Welcome to your new laboratory! After years of graduate and postdoctoral research, you're finally "home." This is a great chance to be creative, learn new skills, and show how productive you are. But at the same time, you have to keep in mind that nothing to advise you or explain what to do is written down. You suddenly find yourself fielding many jobs at once, and it can become so challenging that you have to employ all of your available talents--especially creative organizational planning and communication--just to keep going. You'll also need a good deal of patience to see you through...

In short, your empty lab makes for a pretty good image of what you can expect as a new junior faculty: You're essentially on your own!

In spite of the stress it can create, and the guilt you'll feel from not starting research immediately, setting up your lab teaches you more than you would think; and I must tell you it is great fun.

Order! Order!

Once you arrive in the lab, one of your main jobs is to start ordering. Do not feel guilty for not producing scientific data for the first 4 to 6 months--I believe you have to first produce a quality environment before you're capable of producing quality data.

Start by asking the departmental accountant for advice on how to shop at your institution: It is very helpful, for example, to get an institutional credit card to make purchasing easier at local hardware stores, department stores, bookstores, or for online shopping.

Identify vendors that have contracts with your institution and ask your colleagues for the vendors that have the best sales representatives: It's no good having a less expensive vendor if they don't show up for an entire week after your major centrifuge breaks down. Courtesy is everything: If a rep knocks on your door while you're busy, be frank and polite and simply ask for an appointment at a more suitable time. I found they are more than willing to accommodate my schedule--which results in a much more productive meeting.

Whichever reps you choose, be nice to them! These agents can be very useful in getting you the best deal and service contracts. Ask if they have a laboratory "start-up" program. If they do, you can make some remarkable savings.

Things you can do to stretch your start-up money:

  • Send an e-mail to the departmental listserver, introduce yourself, and attach a list of the instruments you need to start up your laboratory.

  • Ask faculty and technicians in your department, and in others, if they have equipment they haven't used in a long time.

  • Do not disregard broken or very old equipment: Together with a handy undergraduate student I hired, for example, we sorted out the repairable items and he fixed them one by one.

  • Look for used and refurbished equipment vendors over the Internet.

  • Look for the institutional salvage yard which usually stores desks, shelves, and file cabinets.

Reduce the Red Tape

Wouldn't it be nice if you could call a company and get them to immediately dispatch the products you need without any red tape such as purchase order requests? What if you didn't have to put orders out to bid? Actually, you can make shopping for your lab just as easy: Consider arranging "blanket orders" with your departmental accountant for those vendors that you will use often.

While ordering equipment and getting to know institutional staff, you should also spend time hiring helping hands, such as a technician and work-study students. Many universities have work-study student programs in which undergraduates with low financial support are paid by the university (and by you) to work 10 to 12 hours per week. They can do unpacking, labeling, dishwashing, library research, and in some cases preparatory lab work.

If you will use radioactive substances or any kind of biohazardous materials, introduce yourself to the institutional Environmental Health and Safety officers to help you get licensed to perform this kind of work. It's a good idea to stay in touch with these officials; they'll keep you up to date on safety issues.

Under Scrutiny

Also be aware that safety officers and your new colleagues and other department members will, in some ways, be judging how well you manage to set up your laboratory: You'll be under scrutiny and must prove you can design a well thought out plan, follow that plan, improvise, and create a product.

And that is another crucial part of setting up your laboratory: Making sure you are prepared to edit your floor plan. Don't be surprised that mistakes or oversights crop up in your floor plan after your initial visits to the department and future laboratory.

And one last word: Although my lab works great as of today, I suspect that it never will be perfect. But, as you will find out--a perfect lab is not the goal in a scientific career. Your new laboratory is as dynamic as your scientific research, and I am sure that you will improve and adapt it to new projects often in the upcoming years. Good luck to you.

Next time we check out how Nuesslein went from empty labs to a smoothly run research group, and we see the choices he made while designing his floor plan.