When working in a lab, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by excessive workloads. Clinical labs are regularly inundated with patient specimens, while biomedical research often requires large-scale experiments involving hundreds to thousands of samples, with multiple steps per assay. Here are some tips to help you cope with high-volume assignments as well as the stress that can come with them.
Planning ahead and implementing systems to avoid errors in the lab is a great first step to minimizing the everyday stress of processing large batches of samples and performing multiple concurrent assays. The most effective way for your lab to stay organized is using a laboratory information management system (LIMS). A LIMS will allow you to manage your entire lab’s workflow, including assigning tasks and scheduling times for equipment. You can also manage inventory, so you won’t have to worry about running low on reagents, by tracking and tracing samples as they’re processed, making it easier to monitor large collections of specimens and reagents. To do this, barcode or radio-frequency identification (RFID) labels are crucial; they’re needed to accurately track each sample as it’s processed, as well as all items from your inventory as they’re either used or stored away. Remember to always apply labels suitable for the environment they will encounter. For example, cryogenic labels will ensure you don’t have to worry that you might open your liquid nitrogen tank, only to find your labels floating, with boxes full of unlabeled tubes. For histology slides, chemical-resistant labels that withstand organic solvents like xylene and histological stains should be used to prevent your printout from being smudged or removed entirely, while heat-resistant labels can be used for containers that require sterilization, without the fear of the labels detaching from the high humidity and heat. When choosing a printing method, thermal-transfer printers are the optimal choice, as they offer the greatest resistance against harsh solvents and extreme temperatures.
Automation is your friend
Automated systems are now more widely used in research and medical labs than ever before. Automation is especially prevalent in histology, where every step of the histochemical process can be automated, from dehydration, clearing, and embedding to sectioning, staining, and analysis. Drug discovery has also recently integrated automation into the drug formulation process itself, making it possible to simultaneously design, produce, and test multiple novel chemical analogs. Even small research labs are relying on automated platforms to perform screens. For large labs that process thousands of samples, automated labelers are a useful tool to save time. These machines can either label tubes, with automatic tube feeding, capping/decapping, and liquid dispensing functions, or slides. For histology slides, it’s recommended to label the slide with a thermoplastic, chemical-resistant label instead of printing directly on the slide, as thermoplastic labels provide greater resistance against chemicals used in histochemistry, like xylene and hematoxylin.
Secure your lab
A certain amount of stress can come from ensuring the safety of your samples, whether they’re stored cryogenically or in incubators. With so many specimens in storage, disaster can arise when the temperature or humidity changes unexpectedly. Contamination is another major problem, especially as an incubator containing a single sample contaminated with either bacteria or mycoplasma can so easily ruin all your samples. There are cloud-based systems, like XiltriX, that monitor multiple parameters, including temperature, humidity, and airborne impurities in real-time, immediately alerting the user if any of those parameters become altered, ensuring the safety of your samples and inventory.
It’s the journey, not the destination
Athletes are trained to focus on performing very specific tasks without thinking about what the potential result might be. Sound familiar? Laboratory personnel are very similar, as they often need to perform repetitive tasks throughout the day while worrying about getting a satisfying result. However, it’s often more productive to concentrate exclusively on the task at hand, particularly when handling a large volume of samples, than to let your mind continuously ponder what could go wrong. An easy trick to keep you focused when pipetting into multiple 96-well plates is to match the placement of the tips to that of each well. That way, you can double check which well requires treatment, even if you start to momentarily lose focus. Limiting distractions can also help you focus, so while it’s tempting to play music in the lab, it’s not always the best idea.
With so much to do, it’s tempting to work through it all as quickly as possible. However, at the end of a long day, we humans don’t function as well as we did at the start. To maintain consistency, it’s important to take breaks, with enough time to keep yourself hydrated and well-fed. It’s usually when we forget to eat that our bodies begin to wear down (low ATP levels and all), so for days that will be especially tough, consume a diet that will provide enough energy to help maintain your focus throughout.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Eventually, there comes a time when it’s impossible to efficiently process all the samples in front of you. There’s no shame in asking a coworker or two for a hand when you need it, especially if there’s a strict deadline and you need the samples to be tested as soon as possible. You should also ask for help from your mentor, supervisor, or manager if you’re unsure how to proceed. Communication is key here, especially when it comes to developing strategies to deal with high-volume workloads.
Relieve stress outside the lab
Once you’re all done for the day, you’ve successfully processed your samples (hopefully), and you leave the lab, take some time to naturally release your pent-up stress. The healthiest way to relieve stress outside the lab is through exercise, though there are many other activities that can also be stress-releasing. Take up a hobby (e.g. painting), go for a walk, listen to music or get a massage! So long as you relax and unwind a bit before going back to work.
Working in a busy lab can place an enormous stress on your mind and body, which is why it’s so important to always be prepared and organized. Staying ahead of the curve will allow you to not only work faster, but it’ll reduce the opportunities to make errors while you hammer—or pipette?—away at large volumes of samples. Remember that there are usually others willing to help, but always rely on your own judgement and don’t ever let the stress of a busy workday get the better of you.