Keeping a lab organised

Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s supervisor, employer, organisation, committee or any other group or individual.

Our lab

By Laura Sharpe

Keeping a lab organised is a daunting task. We have had a number of different systems over the years I have been here. Each method seems to be an improvement on the last, but with a significant setup cost of time and effort. One of the pervasive problems is completing the records using a particular organisational system before one gets bored, or a new system comes along, or people move around your carefully arranged plasmids, making your efforts seem quite useless.  A lab needs to have its inventory organised, but it also needs a good record of protocols, safety documents, ordering records, lab duties, and all the admin associated with running a lab. Less important, but still worth organising, are simple things like when everyone’s birthday happens (thanks Hudson for brightening our lives with your MARCH6 birthday!).

This blog post will outline some of the ways we organise our lab and what seems to work and what doesn’t. 


When I started, there were no written protocols available to everyone in the lab. If you needed to know how to do something, you had to ask someone who had done it and try to extract the protocol from them. Frustrated with this, I started a Word document and wrote as many protocols as I could, printed them all out and made them available to everybody. Then others added more extensive protocols in a similar way – I still have my original printout of an RT-PCR protocol from about 10 years ago, now updated with scribbled notes all over it. Once we had these protocols typed up, the next step was to have them digitally accessible. Google docs (later Google Drive) was the solution for this. Now, we have moved these across into a LabArchives notebook where everyone can access these and they remain nicely organised and accessible to everyone in the lab, and it is easy to add new students.

Our shared LabArchives Notebook

This seems to have really helped to keep them arranged in a logical order and make it easy to update as required. We are even getting more sophisticated and adding videos of one of our major methods. I’m hopeful that LabArchives will stick around long term so we can continue to improve our protocols, rather than wasting time moving them from one place to another. LabArchives is also where we record our frozen cell line inventory, lab members’ contact details and birthdays, etc. 

Safety documents

SafeSys is an online system for creating risk management forms and safe work procedures. Whilst it has a number of well known problems, the concept really is great. The documents are easy to create (when it’s working well) and can be viewed by others, and it keeps a record of who has read them – saving us keeping paper “training records”. The best part is you can easily modify other groups’ documents to suit your purposes.

Ordering records

For many years, our ordering records were kept in a hand written book which was used for requesting the item, noting when it was ordered and when it arrived. Although this worked okay, it was difficult to refer back to old products we had ordered. Our solution to this is Trello! This is a tool specifically designed for organisation. You can also get it as an app for your phone and it all updates nicely between different platforms and users. For the uninitiated, Trello is used to create Boards, within which there are Lists, and Lists contain Cards.

Our Trello board for ordering

For ordering, anyone in the lab can create a Card noting the item they need. They can provide additional information, such as catalogue number, supplier, price, etc or they can leave it as is, either to complete later or hope I will do it for them (hint: I love it when all the details are right there waiting for me!). Once I’ve placed the order in Jaggaer*, I can move the card along to the next list and so on. Once it arrives, anyone in the lab can move it to the Arrived List. This method is a huge improvement on our previous ordering book, notably because we can then easily search for when we last ordered something and just move the Card back to the “To Order” List. 

*Jaggaer is both an ordering system and a chemical inventory system. Whilst it has problems (different problems than SafeSys…), it is in general another great invention for lab organisation. 

Lab duties

Another common issue we’ve faced in the past is fighting over whose job it is to make a shared buffer or media or agar plates etc. Again, Trello rescued us here. Each person in the lab has a List with several Cards listing particular “Lab Duties” for which they are responsible, for example, transfer buffer, PBS, agar plates, etc. Then all it needs is for someone to notice something is running low and to “tag” the person on the relevant Card to alert them that they need to do this task. This has helped a lot in reducing tensions over who left that buffer almost empty and who is *really* responsible for it (Is it the person who used the last 5 ml? The last 100 ml? 500 ml? Where do you draw the line?). There are still some problems, for example, people occasionally go on holidays or get sick right when their job needs to be done which can make it a bit difficult, but for the most part we overcome these challenges quite nicely. 

Overall, I’ve seen huge improvements to lab organisation over the years and the major limitation I can identify is that sometimes the system just doesn’t stand the test of time. Hopefully, this will improve significantly as online systems become more durable, and more compatible with each other. 

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