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.