In the Lab

The actual process of doing research is complex. To be successful you need to understand how a research laboratory operates. Different people usually perform different roles in the day-to-day conduct of research. You will also need to know some of the basic skills required in order to conduct meaningful experiments, how to work safely, and how to properly document your experiments and the data you obtain from them.

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The Nuts and Bolts

In this section we will examine some of the basic skills you will need to master in order to be a successful researcher. These skills include the ability to perform bibliographic searches of the primary technical literature on your research topic, the ability to read and understand the articles that you find, the ability to correctly use new and unfamiliar methods and instruments, the ability to design experiments and to handle the data you obtain from those experiments.

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Reading the Primary Literature

You will soon discover that it is difficult to do quality research unless you regularly read and actively reflect on the current technical literature in your field. Reading technical articles is a bit different from reading textbooks or popular novels and requires a certain degree of knowledge and skill. In this section, we will offer some advice concerning how to go about mastering this essential skill.

There are Many Technical Journals

There are currently more than 40,000 journals (E. Garfield, 1996). These journals are published either by professional associations such as the American Chemical Society, American Institute of Chemical Engineers, American Association for the Advancement of Science, etc. For the last several years, the number of these journals has been growing at a nearly exponential rate (E. Garfield, 1996). This may make it seem as if reading and keeping pace with even the new research appearing in the current peer reviewed technical literature is a daunting, monumental task. Fortunately, it is well known that the bulk of the truly meaningful work appears to be concentrated in a relatively small subset of these journals. In fact, a mere 2,000 journals appear to account for 85% of the published articles and 95% of those papers that are cited by their peers in their published articles (E. Garfield, 1996). It is also useful to point out that the identity and relative ranking of these journals doesn’t appear to vary much over time; a top ranked journal today is likely to be a top-ranked journal tomorrow. So, as you get going you will find that the bulk of the relevant literature in your field is likely confined to a finite and very manageable set of journals – likely fewer than ten in any one discipline.

Suggestions on How to Read a Technical Journal Article

Below you will find some specific suggestions regarding how to read a technical journal article:

Recognize That They Use a Standard Format.

This is useful information because once you become familiar with the standard format, it is easy to decide where you need to look in an article to find the specific information you need. The majority of the peer-reviewed literature is published in the form of communications or full papers. You will find detailed information concerning the specific format for both of these types of papers in the relevant linked sections.

Each section of a technical journal article contains different information. If you understand what information each section provides, it becomes much easier to find the information you need. A summary of the content of each section follows:

  • Abstracts Abstract the ArticleThe purpose of the abstract is to provide the reader with a succinct summary of the article. Thus, the abstract should provide information about the specific research problem being investigated, the methods used, the results obtained, and what the results of the study mean in the larger context of the research study and in some cases the field of study. This means that the abstract is a good place to look first if you are trying to decided whether or not the paper is relevant to your work.
  • Titles Provide an OverviewPaper titles are usually succinct, stand-alone overviews of a paper’s contents. Authors usually make an effort to include keywords that abstracting services like CAS, ISI, etc. could use in indexing the article. So, if you are new to a field and/or subject, it is useful to take note of the words used in the title as they may provide you with useful keywords to use in any literature searches you may perform.
  • Introductions Introduce the PaperThe introduction section generally provides an overview of the research problem being studied – why it is a worthy problem, what work has already been done by others to solve it, and what the authors may have already done in this area. Introductions are a good place to go if you are new to the subject. Key concepts should be defined and relevant references to key articles in the field cited. These citations in turn will provide you with information on who works in this field.
  • Experimental Section Details the Research MethodologyThe experimental section will provide detailed information on how the authors accomplished the experiments described in their paper. Such information typically includes sources for all reagents and/or materials used, names and models of all instrumentation used, methods for synthesizing any reagents, and provide quantitative information on the characterization of any new materials synthesized.
  • Results and DiscussionSome articles will distinguish between “Results” and “Discussion” while others will combine this information into one section “Results and Discussion.” In papers that contain two distinct sections (“Results” and “Discussion”), the data obtained from the study are introduced in the “Results” section and their interpretation is delayed until the “Discussion” section. In papers that contain one section (“Results and Discussion”), results are introduced and interpreted experiment-by-experiment.

Be Smart about How You Read

Expect to spend some time in order to really understand any technical article that you read. Skim the article through the first time and focus on trying to grasp the “big picture.” What is it that the authors were trying to do? How did they do it? What did they learn? Once you see the big picture, it will easier to focus on adding depth to your understanding by trying to understand the details of the study.

Read actively

Take notes – using your own words – while you read. If you don’t understand something, note that and make a point of asking your advisor, other group members, and/or other faculty about your question as soon as possible thereafter. To avoid potential problems (plagiarism), be careful not to copy down any phrases and/or sentences as later you may not remember that these words weren’t your own.

Discuss what you read with others

You will get much more out of your reading if you discuss what you read with other interested individuals. Below you will find some advice concerning methods you can use to stimulate discussion in your laboratory and/or department.

Practice Makes Perfect!

The more you read the easier it will get – you will gain familiarity with the format and process of reading, the terminology used in your field of study, etc.

Remember that Papers are “Works in Progress”

Unlike textbooks that generally discuss subject matter that is well accepted in your discipline, technical papers describe work that pushes the forefronts of science. As such they describe work in progress. The design of the studies, instrumentation used, quality of the results obtained and the validity of the interpretation of those results are being presented for discussion and/or acceptance by the greater scientific community. As a member of this community, you are encouraged – even obliged – to question and/or challenge their accuracy/validity. One last comment: If you have difficulty reading an article, it may be that the article is not well written.


  • E. Garfield. (1996) The Scientist. September 2, p. 13. “The Significant Scientific Literature Appears in a Small Core of Journals.” Avail. URL:
  • E. Garfield. (1998) The Scientist. February 2, p. 11. “Long-Term vs. Short-Term Journal Impact: Does it Matter.” Avail. URL:
  • H. Beall; J. Trimbur. (2001) “A Short Guide to Writing About Chemistry.”
    New York: Longman.

Searching the Technical Literature

One of the first things you will learn as you begin to do research is the importance of spending quality time researching and reading the relevant research in your field. You will also quickly learn that the bulk of the information you need is published in the form of technical articles rather than textbooks.

In this section we will discuss some useful strategies for identifying the essential or “core” literature in your field that is relevant to your research project:

Online Resources

There are a number of useful on-line resources that will help you identify the core literature in your field. A number of these tools are useful across disciplines but some are discipline specific. A list of some of the most common tools is shown below:

  • American Chemical Society’s SciFinder Scholar
  • Thomson’s Web of Science
  • Pub Med Central
  • Elsevier’s Science Direct
  • Thomson’s Science Citation Index
  • Thomson’s BIOSIS

For information on access to these resources and directions on how to get started using these tools, consult your college or university’s science librarian and/or the library’s website. As these products are quite expensive, depending on your institution’s library budget for electronic resources, it may or may not have all of the resources identified above. Because of the cost many institutions are now partnering with other area institutions to form local library consortia. So, you are strongly encouraged to consult with your science librarian if your library doesn’t provide one of the aforementioned resources as they may be able to direct you to another library located nearby where you can access these tools for your literature search.

Library Based Resources

While the resources available on the internet may make it seem as if everything of value can be found there, it is important to point out that you will miss a lot of valuable resources and work if you limit yourself to internet resources alone. You may find it extremely useful to visit the stacks in your library which hold books related to your project topic. As books are organized by topic in the library, you may find some useful resources simply by browsing the stacks that you wouldn’t have located in any other way.

Some Important questions to consider as you begin your research project:

  • Who are the researchers that are publishing the bulk of the work in the field?
  • What journals should I be reading regularly if I want to stay current in my project and my field?
  • Is my project of current interest to researchers in the field?

General Search Guidelines

  • Begin by searching each word, phrase, and/or name separately. This will give you some idea of how much information is already known relevant to your project. Note that most electronic databases will search for an exact match to the words. If you search for an exact match you may miss some useful references. So consider using truncation (*) and/or wildcards (? or !) as appropriate. Truncation is a useful way to search for any terms that include a common root word. Wildcards are valuable whenever there are more than one correct spelling of a word.
  • If you find a large number of references, you will find it helpful to make your search specific. The easiest way to do this is by combining topics/concepts in your search using the appropriate Boolean logic gates such as:
    • And – will allow you to identify only those resources that contain both of the terms you use in your search
    • Or – will allow you to identify resources containing either of the words used in the search term
    • Not – will allow you to identify resources that don’t contain the term following “not” in the search

    Note that you can use several logic gates when performing a search if there are three or more search terms you wish to use.

  • Once you obtain a set of references, there are several things you should do with the information:
    • Look over your reference list to see what different kinds of information are available to you. Most databases contain bibliographic information for the following types of information:
      • Dissertations
      • (Edited) books
      • Meeting abstracts
      • Patents
      • Review Papers
      • Technical articles including technical notes, communications, and full papers
    • Assess the quality of the sources you find. Not all of the above information has been evaluated for accuracy. The most common form of assessment is peer-review in which one or more scientists and/or engineers, working in the same field on similar research problems, provides an anonymous evaluation of their colleague’s work. It is also useful to point out that there are different levels of peer review. Manuscripts published in technical journals are typically subjected to the highest level of scrutiny by the scientific community. Admittedly it will be somewhat difficult to evaluate the quality of your sources at the start of your project. However, you can begin to gauge which sources to trust by consulting your advisor and other faculty and advanced students (graduate and post doctoral). Although somewhat controversial, librarians and information specialists have been studying trends in the literature for nearly a century. Based on the frequency with which papers published in various journals are cited, these experts have developed a quantitative measure called the impact factor to reflect the impact of these journals.
    • Assess the quantity of the information you have obtained. How many references did you find? If you found only a few references this could mean that little work has been done and/or published in your area or it might mean that your search was too narrowly defined. If you found hundreds of references this may mean that a lot of work has been done and/or published on your topic or it may mean that your search was too broad.
    • Learn from your search results as a method of informing and refining your search. Many bibliographic database programs include tools that will allow you to examine and/or refine your search results according to:
      • date of publications
      • author name
      • journal name
      • language of publication

      Use of these tools with your reference list will allow you to identify who the key researchers are in your field, the names of the journals in which work relevant to your research project is most likely to be published, whether or not the research project is of current interest or not, etc. It is also a good idea to examine the words used in the titles of the materials you find. This may help you identify new and/or different words to use in your literature search so that you find all of the information that is relevant to your project.

  • Don’t forget to save your search results and to document your search strategies in your notebook. You may find it useful to save your results in a format compatible with whatever bibliographic referencing program, such as Endnote® that your laboratory, college and/or university uses. If you aren’t familiar with these programs, they are extremely useful for tracking and properly formatting references in technical papers, grant applications, and dissertations.
  • Obtain (on-line or at your local library) several of the papers you have found in your literature search. Read the introduction section in these papers as this section usually provides background information on the particular research problem that the researchers studied, the methods and materials used, etc. Look up any relevant papers cited there and read the introduction to those papers, too. You will soon find that you are able to identify a “core” literature relevant to your specific research project in this way.
  • Be sure to use several different bibliographic search engines and several different strategies in your literature search. No single database indexes all articles published in all journals. It is important to know what the breadth of the database, i.e., what kinds of information it contains, what time frame is covered, and the frequency with which the database is updated.
  • Periodically throughout your project, perform a new literature search. It is important to realize that the literature isn’t static. This means that it is critical to periodically re-visit the literature for new citations relevant to your research project. Some databases such as BIOSIS and Medline offer customized e-mail alerting services that can be very useful in staying current with one’s field. Some of the services that may be provided include notification when a new issue of a technical journal or when an article published on a particular topic is published.


Mastering New Instrumentation

Today it seems like no matter what kind of research project you are involved in you will likely use one or more different instruments. The goal of this section is provide you with some suggestions regarding how you can as quickly and painlessly as possible learn to make meaningful measurements using new and unfamiliar instrumentation.

1. Familiarize yourself with the basic principles behind how the instrument works.
If you understand how the instrument works, it is often much easier to learn to operate it. Useful resources you may wish to consult in learning about the instrument you will use include textbooks, monographs, technical articles, and the world-wide-web. For example, many instrument manufacturers provide extensive background information on their products on-line and some even provide training materials gratis upon request.

2. Locate and read the manufacturer’s instrument manual
If instrument manual not readily available in your laboratory or facility, locate the telephone number for the instrument manufacturer (look on the internet) and see if they can provide you with a replacement copy. If you cannot locate a copy of the original manual, it may be possible to find a set of directions for your instrument that has been written and posted on the internet. Though it might be tempting to use this strategy, remember that any information you find on the internet may be incomplete and/or inaccurate so approach the use of this kind of information with due caution.

3. If an instrument manual is not available, consider writing your own set of directions once you have mastered the use of the instrument.
These are referred to as standard operating protocols (SOP) in industry. View the preparation of an SOP as a useful opportunity for you to practice your communications skills, hone your understanding of how to use the instrument, and as a mechanism for giving something back to your professor and/or research laboratory.

4. Run a standard sample on the instrument.
In learning to use a new instrument, it is wise to first gain self-confidence and demonstrate competency by running a standard sample. Most instruments when they are first sold come with a standard sample. A standard sample is a material that is stable, of known/reliable composition, and one for which the quantitative goodness of the measurements afforded by that particular instrument are well established and also likely easily obtained.

Experimental Design Considerations

  • Quality data only result from thoughtfully designed experiments. So, take your time, think through each experiment in advance of beginning your work in the laboratory, and discuss your plans with others including your advisor.
  • When designing experiments identify all of the potential variables in the system, control them, and vary only one variable at a time.
  • Look for and eliminate all possible sources of error.
  • Use the highest quality experimental methods, reagents, and instrumentation available. Purify your reagents if you know that they are impure. Collaborate if necessary in order to obtain access to instrumentation and methods that are of the highest quality. Make sure that your methods and instruments will produce data with the required degree of accuracy and precision.
  • Establish good sampling methodology. This means determine what size sample must be analyzed in order for the results to be statistically meaningful for your research problem. Replicate analysis should always be performed on a series of independently prepared samples. Too often in the classroom, laboratory experiments emphasize the analysis of three replicate samples. Students may walk away with the mistaken impression that three is the magic number that should be used in all experiments. Analysis of three samples, however, is justified as useful pedagogically in that it provides students with the opportunity to execute the experiment several times and therefore develop their lab technique in what is admittedly a very finite block of time. The reality is that rarely is three samples an adequate number of samples that will produce statistically significant results in an experiment.
  • Always carry out any necessary control experiments.
  • Record all data in a permanent laboratory notebook. If the data are obtained using a computer-interfaced instrument, a minimum of two copies of the data should be preserved.

Handling Experimental Data

We have an ethical obligation to check our data and make sure that they are accurate before publishing them in the literature. This doesn’t mean that we must be 100% certain before we communicate our findings but it does mean that we should have carefully eliminated all sources of error, ruled out any other reasonable hypotheses first.

All data – even negative results – must be reported. Data should never be “edited” so that they fit our hypotheses, no matter how confident we may be about the validity of our hypotheses. A suspect data point (note: not data points) should only be removed if you can legitimately meet the statistical requirements for an outlier. Report the results of all of your experiments to your advisor no matter how attractive or unattractive you feel the results may be.

Approach your work with a healthy sense of skepticism. Be critical of your results and of your interpretation. Be careful not to jump too quickly to conclusions. That is investigator bias. A good way to make sure that you aren’t wearing blinders is to present your data to your advisor and/or other member’s of your research group. If they don’t see what you see in the data, it may be that the trend you see in the data really isn’t there.

When using a new, unfamiliar method of data analysis always exercise due caution. This is particularly important today as we have access on our computer desktops to some very sophisticated methods of data analysis. Sometimes, it is simply too easy to use these programs without fully understanding the underlying methods, their assumptions, and limitations. Don’t use methods that you don’t understand and cannot defend. Don’t use something simply because your advisor tells you to either. Ignorance is not a valid excuse for misusing statistical methods of data analysis. Ask your advisor and/or consult a statistician if you don’t understand what you are doing, learn the background on the method, and then you will be able to apply it with confidence and skill to the analysis of your data.

Research Team

Today due to the increasing complexity of scientific research problems, research is often carried out by several individuals working together as a team. All the members of your team will not necessarily be scientists or engineers though they likely have a strong background in a science of technology-related field. You may find yourself working closely with graphics designers, accountants, lawyers, etc. You will find good people skills and good communications skills important assets when involved in team efforts.

Your research advisor is the person who will oversee your project in the research laboratory. Frequently students are involved in undergraduate research experiences that take place in colleges or universities. There, your advisor is most likely to be a professor, a faculty member affiliated with a specific academic department. However, you may be supervised by a postdoctoral student, graduate student or a laboratory technician. If you are involved in a research experience at a government laboratory or at a company, you are likely to work as a member of a team that is supervised by several individuals at different levels within the organization. Your immediate supervisor most likely has some advanced degree – a M.S. or Ph.D.

Professional titles are not simply for “show.” A title tells you a great deal of information concerning the level of experience, professional reputation, and the responsibilities that an individual has within an organization. In this section we will discuss the significance of the titles of some of the individuals you are likely to encounter during an undergraduate research experience.

Articles on Research Team


Analysts are responsible for the statistical analysis of the data generated by the discovery and research & development scientists and work collaboratively with these individuals and research teams. They may use existing statistical algorithms or techniques or they may develop new algorithms or techniques allowing the analysis of large and/or complex data sets. The analysis they carry out may take several hours or even days to complete so analysts may work on several projects at the same time. Analysts often have a have bachelor’s or graduate degree in mathematics or computer science and/or a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering with a concentration in mathematics or computer science.

Industrial Lab Technicians

Lab Technicians play a vital role in discovery and research & development research teams providing scientists with the needed technical support to accomplish their work. Under the supervision of scientists, lab technicians carry out the bulk of the routine experimental tasks that need to be performed on a day-to-day basis in the research laboratory. These individuals usually have an Associate of Arts degree from an accredited training program.


Operator is a title unique to the Manufacturing or Operations unit in a private company. In a biotechnology company, this unit is responsible for the scale-up of the synthesis process for any promising candidate drugs and to streamline these processes for environmental impact, efficiency, and cost savings. Operators are engineers with a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in engineering. Manufacturing or Operations Managers are usually engineers with a doctorate degree in engineering whose job it is to oversee the work of the operators and ensure that the unit meets its deadlines.


Depending on the type of academic institution at which your faculty mentor works, he/she may be more or less involved in certain kinds of activities. Of course, every individual and every academic institution is unique so take our comments with a grain of salt!

In general faculty who work at community colleges, primarily undergraduate institutions and comprehensive universities spend the majority of their time and effort on student instruction while faculty who work at graduate research universities tend to spend a significant fraction of their effort in research related activities in addition to student instruction at the undergraduate and/or graduate levels. Faculty salary, teaching and service assignments, and workloads are often determined by academic rank. There are three academic ranks: assistant, associate, and full professor.

Assistant Professor

For the first six years of a faculty member’s career they are Assistant Professors. They are generally regarded as probationary faculty members. Their teaching, research, and service accomplishments are usually evaluated annually by the other tenured members of their department. Faculty at the rank of Assistant Professor usually do not have tenure.


Normally during the sixth year a probationary faculty member’s teaching, research, and service contributions to his/her department and discipline are evaluated by his/her peers both inside and outside the university. The particular process is somewhat unique to each institution but in general involves some form of evaluation at all levels of the institution from the faculty member’s own department all the way up to and including the Board of Trustees of the college or university. If the accomplishments in each area are determined to be strong, the faculty member is awarded “tenure” by his/her institution. This means that unless the faculty member commits a grievous act, they will hold their position at the college or university until they choose to leave. Tenure is truly a unique academic phenomenon. Tenure allows a faculty member the freedom to share their ideas, pursue research projects, etc. that may test current societal norms or theories and which allow both the individual, the university, and society to make significant advances that might otherwise not be possible.

Associate Professor

Upon receiving tenure, at most institutions faculty are also promoted to Associate Professor. Some graduate research universities will recognize probationary faculty at an earlier stage however. So, the rank of Associate Professor does not necessarily mean that the person is tenured.

Full Professor

Unlike promotion to the rank of Associate Professor, promotion to Full Professor does not occur at any set time. When an Associate Professor achieves international distinction in their discipline, they may apply for promotion to the rank of full professor. The evaluation process for promotion is very similar to that for tenure – the faculty member submits a dossier documenting his/her record of accomplishments in teaching, research, and service. The dossier is evaluated first by the individual’s colleagues in the department who hold the rank of full professor. Upon a positive vote, the dossier is then evaluated at increasingly higher levels of the college or university. The rank of full professor is the highest academic rank that is accorded a faculty member at any college or university.


Scientists are generally the individuals carrying out the day-to-day research in the Discovery, the Research & Development, and the Quality units (Quality Control and Quality Assurance) in a private company. Depending on the individual’s education and work experience, there are several different titles for scientists such as:

Undergraduates working in the private sector usually assist a scientist in the day-to-day conduct of their work carrying out experiments, learning how to properly document experimental results, and participate in writing reports about the findings and in oral presentations to their group.

Assistant Scientist or Research Associate


Assistant Scientist or Research Associate is the title often associated with entry-level positions at the bachelor’s level. These individuals work under the supervision of senior scientists to carry out experiments, collect and analyze data, and present research findings to their team leader and/or in more formal settings to other groups.

Senior Scientist or Principal Scientist


Scientists with a M.S. and some work experience or with a Ph.D. are usually referred to as Senior Scientists or Principal Scientists. Senior Scientists are usually responsible for the design, implementation, and execution of research projects and the preparation and delivery of oral conference presentations and peer-reviewed technical papers. They typically supervise one or more scientists and/or lab technicians who carry out the actual research work.

Research Fellow


Many companies reward/recognize their most accomplished, productive scientists and engineers formally through membership in a select society and with a title such as “Research Fellow.” These individuals are usually found in the Discovery or Research & Development units and are involved in cutting-edge research projects of vital interest to the company.

Postdoctoral Students

Postdoctoral students or “post docs” as they are frequently called are recently graduated Ph.D.’s who wish to acquire additional research experience before beginning their scientific careers in academe or industry. Often post docs are students who are interested in pursuing a career in academe for which experience as a post doc is generally perceived of as a prerequisite. Post doctoral students typically identify a mentor and research area based on their past and current interests and technical expertise. Two or three year appointments are the norm for these positions. In some fields such as biology postgraduate students may pursue two or more post doctoral fellowships before starting their own independent research careers. In other fields such as chemistry, postgraduates usually complete one postdoctoral fellowship before looking for full time employment. Although there are teaching postdoctoral fellowships, the majority of postdoctoral students spend most of their time working on one or more research projects with a strong interest in bringing their projects to full fruition – presenting and publishing as much of their work as possible in the highest quality technical journals.

Graduate Students

Students who have successfully completed their undergraduate study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics frequently continue their education for two or more years in order to obtain an advanced degree. There are two advanced degrees commonly awarded in this country the Master of Arts (M.A.) or Master of Science (M.S.) degree and the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree. An important component of most M.S. and Ph.D. programs is the completion of a thesis or dissertation that documents the completion of an original research project.

M.A. or M.S

The Master of Arts and the Master of Science degrees can be awarded either for coursework study or for completion of a program of study that includes some coursework and a thesis. These programs of study are typically two years long. In some fields of study such as engineering, the masters degree is normally considered the terminal degree while in other fields of study such as the physical sciences the doctoral degree is the terminal advanced degree.


This is the highest degree awarded for scholarly study in any field of study carried out at a university today. The Ph.D. is the normal prerequisite for those individuals who wish to pursue a career in academe. The Ph.D. degree is awarded for demonstration of aptitude and ability to carry out and effectively communicate independent research in one’s chosen field of study. The program of study usually includes completion of a minimum of a year of advanced coursework, passing a series of examinations often referred to as cumulative exams or “cumes”, and the successful completion of a written dissertation describing an original series of investigations in one’s field and the oral defense of this work before a committee of one’s peers. Unlike the bachelor’s and master’s degrees, there is no set period of study for the Ph.D. degree. Currently in the physical sciences, the average time-to-degree is approximately five years.

Teaching Assistantship (TA)

In the sciences and engineering students pursuing an advanced degree often receive financial support in the form of a teaching assistantship. This form of financial support is often awarded to students entering a doctoral program for their first year of study. Students supported on a teaching assistantship receive a stipend in exchange for teaching one or more sections of a recitation (problem solving session) or laboratory section of one or more courses each semester. Some graduate students beyond the first year of study are also supported on teaching assistantships. The disadvantage of being supported on a teaching assistantship beyond the first year of study is that the student must balance the demands of their teaching assistantship with those imposed by their graduate research advisor in the laboratory in order to make adequate progress on their thesis research project.

Research Assistantship (RA)

The other common form of financial support is a research assistantship. Students supported on a research assistantship receive a stipend in exchange for performing research that is frequently related to their thesis research. The advantage of being supported on a research assistantship is that it often allows the graduate student the time and energy needed to focus on their thesis research project. However, depending on the source of the financial support, the student may be required to work on a research project that will not contribute toward their thesis. If the source of the support is a private company then there may be confidentiality issues that may limit or even prohibit the presentation and publication of the research findings. Consequently, it is important for a graduate student accepting a research assistantship to inquire in advance concerning the issue of confidentiality in order to determine whether or the not research, in part or in whole, can become part of their thesis, to determine whether or not it can be presented publicly by the student at conferences, and to determine whether or not the work can be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Lab Technicians

In larger research groups and in certain disciplines, your research group may include one or more technicians. These individuals are often responsible for student training and/or routine maintenance of sophisticated instrumentation and or the execution of advanced research protocols. In some laboratories, these individuals may carry out their own research projects in addition to performing the aforementioned duties. They often have a bachelor’s degree but may be Ph.D. scientists, too.

The Laboratory Notebook

As you begin your undergraduate research project, you should document everything that you do in writing in a lab notebook. As a general rule, you can use any permanently bound book containing sequentially numbered pages for this purpose. Ideally, a notebook that is labeled “laboratory notebook” is preferable as it likely has been designed for this purpose. If you decide to use another kind of book for this purpose, make sure that the paper is acid-free and that the notebook looks well constructed (cover, binding, etc.). Since this notebook normally remains the property of the laboratory and/or institution at which you are working, it is best to ask your advisor for a laboratory notebook and to use whatever notebook you are given for this purpose.

The Purpose of a Laboratory Notebook

A real time record of what was done at what specific point in time on a project for the individuals and/or organizations that may have funded the research, for your advisor and you to facilitate your efforts in publishing and/or patenting your work. A good record gives confidence in the reproducibility of your work, aids others in building on your research.

What to Record in a Laboratory Notebook

What should you record in a laboratory notebook? Everything that is directly relevant to your work. Your laboratory notebook should provide literature citations for any relevant research and/or protocols that you follow in your work. Your notebook should provide a detailed record of exactly what you do in the laboratory in order to obtain your experimental results. The record should be as detailed as possible. If you did not know how to do something then assume that the reader of your notebook will also not know how to do it. You should include information on all the reagents, equipment and instrumentation that you use. For instrumentation and equipment: What model? What make? Where are they located? For reagents: What supplier/manufacturer? What level purity? What lot number? Where is the supplier/manufacturer located? Your notebook should also contain all of your experimental results where practical and if impractical you should include a drawing or photograph that shows the critical elements/characteristics. If you use some computer program to process and/or analyze your data, you should explain exactly how the data were processed. If your data are in electronic format, you should provide the names of all the data files and identify where the data are stored in the laboratory. Bottom-line: When in doubt, write it out!

Format for a Laboratory Notebook

Be sure to consult your research advisor to determine what policies he/she may require in terms of notebook format. In general, there is no set format one must follow. As a general rule, it is a good idea to set aside several pages at the start of the notebook for use as a table of contents. This will help you and others find things in the notebook quickly later. A brief (10 word) description of the experiment, date – including year, and the page numbers on which the experiment is described constitute a useful table of contents entry.

Each entry should begin on a new page of the notebook. A descriptive title should appear at the top of the page together with the data on which the work is being done (be sure to include the year). Note that exactly the same information should appear in your table of contents at the front of your notebook. Get in the habit of identifying each day’s work in your table of contents the day you are doing the actual work. It only takes a second and will make your notebook that much more valuable both to you and future students in being able to locate past experiments and results.

Each page of your notebook should ideally contain one day’s work. If you need more than one page to record a day’s worth of work then do so. However, if you have empty space at the bottom of a page do not begin a new day’s work there. Rather get in the habit of drawing a single diagonal line through the empty space and then begin the next day’s work on a fresh page.

If you believe that your work will result in a patent, then it is useful to make sure that someone else (your advisor or a colleague in the laboratory) “witnesses” your work. This means that they read through each day’s work and then initial and date that page. Your witness need not be an expert in your field of research. Their role is simply to acknowledge that the work you have described was written into the official record on those pages of your laboratory notebook on the date indicated.

Ultimately, if you want your work to become part of the archival primary literature as a peer-reviewed publication, you will need to be able to describe exactly the materials (source and quality), instrumentation (make and model), procedures, experimental conditions, instrumental parameters, and data processing parameters were used to acquire your experimental results. This information is usually summarized in the “Experimental” or “Research Methods” section of a technical paper. If you are planning on writing a thesis, you will need the information for the “Experimental” chapter. For this reason you should get in the habit of writing everything in your laboratory notebook. Ideally, you should record this information as you go along where it is relevant to each day’s work. However, if you use the same reagents or instruments over and over again you might dedicate a page near the back of your notebook specifically for this purpose.


  • H.M. Kanare. (1985) “Writing the Laboratory Notebook.” Washington D.C.: American Chemical Society.
  • R. Lewis. (1998) The Scientist. February 2, p. 14. “Laboratory Notebooks Chronicle a Scientist’s Progress.” Avail. URL:
  • A.J. Rayl (1991) The Scientist. November 11, p. 18. “Misconduct Case Stresses Importance of Good Notebook Keeping.” Avail. URL:

Articles on The Laboratory Notebook

Do’s and Don’ts

  • The lab notebook is not your personal property and should never be removed from the laboratory. Laboratory notebooks that relate to inventions that have been patented must be retained as evidence by the inventor and/or assignee for the life of the patent plus six years.
  • Write your full name (first and last), the title of your research project, contact information (current local address, e-mail and phone number where you can be reached) and the date you began this notebook on the cover
  • Do use ball point pens using blue or black permanent ink. Do not use pencils or water soluble inks to ensure that your entries are permanent, cannot be erased or smeared.
  • Be honest. All procedures and experimental data whether you regard them as “good” or “bad” at the time should be recorded in the lab notebook.
  • Do sign and date each page of your notebook. Be sure to include the year when you date entries.
  • Don’t write anything on slips of paper, paper towels, etc. with the intent of later copying this information into your notebook. First, that time will never arrive. Secondly, later you will forget key details that should have been recorded in your notebook at the time the experiment was performed.
  • Don’t worry about making it “perfect” – your handwriting, etc.
  • Don’t leave blank spaces. If you have room left over on a page after recording an experiment, draw a single diagonal line through the remaining space.
  • Don’t obliterate or modify entries after the fact. If you make a mistake simply put a single line through the mistake, initial and date it, and write the correct information next to the mistake.
  • Never remove any pages from the notebook
  • Don’t use personally defined abbreviations or acronyms. If you want to use abbreviations or acronyms, you should define these somewhere in the notebook – the front or back inside covers of your notebook and/or the last few pages of your notebook could be used for this purpose.

Sample Notebook

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Title Date Page #

Dialysis of cytochrome c into methanol 11/8/08 4

Dialysis of cytochrome c into acetonitrile 11/8/08 5

Dialysis of cytochrome c into methanol and electrochemistry 11/10/08 6

Dialysis of cytochrome c into methanol 11/16/08 7-8

UV-vis characterization of cytochrome c in methanol 11/25/08 9-10

Direct electrochemistry of cytochrome c at Gold in methanol 12/2/08 11

Purification of Cytochrome c 12/6/08 20-25

Preparation of 0.076 M Sodium Phosphate Buffer, pH 7.0 12/6/08 20

Sample Notebook Page

Purification of Cytochrome c (cyt c) PAM 10/17/08

Primary reference: Brautigan, D.L.; Ferguson-Miller, S.; Margoliash, E. Methods in Enzymology 1978, volume 53D, pp 131-132.

A. Preparation of 0.076 M Sodium Phosphate Buffer, pH 7.0

Primary reference: Perrin, D.D.; Dempsey, B. Buffers for pH and Metal Ion Control. Chapman and Hall: New York, 1974; p. 138.

B. Preparation of 250 mL of 0. 15 M Na2HPO4

Calculation: 0.15 mol/L * 0.25 L * 141.96 g/mole = 5.324 g needed

I weighed 5.3240 g Na2HPO4 and transferred it quantitatively into a 250 mL volumetric flask to which I added distilled (DI) H2O to the mark. I mixed the solution 20x by inversion.

C. Preparation of 250 mL of 0. 15 M H2NaPO4

Calculation: 0.15 mol/L * 0.25 L * 130.99 g/mole = 5.175 g needed

I weighed 5.1750 g H2NaHPO4.H2O and transferred it quantitatively into a 250 mL volumetric flask to which I added DI H2O to the mark. I mixed the solution 20x by inversion.

D. Preparation of 500 mL of 0. 076 M Sodium Phosphate Buffer, pH 7.0

I combined 97.5 mL of 0.15 M NaH2PO4 (part A) and 152.5 mL of 0.15 M H2NaPO4 (part B) in a 300 mL beaker and measured the pH. The pH was 6.96 so I transferred the solution to a 500 mL volumetric flask which I then filled to the mark with DI H2O. The pH was 6.99. I stored the buffer in the cold room.

Useful Notebook Checklist

is permanently bound?

has consecutively numbered pages?

has a cover that identifies the project, investigator (you), and the period of work (MMDDYR – MMDDYR)?

has a table of contents identifying the experiments performed, the relevant pages, and dates of work?

has legible entries?

possibly contains errors/mistakes, which have been crossed out, initialed, and dated?

has each dated entry begin on a new page?

uses a diagonal line to mark empty space?

contains an accurate record of what I have done?

contains a complete record of what I have done (I could reproduce the results by following the procedures as written in the notebook?)

Interactive Notebook Quiz

Purification of Cytochrome A descriptive title should appear at the top of each page of the notebook that summarizes the work that appears on that page.
c (cyt c) It is best not to use abbreviations. However, if you want to use an abbreviation you need to define it somewhere in your laboratory notebook. You can define acronyms on the page of the notebook where you intend to use them. However, if you intend to use the acronym on several pages, it is best to set up a page in the front or back of your notebook for this purpose.
PAM 10/17/08 Each notebook page should be dated. The date should include the month, day and year that the work was done and the initials of the person who performed this work.
Primary reference: Brautigan, D.L.; Ferguson-Miller, S.; Margoliash, E. Methods in Enzymology 1978, volume 53D, pp 131-132. If there are useful literature references that describe the procedures you are following; the full literature citations should be provided. The complete procedure does not need to be described, but you should describe any deviations you make from the literature protocols you are claiming to use.

A. Preparation of 0.076 M Sodium Phosphate Buffer, pH 7.0 An entry with an appropriate descriptive title should appear in the table of contents for each new day’s work.
Primary reference: Perrin, D.D.; Dempsey, B. Buffers for pH and Metal Ion Control. Chapman and Hall: New York, 1974; p. 138.If there are useful literature references that describe the procedures you are following; the full literature citations should be provided. The complete procedure does not need to be described, but you should describe any deviations you make from the literature protocols you are claiming to use.
B. Preparation of 250 mL of 0. 15 M Na2HPO4

Calculation: 0.15 mol/L * 0.25 L * 141.96 g/mole = 5.324 g needed Although not necessary, it is useful to write out any calculations relevant to the work you are doing. This way if you make a mistake you can find it later. Also, later if you forget how to do the calculation, you will have an example on which to fall back. Finally, by including a sample calculation you make it easier for others to repeat and build on your work in the future.I weighed 5.3240 g Always record experimental data using the correct number of significant figures.Na2HPO4 and transferred it quantitatively into a 250 mL volumetric flask to which I added distilledIt is best not to use abbreviations. However, if you want to use an abbreviation you need to define it somewhere in your laboratory notebook. You can define acronyms on the page of the notebook where you intend to use them. However, if you intend to use the acronym on several pages, it is best to set up a page in the front or back of your notebook for this purpose. H2O to the mark. I mixed the solution 20x by inversion.

C. Preparation of 250 mL of 0. 15 M H2NaPO4
Calculation: 0.15 mol/L * 0.25 L * 130.99 g/mole = 5.175 g needed Although not necessary, it is useful to write out any calculations relevant to the work you are doing. This way if you make a mistake you can find it later. Also, later if you forget how to do the calculation, you will have an example on which to fall back. Finally, by including a sample calculation you make it easier for others to repeat and build on your work in the future.
I weighed5.1750 g Always record experimental data using the correct number of significant figures. H2NaHPO4.H2O and transferred it quantitatively into a 250 mL volumetric flask to which I added DI H2O It is best not to use abbreviations. However, if you want to use an abbreviation you need to define it somewhere in your laboratory notebook. You can define acronyms on the page of the notebook where you intend to use them. However, if you intend to use the acronym on several pages, it is best to set up a page in the front or back of your notebook for this purpose. to the mark. I mixed the solution 20x by inversion.
D. Preparation of 500 mL of 0. 076 M Sodium Phosphate Buffer, pH 7.0
I combined 97.5 mLAlways record experimental data using the correct number of significant figures. of 0.15 M NaH2PO4 (part A) and 152.5 mL Always record experimental data using the correct number of significant figures. of 0.15 M H2NaPO4 (part B) in a 300 mL beaker and measured the pH. The pH was 6.96 Always record experimental data using the correct number of significant figures. so I transferred the solution to a 500 mL volumetric flask which I then filled to the mark with DI H2O. The pH was 6.99 Always record experimental data using the correct number of significant figures. I stored the buffer in the cold room.

Lab Safety

While you are carrying out undergraduate research you will likely use instrumentation, materials and reagents that have the potential to harm you, your co-workers and perhaps even the environment. Consequently, it is important to spend time at the outset of your project learning the safety standards of your discipline and workplace to insure everyone’s good health and safety.

Important note: the information on this website should not be viewed as a substitute for obtaining the appropriate safety training available in your department and/or institution.


Laboratories (U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration) Avail. URL:

Articles on Lab Safety

Laboratory Safety Training

Today a formal program of safety training is a required element in chemical hygiene plans and should be completed before beginning any actual work in the laboratory. Training usually involves review of the department’s chemical hygiene plan and waste disposal procedures and discussion of the significant physical and health hazards associated with the specific type of research and instruction in specific procedures that researchers should use in order to prevent and limit exposure to the health hazards in that workplace. At some institutions training may take place on-line and require the completion of some type of quiz and/or examination. Depending on the nature of the work you will be doing, you may also be expected to complete some specialty training as well. Additional safety training is normally required for individuals working with chemicals, biological materials, radioactivity, lasers, and/or heavy machinery

Safety in the Field

Research in many fields such as wildlife and marine ecology, geology, etc. involve field work. Field work presents its own unique set of safety challenges. If you are going to work in the field then the following are important safety considerations.

Good Physical Health

You should be in good physical health and able to undertake strenuous physical activity. Many field sites are remote. Access often requires hiking over rugged terrain or even rock climbing. The field station itself may be primitive. Your studies may require that you sleep in a tent and cook outdoors over an open flame. You may need to operate heavy equipment such as a chain saw. Outdoor weather is always a consideration – particularly in terms of extremes of temperature. Your work may be abroad and require that you receive immunization for potentially serious illness such as communicable disease beforehand. If you have allergies or serious medical conditions such as diabetes it is important that you bring an adequate supply of your medications with you.


You should make sure that you have received the appropriate training for the environment in which you will do field work. Your work may require you to mount a safety ladder and work at elevated heights, use climbing equipment, swim, dive, fly (small planes, helicopters), operate a boat (requires a valid license), work in chest waders, know wilderness first aid/CPR, be able to use survival skills, operate a GPS, handle wild animals, and/or toxic materials (radioactivity, biohazards, chemical hazards, compressed gases).

Advance Planning

If you are involved in international research, it is important to obtain your passport and visas in order well in advance. Make sure that you have health insurance coverage. Obtain any recommended vaccinations and make sure that you are aware of any health concerns and what food is safe to eat in the country and region of the country in which you will be working. Check with the State Department so you know if there are any travel warnings or restrictions.

You need to know and understand the potential hazards presented by the area in which you will do field work. For example, there may be predatory animals (e.g., bears), venomous amphibians, or toxic plants. The dangers may also be human as the area in which you work may be an area in which there has been past/present civil or political unrest. You should make sure that you know what the precautions are for each potentially hazardous situation and that you have received the training to handle these situations. Accidents are always possible when working outdoors – cuts, sprains, falls, insect bites, sunburn, and dehydration are not uncommon. Consequently it is vital that you follow the direction of your supervisor in the field at all times. Do not engage in horseplay.


Chemical Hygiene Plan

Each workplace using chemicals in its work is required by law to have a written program referred to as the chemical hygiene plan (CHP) that outlines the department and institutions procedures, training plans, and the protective measures in use to protect its workers from the health hazards associated with their work. Before beginning work in your laboratory, be sure to contact your Office of Environmental Health and Safety and obtain a copy of your department’s CHP and familiarize yourself with the safety program.

Prudent Practices

The following are some useful guidelines that applicable no matter what kind of project you are engaged in.

  • Never engage in horseplay or rough housing in the laboratory.
  • Do not bring any food or drink into the laboratory and do not eat, drink, or smoke there.
  • Do not smell or taste any chemicals or other lab samples for any reason.
  • Never work alone or unsupervised.
  • Do not work when you are exhausted or emotionally upset.
  • Don’t perform any experiments that you haven’t discussed in advance with your research advisor.
  • Never leave experiments running unattended in the laboratory.
  • Dress appropriately. This means your torso and arms should be well covered. Do not wear loose or sloppy clothing that could get caught in any equipment or come in contact with any chemicals. Long hair should be pulled back out of the way of any reagents or machinery.
  • Wear the appropriate gloves, safety glasses or goggles, and a clean lab coat when handling chemical and/or biohazardous materials.
  • Remove your gloves and wash your hands before using the keyboard associated with any instrumentation in the laboratory.
  • Never pipette by mouth.
  • Clean and disinfect all glassware, instrumentation, and lab surfaces after each experiment. Don’t let sinks become filled with dirty glassware.
  • Transport solvents and other reagents in secondary containers.
  • If an accident or spill happens, be sure to notify your supervisor so that the appropriate protocols can be observed.
  • Wash your hands before you exit the laboratory and especially after handling biohazards or chemical reagents.

Protective Personal Equipment

Personal protective equipment is a general term used to describe anything you can wear and/or use in order to protect yourself when working with chemical or biological hazards. Common examples of personal protective equipment include: footwear, lab coats, gloves, safety goggles and glasses, face shields, hard hats, respirators, and fume hoods.


Closed toe, leather shoes provide the best general protection. Sandals, sneakers, etc. do not provide adequate protection in case of spills (biological or chemical hazards), or when handling heavy objects, tools, or involved in activities where heavy objects might fall onto the feet. If you will be involved with heavy machinery, steel-reinforced safety shoes may be required. There are also safety shoes specially designed to provide protection against extreme temperatures, caustic chemicals, and/or electrical hazards. . If you will be working in a laboratory presenting any of these hazards for an extended period of time, you should contact your Office of Environmental Health and Safety to see if they will process a request for the purchase of a pair of the appropriate safety shoes.

Lab Coat

Lab coats are normally worn in the research laboratory to protect your normal clothing against biological or chemical spills and to provide some additional body protection beyond that provided by your normal clothing. Important considerations in selecting an appropriate lab coat are the types of hazards (biological, chemical, fire, cold, etc.) to which you may be exposed. To be effective, the fabric should be resistant to the materials you are using. In addition, a lab coat should fit properly (you should be able to move comfortably in it with the coat buttoned or snapped down the front), be clean, and have long sleeves. Lab coats are normally provided by one’s laboratory for the duration of the project.


When handling chemical, physical, and/or biological hazards that can enter the body through the skin, it is important to wear the proper protective gloves. Note that there is no perfect glove: There is no kind of glove that will protect you from all hazards. There are several different kinds of gloves: disposable, fabric, leather, and metal mesh.

  • Disposable – These are generally used to provide protection against biological or chemical hazards. There are two common kinds of gloves you will find in most biological and/or chemical laboratories – latex and nitrile gloves. Latex gloves provide good general protection in a biological research lab but provide no protection against common chemical hazards. Their use has decreased somewhat in recent years as some individuals have exhibited serious even life-threatening allergic reactions to latex. Nitrile gloves provide good general protection against a wide range of common solvents and chemical reagents. There are many other glove materials available which provide protection against particular chemical hazards. It is important to note that all glove materials are eventually permeated by some chemical reagent. Therefore to be maximally effective, the gloves should be changed whenever they become contaminated by the chemical reagent. The key to glove use is identifying the proper gloves for the job in question. For example, Kevlar gloves will provide good protection from extreme temperatures. Nitrile gloves provide good short term protection when handling a wide range of organic solvents and reagents. Depending on the nature of the hazards peculiar to your research project, you may find that you need several different kinds of gloves in order to be adequately protected. Best Glove Company’s website is a good resource to consult when selecting the appropriate gloves for your work.
  • Fabric – Cotton gloves are often used in pilot plants to absorb moisture and provide a better grip when working with heavy machinery.
  • Leather – Leather gloves provide good protection when working with flames or when sparks may be present. They are also often worn together with insulated liners when working with electrical hazards.
  • Metal Mesh – Metal mesh gloves are preferred when working with heavy machinery and/or cutting tools.

Additional Considerations

In addition to identifying the correct kind of glove, it is also important to make sure that the gloves that you use fit properly. Most gloves are commercially available in several different sizes. If you will be wearing gloves for an extended period of time (several hours or more), you may find it useful to purchase a box of disposable cotton glove liners that you can wear underneath your disposable gloves. Glove liners absorb perspiration and help minimize skin irritation.


Safety Glasses and Goggles

As a general rule, safety glasses with side shields should be worn at all times in the research laboratory even if you wear prescription glasses. Safety goggles rather than safety glasses are preferred whenever a chemical splash is a potential hazard. The side shields on safety glasses are simply not as effective as goggles in protecting your eyes from small particles and liquid splatter.

Most laboratories provide safety glasses or goggles to their researchers. If you wear prescription glasses and will be working in the lab for an extended period of time, you should contact your Office of Environmental Health and Safety to see if they will process a request for prescription safety glasses (special request). If you wear contact lens underneath safety glasses be sure to consider the additional potential risk that your contact lenses may present if dust, caustic reagents or solvents get underneath your lenses and in your eyes. Removing your contact lenses in such a situation may take added time and increase your risk of injury.

Face Shields

A face shield should be worn whenever there the entire face needs protection. This means any time there is a potential that an aerosol of chemical or biological hazardous material may be created or whenever chemical or biohazards could splatter, or whenever there is the potential for flying particles or sparks (e.g., high pressure work, welding, soldering, machining, fire, explosion, etc.). A face shield should always be worn whenever handling tissue samples or animals where there is the potential for infectious transmission. Safety glasses or goggles should always be worn underneath a face shield for maximal protection.

Hard Hats

Hard hats are normally worn when in construction and/or pilot plant work when falling objects or electrical conductors are potential workplace hazards. There are two general types of top hats: Type I and Type II. The former are designed to provide protection for the top of the head while the latter provide protection for the top and off-center protection as well. An excellent introduction to hard hat safety is available on-line at:


Respirators filter contaminants, either small airborne particles or chemicals including gases, out of the air. Whenever possible you should structure your work so that it can be carried out in a hood. Selection and purchase of a suitable respirator should be carried out only in consultation with your Office of Environmental Health and Safety as it is extremely important that the respirator fit properly and that it has the correct filters to be effective when used with your particular hazards. The National Institute for Safety and Health (NIOSH) publishes a useful booklet available on-line at: the selection of respirators. If you are going to work with a respirator, be sure to obtain training prior to using this PPE. One last comment, it is important to remember that to operate properly respirators must be regularly cleaned, sanitized (if biological hazards are involved), and maintained.

Chemical Fume Hoods

Whenever you use flammable or hazardous materials that pose an airborne or explosive hazard, you should work in a fume hood. Exposure is controlled in part through the moveable glass plate, the sash, that covers the front of the hood. Maximal protection is afforded when the sash, if it moves vertically, is closed or lowered as much as possible.

There are different types of fume hoods. Two of the most common types are the constant air volume (CAV) and the variable air volume (VAV) hoods. Constant air volume hoods are designed to maintain a constant air flow that doesn’t vary when the hood sash is opened or closed. The disadvantage of these hoods is that the face velocity increases when the hood sash is lowered or decreases when the hood sash is raised as a result which can lead to either excessive turbulence and the escape of toxic materials from the hood. Variable air volume hoods are designed to maintain a constant face velocity whenever the hood sash is opened or closed minimizing air turbulence at the sash extrema and maximizing user protection.

It is important that there be good airflow to the hood exhaust. Today most hoods are equipped with an airflow meter. These measure the face velocity which is the rate at which air is pulled into the hood exhaust.

Fume hoods should be inspected annually. Dated inspection stickers should be posted conspicuously somewhere on the front of the fume hood. Do not hesitate to contact the Office of Environmental Healthy and Safety at your workplace if you cannot find a sticker or if the sticker is more than one year old.

All hoods are not the same. Depending on the hazards involved in your work, you may need to use a special kind of fume hood.

  • Biosafety cabinets should be used when dealing with biological hazards.
  • Chemical fume hoods should be used when flammable solvents and/or highly reactive reagents are involved.
  • Special fume hoods are required when working with certain radiological hazards such as iodine-125 or when working with perchlorates, which react explosively when mixed with organics.

Prudent Practices

  • Whenever possible endeavor to work with materials that are non-toxic or which present minimal health risks to you and your research group.
  • Keep all materials at least 6 inches inside the fume hood. Doing this ensures you maximal protection in terms of hood air flow and air turbulence. A useful visual method of reminding yourself to do this is to place a strip of brightly colored labeling tape 6″ lengthwise inside the hood.
  • Never place beakers, pipettes, or other materials on the edge of the hood where they can be easily knocked off and where the hood provides no protective air flow.
  • Keep the sash lowered at all times. When you are working in the hood, always keep the sash of the hood below your face.
  • Regularly inspect the flow meter in your hood to ensure that the hood is functioning properly. If there isn’t a flow meter contact your Office of Environmental Health and Safety. A simple, effective visual means of determining that there is hood air flow is to tape a kimwipe at the bottom edge of the hood sash. If the hood is operating properly, it should be partially pulled inside by the hood’s airflow.
  • Do not put signs, or other materials that impede visual inspection of the hood’s contents on the hood sash. In some organic and inorganic synthesis laboratories, it is common practice to write the chemical reaction on the face of the hood sash. If your lab does this be careful not to obscure your and others’ direct view of the inside of the hood.
  • Locate electrical devices such as variacs outside the hood to avoid sparking that could ignite flammable reagents and/or solvents.
  • Remember: hoods are not a substitute for good common sense. Do not do anything in a hood that you would not do on a desktop. For example, do not heat flammable solvents in an open beaker directly on a hot plate.
  • Fume hoods should not be used to store hazardous materials. The bottles, glassware, and other materials that you place inside the fume hood can interfere with the proper airflow within the hood. Remove reagent bottles promptly when you are finished using them and replace them in their proper storage location in the laboratory.


Best Glove Company has an excellent website that includes an html tool you can use to identify the appropriate glove for your research application. See: “What is the Best Glove for Me?” Avail. URL:

Hard Hats
“All About Head Protection.” Avail. URL:

“NIOSH Respirator Selection Logic 2004.” Avail. URL:

Fume Hoods
“Chemical Fume Hood Handbook.” (Northwestern University Office of the Vice President for Research) Avail.URL:

Safely Using Chemical Reagents

Always carefully read:

  • the reagent label and
  • the material safety data sheet (MSDS)

before working with any new and unfamiliar chemical reagent. Issues to research and think carefully about before using a new reagent include the following:

  • Chemical compatibility – Is this reagent known to be incompatible with any other reagents with which you or others in the laboratory might be working?
  • Chemical reactivity – Is the reagent a strong oxidizer? Reductant? Does it react with moisture? Oxygen?
  • Flammability – Is this reagent flammable?
  • Volatility – Is this reagent volatile?
  • Toxicity – Is the reagent toxic? Is it a mutagen? Carcinogen? What are the symptoms of exposure?
  • Handling – What personal protective equipment should one use in working with this reagent? Gloves? What kind of gloves? Safety glasses? Should it be handled in a hood?
  • Accidents – How should this material be cleaned up in case of a spill?
  • Emergencies – What kinds of emergencies could arise from use/misuse of this chemical? Are you prepared to deal with these?

Reagent Labels
Material Safety Data Sheets
Basic Format of an MSDS
Major Sections of MSDS

Reagent Labels


Reagent labels provide an extremely useful first means of defense in identifying the potential hazards presented by use of a specific reagent. The Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) requires all manufacturers to label their products with the name of the material, any relevant hazard warnings, and their name. Always read the label before you plan to use any chemical or biological reagent. Labels can tell you a lot about a reagent: Its name, chemical formula, the name and address of the manufacturer, the reagent’s physical properties, any health hazards associated with its use, and information on how to handle and store the reagent. While reagent labels do provide a lot of useful safety information, it is important to stress that they aren’t intended to serve as a researcher’s sole or even primary means of safety information on a chemical. They are intended to provide an immediate warning sufficient to prompt you, the user, to read more detailed information such as that provided by Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS’s).

Most labels use a visual labeling system such as that developed by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in order to provide a swift visual means of determining the potential hazards represented by a reagent. In brief, the NFPA system is based on a diamond composed of four color-coded squares each containing an integer ranging between 0 and 4 that represented the intensity of the hazard represented by the reagent in four different categories:

  • health (blue),
  • flammability (red) ,
  • reactivity (yellow), and
  • special hazards (white).

The higher the number the more significant the hazard represented by the chemical in that particular area. So, zero signals that the reagent poses a mimimum hazard while 4 indicates that the reagent poses a severe or potentially life-threatening hazard to the user which means that the reagent should be used only with extreme caution. It is important to stress that just because a reagent may have a zero hazard number in a specific category doesn’t mean that it is harmless. Handle every reagent with due care.

There are a number of different codes used to identify special hazards. These include: ox (oxidant), ACI (acid), ALK (base), COR (corrosive), and a W with a slash through it (water reactive).

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Material Safety Data Sheets


Material Safety Data Sheets or MSDSs are intended (the key word here) to provide a comprehensive source of written information about the properties, handling, and transport of chemical reagents. All manufacturers are required to provide users with an MSDS for each reagent that they sell. All employers including academic institutions are required to provide the relevant MSDS to any employee working with that reagent upon request. Although it would be ideal to have a copy of all of the relevant MSDSs in each and every laboratory, it is not very practical. Consequently it is important for you to contact your Office of Environmental Health and Safety in order to determine where MSDSs are kept at your workplace. Also, always consult the most recent version available of an MSDS. Note that you can always call the manufacturer of any chemical you use and request a copy of the MSDS be faxed to you. Many manufacturers including Sigma-Aldrich now provide these MSDSs on their website. There are also a number of excellent websites (see the reference section) that provide a wide range of reagent MSDSs for general use. . In this way, you can obtain and maintain your own set of copies of MSDS’s for the reagents with which you will work in the laboratory.

In practice there are problems with the quality of information on some MSDS’s which has led to recent criticism of MSDS’s by the research community (see Ritter, S.K. C&E News 2004, 83(6), 24-26. “Material Safety Data Sheets Eyed.”) If you are working with hazardous materials, then you are strongly advised to obtain several MSDS’s for these materials and to cross check the information on them before you use that reagent. If you find any inconsistencies or have any concerns about how to use the reagent in question safely in the lab, consult your advisor and your Office of Environmental Health and Safety for advice.

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Basic Format of an MSDS


Today most MSDS’s follow a 16-section format recommended by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in the early 1990’s and subsequently endorsed by OSHA.

An excellent introduction to the ANSI formatted MSDS is available on-line at:

Oklahoma State Office of Environmental Health and Safety has developed a good set of questions to use when examining a new MSDS that is available on-line at:

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The major sections of an MSDS are:



1. Reagent and Company Identification

This section provides the common chemical and trade names for the chemical reagent as well as contact information, useful in case of emergency, for the chemical supplier. This section will also provide the date on which the MSDS was prepared. Whenever possible consult the latest version of an MSDS currently available.

2. Reagent Composition

In the case of reagents that are sold as mixtures, this section provides composition information for any known health hazards that are present and which constitute more than 0.1% of the material. This section also provides information on the safe exposure limits such as the OSHA permissible exposure limit.

3. Identification of Potential Hazards

The third section of the MSDS provides information on major hazards that may be associated with use and handling of reagent such as toxicity and flammability.

4. First Aid Measures

Appropriate measures for treatment of injuries by inhalation, ingestion, and eye and/or skin contact are outlined in this section.

5. Fire Fighting Measures

This section provides information on flammability and/or explosive nature of the reagent and details the appropriate equipment and or measures to take if a fire or explosion takes place involving the reagent.

6. Accidental Release Measures

Procedures and materials that should be used in case of an accidental spill are provided in this section of the MSDS.

7. Reagent Handling and Storage

This section provides useful information regarding the proper methods to use in handling and storing the reagent in the laboratory. Chemical incompatibilities, information about the potential for the formation of peroxides (explosion hazards) upon extended storage, need for a flammable storage cabinet, etc. are detailed here.

8. Exposure Controls and Personal Protection

This section provides information on the types of personal protective equipment that may be required in order to safely handle and work with the reagent.

9. Physical and Chemical Properties

Useful fundamental data regarding the physical and chemical properties of the reagent such as the form, color, odor, melting point, boiling point, solubility in water, vapor pressure, are provided in this section. This information can be extremely helpful in determining how to properly handle and store a reagent.

10. Reagent Stability and Reactivity

If the material is or could become unstable, this section will provide information on any conditions that might produce hazardous reactions and/or decomposition of the reagent.

11. Toxicological Information

Information on the toxicity of the reagent is detailed here. Data usually provided include the LD50 (lethal dose 50; single, usually oral, dose of the reagent that results in the death of 50% of test subjects) and the LC50 (lethal concentration 50; concentration of an inhaled volume of air containing the reagent that produces death in 50% of test subjects).

12. Ecological Information

This section provides any available information concerning the effect that release of the reagent might have on plants and/or animals in the environment.

13. Disposal Considerations

Information on the appropriate methods that may be used to dispose of waste containing the reagent are described in this section of the MSDS.

14. Transport Information

This section provides information on how the reagent may be safely transported.

15. Regulatory Information

Any relevant regulatory information relevant to risks and safe use of the reagent are provided in this section.

16. Additional Information

This section may contain the name of the author of the MSDS, any references that he/she used to prepare the MSDS, and often contains legal disclaimers regarding the use of the MSDS that are intended to protect the manufacturer against liability.

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It is important to become informed concerning the appropriate emergency protocols for dealing with whatever routine hazards you may encounter while working in your lab. Do you know what to do in case of an emergency? It is critical to learn what the appropriate emergency measures are and to make sure you know how to use the available safety equipment now because when an emergency arises there simply won’t be any time to do this.

Emergency Plan

Your laboratory should have a plan for evacuation in case of an emergency. Do you know what your lab’s emergency plan is for each of the following types of emergency:

  • Fire
  • Medical
  • Chemical


You should only consider fighting a fire when all of the following statements are true:

  • You have called the fire department and/or pulled the fire station lever.
  • You have gotten everyone safely out of your laboratory and the building
  • You have verified that the fire extinguisher available to you is full, in good condition, and is of the appropriate class to fight the fire.
  • You have had training in the use of the fire extinguisher and are confident of your ability to use it properly.
  • The fire is small and in a confined area such as a waste paper basket or hood.
  • One or both of the fire exit doors will be located behind you when you face the fire in order to fight it with the extinguisher. If you have any doubts, exit the lab closing the door behind you and let the fire department, who are experts, do their job.

Fire exits

Where are the fire exits in your laboratory? There should be two clearly marked exits from each laboratory. These doors should not be blocked by furniture, equipment, or instrumentation.

Fire Extinguishers

Locate the fire extinguishers in your laboratory. What types of extinguishers do you have in your laboratory? Check to make sure that these extinguishers are the correct types for the kinds of hazards you are likely to face while working on your research project.

The fire extinguishers in your laboratory should be inspected on a regular basis by someone from either the Office of Environmental Health and Safety or Fire Safety at your institution. Don’t make assumptions about safety equipment. Periodically check the date on the red tag and the gauge on the fire extinguisher to make sure that the extinguisher is full (gauge) and that the extinguisher is known to be in good working order (red tag). Always check these before using a fire extinguisher.

Types Of Fire Extinguishers

There are four main types of fire extinguishers: A, B, C, and D.

  • Class A fire extinguishers use water to put out paper and wood based fires.
  • Class B fire extinguishers use compressed non-flammable gases such as carbon dioxide to put out fires involving flammable materials. The gas extinguishes the fire by starving it of oxygen. Note that these fire extinguishers should not be used in small confined spaces as they have the potential to asphyxiate the user, too, in the process.
  • Class C fire extinguishers shoot a very fine non-flammable, non-conductive powder in order to extinguish electrical fires.
  • Class D fire extinguishers are for use in combating fires involving flammable metals such as magnesium and sodium. These types of fires are especially dangerous. Unless you are trained, don’t try to fight these fires.

There are also multi-class fire extinguishers as well. One of the most common multi-class fire extinguishers is the carbon dioxide extinguisher which can be used for Class B and C fires.

How to Properly Use a Fire Extinguisher

Fire extinguishers can be heavy and awkward to use effectively in an emergency situation if you aren’t properly trained. If you haven’t used a fire extinguisher before, it is really important to obtain training first. Contact your Office of Environmental Health and Safety or your Fire Safety Officer.

PASS, which stands for pull, aim, squeeze, and sweep, is a common acronym used to summarize the general procedure for using a fire extinguisher properly:

  • Pull the pin
  • Aim the nozzle at the base of the fire
  • Squeeze the handle and
  • Sweep the spray across the base of the fire slowly back and forth until the fire is completely extinguished.

Don’t walk away from the scene until you are certain that the fire has been completely extinguished.

The Hanford Fire Department has an excellent series of photographs illustrating the PASS process on their website at URL:

Be sure to inform your Office of Environmental Health and Safety and/or your Fire Safety Office as soon as possible that you have used the fire extinguisher. This is important so that the fire extinguisher can be inspected and recharged.


First attempt to ascertain the source of the problem. If the victim is unconscious, look around and make sure that electricity isn’t responsible. If it is, use a non-conductive object to move the source of electricity away from the victim and seek immediate medical help.

If the victim is unconscious or does not appear to be breathing, call 911 and request medical assistance immediately. Do not move the victim unless instructed to do so by medical personnel.


If the victim appears to have been splashed with a chemical or solvent, assist them to the nearest emergency shower and pull the handle. Help the victim remove any contaminated clothing and be prepared to provide them with a clean lab coat or other temporary covering.

Emergency Contacts

Advance planning coupled with knowledge (information) is the best offense in case of an emergency. Locate the following information, insert it into the table provided, Xerox and paste the completed table publicly at your lab bench where you can see it in case of an emergency.

  • Telephone number including area code
  • Your workplace emergency phone number
  • Your Advisor’s home phone number
  • Office of Environmental Health and Safety
  • Physical Plant or Facilities (after hours)
  • Your personal physician


Today’s research laboratory is equipped with a wide range of emergency equipment that can be invaluable in mitigating the severity of an injury in case of an accidental exposure to or a fire and/or explosion involving a hazardous reagent. The equipment that should be available in your laboratory in case of emergency includes:

  • Eye wash stations
  • Showers
  • Spill kits
  • First aid kits
  • Fire blankets
  • Fire extinguishers
  • Emergency exits

Take note of the location of the aforementioned safety equipment in your laboratory now and make sure that you understand how to use each of these in case of an emergency. We will briefly discuss the purpose and proper use of each of these devices below.

Eye wash stations

Some eye wash stations consist of a mirror and a set of bottles containing saline solution that the user can remove and use to flood the injured eye with water. No matter the form, the eye wash station is intended to allow you to flood the eye with a continuous stream of water for a minimum of 15-minutes. Ideally the eye wash station should be located within 20 feet of your work space. Since you may not be able to see clearly in an emergency, it is important to locate your eye wash station now before you need it.

If you need to use the eye wash station and you have gotten something in your eye. First, remove the object. Use one hand to hold open your eyelid and activate the eye wash using your other hand. Keep the eye open. Do not blink as that prevents the water from flushing your eye. Continue flushing the affected eye for a minimum of 15-minutes. Seek prompt medical attention as soon as possible thereafter.


“Drench” showers are the most common type of emergency shower and are intended to provide on-the-spot cleansing when a chemical and/or solvent has been spilled, contacted a large portion of your head and/or body, or in a fire. The user should stand underneath the shower head, pull the handle, and immediately remove any clothing covering the affected limb(s). These showers are intended to deliver a continuous stream of water at a rate of at least 20 gallons/minute for a minimum of 15-minutes so don’t pull the handle unless you mean business!
Spill kits (sections lacking, should ask pam to write more)
There are typically three kinds of reagent spill kits commonly found in the research laboratory: acid, base, and solvent.

First aid kits

If you have one of these in your lab, it is important to periodically inspect and restock your first aid kit so that it will be useful in an emergency. In general these kits are most useful for small injuries such as a cut finger.

Fire blankets

Fire blankets are not intended for use in fighting fires. Do not attempt to use them to extinguish fires. Rather they are intended to extinguish clothing fires. They are very easy to use: simply yank the blanket out of the cabinet and wrap it around the prostrate victim. Keep the victim wrapped until help arrives as victims often are in shock and the fire blanket will help keep the victim warm.

Emergency exits


Each research laboratory is required by law to have two unobstructed means of exit in case of emergency. These emergency exits are generally marked by readily visible red “Exit” signs placed immediately above the door.

First Aid

Note: The information below is not intended to serve as a substitute for formal training or professional advice and/or treatment. Always immediately seek medical assistance from a medical professional if you believe that you are in a potentially life-threatening emergency situation. Even if you don’t believe a situation is life-threatening report the accident as soon as possible to your advisor and/or your Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

Minor Cuts

Wash the wound thoroughly with mild soap and water. As there is always the potential for infection, be sure to seek medical attention as soon as possible. If you are assisting someone else, be careful not to come in contact with their blood (blood borne pathogens) and if you do seek prompt medical attention.

Severe Cuts/Wounds with Heavy Bleeding

Apply direct pressure to the wound and elevate the limb to staunch the bleeding and seek immediate medical attention.

Chemicals on Skin

If you spill a hazardous chemical on your hand or arm, wash your hand and/or arm with running water at the closest sink for 15-minutes. If you spill a hazardous chemical on your face and/or a significant portion of your body, go to the nearest safety shower, pull the handle, remove any clothing covering the exposed limbs, and wash the contaminated area thoroughly with water. Seek immediate medical attention.

Chemicals in Eyes

Use the eyewash fountain to flood your eye(s) with water for 15-minutes. Seek immediate medical attention.

Special Hazards

Though the hazards in research laboratories vary widely, there are a number of types of work that present unique hazards that require special training as the hazards may present severe consequences not only to the researcher doing the work but to all those around him/her as well. Some of these hazards which are discussed on the linked webpages include:


Due to the increasingly instrumental nature of laboratory research today, many devices and instruments are electrically powered. Some devices such as lasers, power supplies, and vacuum pumps can pose serious safety hazards even death if used improperly. Consequently, it is critical to obtain training in the proper use of these devices and instruments before you begin to use them in your research.

  • Always keep one hand at your side when working with high voltage devices such as power supplies, lasers, and electrophoresis equipment.
  • Turning the “on/off” switch off doesn’t necessarily mean that an electrical device doesn’t have the potential to harm you. Be sure to discharge large capacitors before you work with power supplies and other high voltage devices.
  • Wear rubber gloves when you work with high voltage devices.
  • Don’t work with any electrical device using wet hands.
  • Don’t use any instrumentation that has frayed or split electrical cords.
  • Make sure that you know where the electrical circuit breakers for your research laboratory in case you need to turn the electricity off for any reason.
  • Be sure that all high voltage devices are properly grounded. Generally this means using devices equipped with three prong electrical plugs. The third prong is intended to provide a path to ground. However, it is important.


When operated properly, today’s centrifuges are very safe and reliable devices. Some useful general guidelines regarding their proper use follow:

  • Be sure to properly balance your load in the centrifuge.
  • Lock down the cover of the centrifuge before turning it on.
  • Never leave a centrifuge unattended while it is running.
  • Don’t attempt to open the centrifuge until it has completely stopped. Most modern centrifuges have interlocks preventing users from doing this.
  • Never disarm the interlock for any reason. It is there for your protection.


Autoclaves use very hot, pressurized steam to sterilize biological samples and materials. Consequently, they present several different potentially serious hazards to users including scalding, biohazard contamination, and explosions. Therefore, it is very important to obtain safety training before using an autoclave in your research. Useful general guidelines for use of an autoclave follow:

  • Locate and thoroughly read through the instructor’s manual for the make and model of autoclave that you will use before you begin your work.
  • Wear lab glasses and/or goggles, a lab coat, and heat-resistant gloves when working with an autoclave.
  • Do not place sharps or other pointed materials freely inside an autoclave bag but instead place them in a sharps or other solid container.
  • Do not overfill autoclave bags and/or the autoclave as this may lead to incomplete decontamination of the autoclave contents.
  • Never attempt to autoclave flammable or volatile solvents as they represent a serious explosion hazard.
  • Never leave an autoclave unattended while it is in operation.
  • If an accidental release or spill takes place inside the autoclave, wait until the autoclave is cool before attempting to clean up the spill.


  • Always inspect your glassware before beginning a new experiment for cracks.
  • Wear safety glasses and/or goggles when working with glassware as there is always the potential that it may shatter.
  • If you drop and break a piece of glassware, don’t attempt to pick up the broken pieces with your bare hands. Instead use a broom to sweep the broken pieces into a dustpan and dispose of the pieces in a broken glass container.
  • If you need to cut a piece of glass tubing, place the piece of tubing on a flat surface and score it evenly and deeply using a good file or glassware cutter. Moisten the cut with water and turn the tubing over so the scored side is away from you. Place a paper towel over the tubing, place your thumbs on opposite sides of the scored section and gently tap the piece of tubing with the blunt end of the file or tubing cutter. Be sure to fire polish the ends of the tubing to remove any jagged or sharp edges.

Compressed Gas

Compressed gases are gases stored under pressure in a metal cylinder. Small cylinders are often referred to as lecture bottles. The pressure of a gas in a cylinder is typically expressed in kilopascal or pounds per square inch (psig).

There are three kinds of compressed gases:

Liquified gases are gases that become liquids at room temperature when compressed at high pressure in a cylinder. Carbon dioxide is an example of a commonly used liquefied gas.

Non-liquified gases are gases that remain gases at room temperature even at high pressure. Examples of frequently used non-liquified gases are nitrogen, argon, and oxygen.

Dissolved gases are gases that are dissolved in a volatile solvent in order to stabilize them. Acetylene is a good example of a dissolved gas. It is usually dissolved in acetone.

Compressed gases present a wide range of significant potential safety hazards. Some compressed gases such as hydrogen chloride or ammonia are highly corrosive. Others such as hydrogen or acetylene are highly reactive and/or flammable. Even inert gases such as nitrogen can be dangerous because in confined areas their rapid release may displace enough oxygen causing loss of consciousness and asphyxiation. Research and know the chemical and toxicological properties and safety precautions before working with any compressed gas. Be sure to consult your Office of Environmental Health and Safety in advance concerning the correct handling and storage procedures peculiar to the gas with which you will work.

Identification of Compressed Gases

Tanks are color coded to facilitate ready identification of gas contents. However, you should never rely on the tank color for identification as the color coding is not standardized and may vary from supplier to supplier. Always read the label on the tank before use. Do not attempt to use a gas tank which does not have a written label of identification for any reason.


Regulators are gas specific. Be sure to use the proper regulator for the gas tank you are using. The regulator should be securely attached to the tank using a crescent wrench. The threading on the regulator should never be wrapped with Teflon tape. This is particularly important in the case of oxidizing gases due to concern regarding flammability but it is forbidden in general with any type of gas because small pieces of teflon could get caught int the regulator potentially causing a failure. Two stage regulators are commonly used in most laboratories when working with compressed gases. The gauge closest to the tank itself is the main gauge. This gauge provides a reading of the total pressure of the gas in the tank. The primary stage should be kept closed whenever the gas tank is not actually in use – never leave a gas cylinder that is use unattended. The second stage allows careful control and release of a lower constant pressure of gas. The reading on the second gauge provides an indication of the actual pressure of the gas being released from the tank. Note that when the gauge reads zero, there is still likely some gas present in the tank.

Flammable and/or Reactive Gases

Cylinders containing flammable and/or reactive gases should be stored and used in well-ventilated areas and should never be operated in the vicinity of open flames or electrical devices capable of sparking. The regulators on these cylinders should be regularly inspected for leaks using snoop or gas leak detectors.

Storage of Gas Cylinders

Cylinders and lecture bottles should always be secured using sturdy metal chains and/or straps to a wall or a cart to prevent their falling over.

Transportation of Gas Cylinders

Gas cylinders should always be transported using an appropriate wheeled gas transport cart. Gas cylinders should never be rolled, spun, twirled, or dragged. Before transportation, the gas regulator should always be removed. The main valve on the tank should be completely closed and the cap should be screwed on the tank. A minimum number of gas tanks should be transported using the cart at any one time.


Lasers produce intense focused monochromatic beams of light in the ultraviolet, visible, or infrared spectral range. Lasers present three potential kinds of hazards: photochemical, electrical, and chemical. Unprotected laser exposure can cause serious and permanent damage to the skin and the delicate tissue of eyes. So, users should wear laser safety goggles when working with lasers. The power sources for lasers also present a significant electrical hazard. Users should use due caution when working around laser power supplies. Use one hand and make sure your hands are dry and that you are not standing in water when working around the laser power supply. Some lasers present chemical hazards to users as well. The organic dyes such as Rhodamine 6G circulated in dye lasers are carcinogenic or mutagenic and should be handled only with protective gloves.

Waste Disposal

Hazardous chemical waste including solvents, acids, and reagents should never be disposed of down sewer drains. Waste must be separated based on chemical compatibility in order to avoid violent reactions and disposed of in the proper waste containers following the practices described by the Office of Environmental Health and Safety at your academic or industrial workplace.

On the linked webpages, we will examine some of the important issues specific to waste disposal of the following types of materials/reagents:


Chemical waste disposal is an increasingly expensive problem for all workplaces using chemical reagents. All chemical waste must be identified properly before it can be disposed. Depending on the volume, toxicity, and/or reactivity of the reagents you wish to dispose of, proper disposal may be very expensive so it is important that you make a conscious effort to order the absolute minimum amount of the reagents that you need and use the minimum amount needed in order to carry out your experiments. If practical, think about how you might reclaim by distillation and/or precipitation your reagents and solvents and thereby minimize the amount of waste you generate in your work.


Bottles containing chemical waste must be properly labeled. Labeling should include the words “hazardous waste.” The label should also include the names and relative amounts of the major chemical reagents and/or solvents and the date that the bottle was filled. Be sure to write out all chemical names – do not use chemical formula like “H2O” or abbreviations such as “ACN” or “DMF.” Do not put a date on the bottle until it is completely filled and ready for pickup.


Chemical waste should be disposed of in glass or polyethylene bottles. Plastic coated glass bottles are best for this purpose. Aluminum cans which are easily corroded should not be used for waste disposal and storage. In some laboratories, workers recycle solvent bottles and use them for chemical waste storage and disposal. If your laboratory does this, be sure to completely fill and empty the solvent bottle a minimum of three times before using it for waste and be sure to completely remove or deface the bottle’s label. Waste bottles that are in use should be placed in a secondary container such as a plastic tub, preferably inside the hood. This location should be clearly marked with a sign indicating that it is the “Satellite Waste Disposal Area” for your laboratory. Before adding waste to a waste bottle, inspect the waste bottle label and make sure that the materials you are adding are compatible with the bottle’s contents. For example, don’t mix organics and acids. If you are in doubt, start a new waste bottle. Bottles should be capped unless you are in the actual act of adding waste to the waste bottle. If you use a funnel in order to add waste the funnel must be removed when you are finished and the bottle capped.

Don’t completely fill a waste bottle. Always leave at least one inch at the top of the container. As soon as a waste bottle is completely filled, be sure to put the date on the label and contact your Office of Environmental Health and Safety to schedule a chemical waste pickup. The rules regarding the scheduling of waste pickup are very rigid in most laboratories and filled waste bottles need to be removed from the research laboratory within three days of the date indicated on the waste bottle.

Biological And Medical

Regard all cultures, blood, and tissue samples, all waste products produced by biological systems, and any materials that come in contact with biological systems as potentially hazardous. Exposure to biohazards can occur by aerosol (inhalation), accidental ingestion, skin or eye contact, and by accidental puncture of the skin (needles).

Waste and any materials contaminated with biohazardous materials must be decontaminated and disposed of as regulated medical waste. This includes all tissue samples, needles, syringes, scalpels, etc. Be sure to contact your Office of Environmental Health and Safety concerning the proper practices associated with the handling and disposal of biohazardous waste.

Decontamination of Medical Waste

As appropriate, all contaminated materials and surfaces should be either autoclaved (steam sterilization) or treated with 1:10 (v/v) bleach solution to disinfect.

Disposal of Medical Waste

Disinfected needles, syringes, razor blades and other sharps should then be placed in labeled sharps containers. All other biohazardous waste should be placed in biohazard bags, and then placed inside medical waste boxes. The bags should be labeled in indelible ink with the date, name, location, and phone number of the laboratory supervisor.

Animal and Patient Waste Disposal

Waste from animals and patients should be viewed and treated as potentially infectious biohazardous waste. Animal bedding, carcasses, and human and animal tissue and waste samples should be autoclaved before disposal in the medical waste stream. Be sure to contact your Office of Environmental Health and Safety concerning the proper practices associated with the handling and disposal of biohazardous waste.