Being part of a research team

Ethan 01-10-2008

  • Outline a clear plan with the team before starting work on something. Experiments should efficiently/elegantly test alternative hypotheses - classic article from Science magazine about efficient progress in science
  • Spend time in lab, and spend it efficiently: Stick to the plan, but stop and fix things that need fixing (don’t keeping working on half-working equipment).
  • Tell somebody whenever your equipment does something you don't expect. This will supplement your previous equipment training, improve everyone's safety, and minimize broken equipment.
  • Keep a lab notebook, essentially a research diary, that clearly records everything that you try. Anyone should be able to open your lab notebook and find out what trials/experiments you did yesterday, and what conclusions you drew. This is an important part of working efficiently. Without good records, you will end up doing the same experiment again later. With good records you will see trends that emerge over the course of many experiments (see data management below).
  • Communicate your conclusions clearly using the data that supports your conclusion. For example
    • email jpegs of important AFM images to everyone involved
    • add corrections and comments to wiki recipes as you learn more

Navigating uncertainty when constructing experiments

It is exciting to build devices that no one has built before. Or make new scientific instruments, or develop new processes. But sometimes the temptation leads to unnecessary frustration. Perhaps a tried and true method would suffice? Trade offs between risks and benefits will always be tricky.

To make a logical/realistic decision about the best path forward, consider this rule of thumb:

  • If I am following a recipe that has been tested by N people, the probability of failure on the first attempt is ~ 0.5^(N+1).

Example 1: You are pouring a concrete slab. The recipe on the bag of concrete has been tested by hundreds of thousands of people. The probability of failure is basically zero.

Example 2: You read a paper explaining how to grow high density aligned CNTs. The recipe hasn't been tested by any other groups. The probability of failure on the first attempt is ~ 0.5.

Lab notebooks

It is fun and informative to look at the lab notebooks of other scientists. For example, Don Eigler's lab notebook where he recorded the discovery that he could move atoms around with an STM tip, which was recently featured in Nature Nanotechnology.

There are two primary motivations behind the keeping of a good lab notebook. One is legal. When a patents is challenged, your lawyer will need your notebook. The notebook must follow a certain protocol in order to defeat accusations of falsification.

The second motivation, which is more important to most academics, is simple recollection of data for future use. Your notebook must be at a level of rigor so as to allow you to recall the reasoning behind, the details, and the conclusions of your daily experiment three years after you’ve conducted it. At the end of a PhD program you will be writing a paper that could very well be connected to the entirety of your experience in the program, so you should be able to look back and reference everything you’ve done.

  • Date - Write the date at the top of every new day’s data. (e.g. 07/18/2011)
  • Why and How - At the start of every new experiment or section of experiment, write down the reasoning behind doing the day’s experiment and why you’ve picked the specific variables you have. Include as well a summary of the details of what you will do.
  • References - Include in the Why and How section where you got the ideas that you did. Cite any papers you are reading that have influenced the experiment. This is very important, since when you go to write your own paper you will need to make these citations, and it’s way more convenient to have them waiting in your lab notebook.
  • Data - Record all data. You should print out AFM pictures and other graphs and paste them in. It’s preferable to record hand written data in tabular form so that it’s easier to follow later on. Also include references to the file names of the AFM or other data files (dates and names) so that they can be viewed later.
  • Conclusions - Try to write conclusions on the day’s experiment. Similar to the introductory Why and How, this will allow you to remember the why behind what you’re doing (probably in your next experiment) and what you’ve learned.
  • New tools and skills - when learning a new tool or lab skill, take care to write down every detail of the procedure in your notebook for that day. You should be able to perform the same operation in the future using your notebook notes.

Mostly legal precautions:

  • Fill up every page. Do not allow space to go back and make notes on a previous day’s work. If your experiment for the day only covers half the page, draw a line through the empty space at the bottom to signify that you haven’t gone back to change something, or just start your next day’s notes immediately below the previous day’s notes, interrupting the two with a new date.
  • Don’t skip pages.
  • If you make a change to your data than don’t erase the previous data. Draw a single line through the data and then write the modification on the side. Write your initials next to the change. This signifies that you are honest about your changes.
  • Sign the bottom of your notes every day and have someone else sign them every five days.
  • Lab notebooks must be kept in pen. A pencil record is no good for proving that you discovered something first.

Clean room notebook

You must also make notes about how you fabricate devices. If you are working in the cleanroom, the detailed fabrication notes will typically be made in your cleanroom notebook. If all your fabrication work is done outside the cleanroom, it is OK to keep your fabrication note in your lab notebook.

Complementing your lab note book with computer files

Choose a organization protocol for your “raw data” computer files. Stick to this organization protocol. You should be able to find an entry in your lab notebook and easily locate the accompanying AFM file or I-V curve. Here is a default protocol, you can improve upon it if you wish:

  • On the AFM computer store files as follows: Your_name/Data/2007-07-07/Image_001
  • For every file on the computer, there should be a corresponding description in your lab notebook. Your lab notebook might look like this: “2007-07-07. Chip C1: tried to grow tubes yesterday. Now checking for tube growth
    • Image_001 Good image, 10×10 micron, see lots of tubes, oxide looks very clean”

We also make powerpoint files (collections of graphs, images and captions), excel spread sheets (keeping track of all the devices on a chip, which are working, when they were measured etc.), numerical modeling code, and data analysis files. These computer files are very useful, but are secondary ways to organize your work. The raw information should always be in the lab notebook.

Organizing meetings

By email

Some common sense rules of thumb about organizing a meeting or event by email:

  • Choose a time/date far enough in advance that you can receive responses from people (assume that people check their email once a day, 5 days a week)
  • Put as much info into the email as possible (rather than sending multiple emails and/or last minute details).
  • If you don't get an response, follow up with a second email.
  • To organize many people try making a poll to find a common time

Some things are better done face-to-face:

  • Asking someone to be on your committee.
  • Asking someone to cover your TA office hours.

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