Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Research On The Cheap 1: Recycling and Repair

A while ago, Flicka Mawa posted about research at small colleges. (I respond to external stimuli with exquisite slowness.) Naturally, I thought back to my small undergrad institution, and also to the various tricks and dodges I've learned to save money. (In biology; I'm not so great at other disciplines, sorry.) Without further ado, I present:

How To Run A Lab (As) Cheaply (As Possible)

I encourage commentary; additional suggestions will be appended. (Please only comment on the things listed in this post; more to follow.)

1. Understand how things work. Because then you'll know what parts you can make yourself/ use less of/ get more cheaply. If you understand what that kit is doing, chances are you can make it yourself. (For biomed labs: Invest in Maniatis; likewise Methods in MolBio is your friend. I assume other fields have similar resources.)

2. Reuse and Recycle.
  • You'd be amazed how many things are reusable when washed/ melted down/ sterilized. A selection: agarose from gels, test tubes, 0.22 um filters, disposable columns, miniprep columns, acid washes, even Petri dishes if you're desperate.
  • Don't get throwaway regents when there's a reusable: not glass beads to spread cells, but a spreader. Use glass pipettes if possible. Glass test tubes can be washed in a base bath. (Glass beads and tips can be washed and re-used; use bleach (see comments); gloves can be re-used.)
  • Antibodies and coomassie stain can both be re-used.
  • Resins can be cleaned. Glutathione-sepharose costs $10/mL, and that's one of the less expensive ones. Clean your resins.
  • Universities throw out an awful lot of equipment. Find a building manager or two, or a buddy, at the nearest big school, take them out for coffee, and ask them to let you know when stuff's going to be tossed. Chromatography sheets, microscopes, ancient power sources, vertical gel tanks needing only new gaskets... these are all usable, if you:

3. Learn to fix everything.
  • Well-equipped labs need at least: a set of Allen wrenches, a few sizes of screwdriver, a hammer and a mallet, needlenose pliers, adjustable wrenches, regular (large) pliers, WD-40, a soldering iron, a voltmeter, thread tape, a small saw, nails, screws, etc. (Or access; a few labs could go in on these things, or the department could leave a toolbox in the stockroom.) The investment is worth it: repair companies typically charge $100-$200 per hour, plus a drop fee.
  • If it's broken and dead, there's no harm in trying to fix it. It can't work any less well, after all.
  • If there's a building manager or scientific support staff, they may know a great deal about fixing things.
  • Basic electrical knowledge will help. If something's broken and out of warranty, it won't hurt to open it up and check the connections. This is where the voltmeter is handy.
  • Try easy fixes first. I once fixed a -80 by blowing air through its electronics for 15 minutes.
  • Call the company and ask for the real tech support people. Keep going until you get someone who doesn't ask 'A what connector?' They may be able to tell you what's wrong.
  • Epoxy is your friend. Also heat-shrink tubing, electrical tape, thread tape, and duct tape.
  • Soldering doesn't have to be pretty to work.
  • Buy replacement parts for moving bits or whatever you use, and learn to put them in yourself. Incubator doors, for example, are not mechanically complicated but break a lot. A screwdriver, a pliers, and another set of hands usually does it. Vertical gel tanks can be fixed with wire and patience.
  • If large numbers of screws feature anywhere in your equipment, a screw remover will prevent a lot of pain and swearing.
  • Small-volume pipettes (you know, like Rainin), you can calibrate yourself with a balance, spare o-rings, and a tool that costs $5.
  • If parts are cheap enough, it's worth it to replace them even if you don't know if that's the problem.
  • Newark Electronics will sell you any electronic part you want.
  • Circuit boards always die first. They are rarely worth replacing.
  • If there's a Graduate Women in Science chapter, they may run a fix-it seminar! Or organize one yourself- there has to be a machine shop somewhere.

Coming up: So Make It Yourself; How Not to Play Nice