That was a mistake, and I plan on resuming the practice this summer. When I was recently updating the file, it occurred to me that it might be useful to share it here, both so that other people who are interested in doing something similar can have a template, and so that people can suggest important things that might be missing. Please suggest changes!


Important Lab Information for Duffy Lab Undergraduates

General Lab Information:

  1. We want everyone in the lab to be excited about their research project and to understand what we do and why we do it. If you’re ever unsure about why something is being done (or why it’s being done in a particular way), PLEASE ASK! Ideally, you should ask right away. But, if you realize later that you are confused, asking later is better than not asking at all. We have a great lab group, and people are always willing to help each other out and to answer questions.
  2. Meghan’s cell is XXX-XXX-XXXX. If there is a true emergency (e.g., fire, serious injury, etc.), call 911, then call Meghan if possible. If there is a lab emergency (e.g., the lab is unusually hot, there’s a mysterious puddle on the floor, an environmental chamber is misbehaving), call Meghan. If it’s an emergency, a call at any time is fine. But if it’s not an emergency, please do not call or text between 9PM and 7AM!
  3. Safety: There are signs on the lab doors that tell you about safety equipment and regulations. The lab also contains the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for all the chemicals in the lab. These are in a blue binder on the shelf above Katie’s desk. If you are ever unsure about whether something is safe or have concerns about safety, please ask!
  4. Training: All students need to complete two online safety training modules. The two lab safety modules you need to take are:
    1. BLS025w
    2. BLS101w
      Please go to: to take those courses. You must do this by the end of your first week working in the lab. Email the certificates of completion (a screen cap or pdf) to Meghan when you have finished the courses.

General Lab Policies:

  1. Lab notebooks:
    1. All lab members must use lab notebooks; these will be provided by the lab, belong to the lab, and must stay in the lab at all times (including after you finish working in the lab). Lab notebooks should never leave the lab! If you need a copy of information (e.g., to enter data at home), this is a great opportunity to scan it or take a photo of the relevant pages.
    2. Write details for everything you do, and keep things organized. Write lots of details — you can never have too many details and you will remember much less 6 months from now than you think you will! This will help you a lot when you work on your end-of-semester writeup. It will also help everyone later if we need to go back and figure out a specific detail regarding what was done. You should write enough information that we can reproduce what you did without needing to send you any emails. Always write more information than you think you need to write! We’ve never looked back at an old lab notebook and thought, “Wow, I wish they’d written less.” We have definitely looked back at an old lab notebook and thought, “Wow, I wish they’d written more.”
    3. Never go back and change anything in your lab notebook at a later date
    4. Don’t leave blank spaces – if you accidentally skip a page, draw a cross through it.
    5. Staple attachments in to the lab notebook
    6. If you make a mistake (and we all do at some point!), please write details in the lab notebook and notify your mentor. We have all made mistakes. The most important thing is that we acknowledge them, so that we can take that into account when continuing with the study and when looking at the data.
    7. Related to the above: we all build on each other’s data. That means that it is very important for you to collect data carefully and to record notes carefully, and to note when mistakes are made. If you have any concerns about data collection, procedures, or anything else, please tell Meg.
    8. Some of the most exciting results we’ve collected are the ones we never would have expected. Keep an open mind when collecting data. If you see something you didn’t expect, record the data and then tell someone else about it. We’ve had some really neat research avenues opened up by undergrad observations!
  2. Data: (Thou shalt not be careless with thine data!)
    1. All data must be backed up at least weekly; this means that one copy should be in the lab and one copy should be elsewhere (such as on a server). An easy way to do this is to have a file on the lab desktop computer, since this automatically gets backed up to the cloud every day.
    2. Any data that hasn’t been entered yet should be scanned and/or photographed with a cell phone as soon as possible. Ideally, you should snap a photo of the new lab notebook entries and data sheets at the end of the day.
    3. Data should be entered into a computer (and proofed) routinely (aim for daily)
    4. All computer files should be backed up regularly (at least weekly); again, if they are on the lab computer, they will automatically be backed up. Backups should be stored in a location different than where the computer is (the cloud is an easy solution to this!)
    5. Include metadata along with your datafiles. What is metadata? It is the data about the data. For example, it might be a text file explaining what data is contained in each of the csv files, and which R scripts go along with those data.
  3. Field work:
    1. Always have a buddy when you go into the field! This buddy will almost always be Katie, a grad student, or a postdoc. Only people who can swim are allowed to go out in the boat. You should always have life jackets with you.
    2. Get off the lake at the first sign of thunder or lightning! Do not try to just finish up that one last thing — get off the lake right away.
    3. Be careful lifting boats and equipment. Lift with your legs, not your back!

End-of-semester information:

  1. All students should write up a summary of their semester’s work at the end of the semester. This should include a brief introduction to the project, a methods section describing what you did (please be detailed!), a results section, and a brief discussion/conclusions section. You must get a draft of this to your mentor at least two weeks before the end of the semester. If you would like examples, please ask Meghan.
  2. For UROP students: please make sure you communicate with your mentor well ahead of any deadlines. At a minimum, you must get a first draft of your research abstract to your mentor two weeks before it is due. You must also get a draft of your poster to your mentor two weeks before it is due. You must write your own first draft — this must be entirely your work! Your mentor will then help you with editing your abstract and poster. Expect to go back and forth several times — this is completely normal and an important part of developing scientific writing and presentation skills.
  3. For students completing an Honors Thesis: make sure you communicate with your mentor well ahead of any deadlines. All first drafts are due to your mentor at least two weeks before they are due. For the thesis itself, talk with your mentor at the beginning of the semester in which you will turn in the thesis to come up with a set of target dates for drafts of different sections of the manuscript. Ideally, you will spend one semester writing up an introduction and methods relating to what you are doing, and then a second semester writing up the results and discussion. You must write your own first draft of everything — this must be entirely your work! Your mentor will then help you with editing. Expect to go back and forth multiple times — this is completely normal and an important part of developing scientific writing and presentation skills.

Other information:

  1. Undergraduates are strongly encouraged to attend lab meetings. Attendance is not required, but we do hope you’ll join us!
  2. Related to the above: we routinely have lab meetings related to the process of science (how do we go from the data I’m collecting to a publication?), skills (e.g., working on an “elevator pitch” — that is, a succinct summary of your research), and ethics (e.g., what counts as plagiarism? Who is harmed when data are falsified?) If any of these topics are of interest to you, or if you have other ideas for a lab meeting, please suggest them!
  3. Undergrads new to the lab can be confused about what to call Professor Duffy/Dr. Duffy/Meghan/Meg/Daphnia Wrangler-In-Chief. Any of those are fine (though the last one has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?) Most people in the lab go with Meg, but undergrads sometimes feel more comfortable sticking with Professor Duffy or Dr. Duffy. Go with whichever you feel most comfortable with, and, if that changes over time, that’s fine, too.
  4. Meg is happy to talk about your career goals, summer plans, letters of recommendation, etc. Just send an email to set up a time. (You can also stop by my office, but there’s a chance that I will have something else scheduled if you use this approach.) In cases where I don’t know the answer to questions you have, I will try very hard to put you in touch with people or resources that can help you.
  5. Please show up on time for meetings.

Other resources:

  1. These two blog posts are aimed at undergrads who are starting to do research in labs. They’re worth reading!
    2. (written by Prof Snarky so it’s, well, snarky)

18 thoughts on “Important information for lab undergrads

  1. Great list, Meghan. I would consider adding items concerning a) data ownership & b) authorship guidelines. On occasion I have seen these issues boil over- especially when a separation is involved. Obviously the entity financially supporting the work “owns” the data- but there may be other criteria in an agreement that imparts co-ownership. This can become difficult when, for example, a student secures some external grant funding that is applied to your ongoing work. Authorship can be a sticky-wicket too, because sometimes things are said that blur the lines, and someone expecting it does not get it, or vice versa.

    • Ah, yes, authorship. We cover this in lab meetings sometimes, associated with readings. In this old post:
      Jeremy wrote:
      My own approach, which I think used to be fairly standard in ecology and is still pretty common, is to think of a paper as arising from three main activities: conceiving and designing the study, conducting the study (e.g., collecting and analyzing the data), and writing the paper. You’re an author if you make a substantive contribution to at least two of those three. You’re the first author if your overall contribution exceeds that of any other author (typically, because you’ve made a substantial contribution to all three activities). And other authors are listed in decreasing order of their overall contribution.
      (I mostly agree with that, though oftentimes put myself as the caboose regardless of my contribution relative to others.)

      I could probably modify that to add in to this sort of document. Though, with undergrads, what counts as conceiving and designing the study (or writing the paper) can sometimes be harder to interpret.

      I have considered adding something more general relating to authorship, which is simply that we love to include undergrads as coauthors when appropriate, but there is no guarantee that things will work out that way. I always *say* this to students when we first meet, but I think some of them end up expecting that they will end up being a coauthor. Experiments don’t always work out, unfortunately.

      • Yes! I think what Jeremy expressed is used by most PIs in science. Other problems can arise though. For example, without my knowledge, a PI once communicated via frequent emails to our outside collaborators/ funding agencies that she had devised all protocols and analyses, and performed all writing of manuscripts. Those claims were pretty far from reality, and she attempted to use them as a means to exclude others from authorship. I confess this is a rare (thank goodness) scenario, but I learned of the importance of documenting individual contributions all along the way.

      • @David:

        Please stay on topic. We’re happy to have the conversation naturally drift from the topic of the original post to related topics. But misconduct by your former PI is completely unrelated to the topic of the post or topics raised in other comments.

      • I thought they were relevant points, as bad experience is often a good teacher. But as you have requested, I will refrain from including those experiences in future discussions.

  2. Great list Meg! This is very similar to what I give my trainees at my lab orientation. I also have sections on productivity, setting goals/milestones, handling organisms (we work with bacteria, yeast, etc.), lab design & layout, ordering supplies, and interpersonal relationships (respect). I find that having this kind of document prevents all kinds of future problems.

    • These would be good additions. Do you have separate documents for different kinds of lab members? My thinking is to modify this to have a version for grad students, a version for postdocs, etc.

      • I originally designed the document primarily for my undergrad thesis student, but it’s proven useful for all other trainees too! I can see the utility of different versions for different groups of trainees, especially if some of their work will involve supervising others.

  3. This is a great way to make sure everyone is on the same page from the start. I’ve also done something similar in a lab website with links to all the IACUC training and contact info for all lab members (and who to contact about what).

    I have also put together personalized documents for each undergrad with specific goals, skills, and expectations for their position/project. We talk about this in the first meeting and make any changes. Then I revise and we both get a copy of the agreed upon version. This really helps if undergrads aren’t meeting expectations and is also useful for students to use for CVs or for me to use for ref letters.

    Thanks for starting the conversation on this!

    • I am just starting down the IACUC path here! I doubt we’ll have any undergrads working on that, though. (They’re pretty limited projects and it doesn’t seem worth all the training.)

      I like the idea of specific goals, skills, and expectations. I think that could help with misunderstandings (which, in my experience, haven’t been common, but are certainly problematic when they occur).

  4. How do you feel about formalizing a multi-tier mentoring situation? You don’t have such a huge megalab that you don’t deal directly with students, but some undergrads might not be as comfortable talking to you about some things – do you think an official pairing of undergrads with grad students or postdocs is helpful? These interactions happen informally all of the time, of course. This kind of situation also could help the more senior members of the lab get more skill with mentoring too.

    • I’m not sure if what we do would be considered formalized, but, yes, I think that, in general, an official pairing of undergrads with grad students or postdocs is helpful. As you say, undergrads are not always as comfortable with me. And, at least as importantly, my grad students and postdocs tend to have more time for hands-on mentoring. So, nearly all of the students in my lab are paired up with a grad student, a postdoc, or my tech. In recent years, there’s only been one undergrad not paired with someone other than me; in that case, it was because he was working on a project that was totally new for the lab, so it was just me and him working on it.

      That pairing is why I refer to the student’s mentor several times, rather than to a specific person (such as myself). Usually, the first drafts of abstracts, posters, etc. go to that mentor (usually a grad student or postdoc) before coming to me.

  5. Excellent! I send that to my students right away🙂
    A tiny contribution for the lab notebooks. I ask them to leave few pages at the beginning to do a table of contents and write the page where we can find a specific protocol or the start of an experiment.

    • Excellent point! My first postdoc did this and it has recently been very helpful when I went back to find some information. I will add this suggestion!

  6. Pingback: Recommended Reads #51 | Small Pond Science

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