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Managing minions: logging

April 29, 2013

Key to managing one, let alone multiple minions is a good logging system.  Before the creation of “the logs”, my freezer was full of boxes, mostly my own, imperfectly categorized by a combination of chronology, project and reagent types.  Minions sometimes got a shiny new box with their name on the side and sometimes inherited an already half-filled one.  Starting with a new minion or changing the direction of a project triggered a period of at least a week where I, together with the minion, must delve into the freezer to search for some reagent or another multiple times a day.  Finding things I’d made usually didn’t take too long, but finding something that I knew a past minion made?  Sigh.

Now, a few weeks before your summer minions start, is an excellent time to set up a logging system for your own personal stash of reagents if you don’t already have such a thing.  Yes, it will be a pain in the ass.  But the time you invest now will pay huge dividends.  You will, of course, avoid two weeks of failed experiments, or having to recreate a reagent due to uncertainty about what the label says.  You’ll have to trust me on that though because you’ll never actually know if you saved yourself from this fate or not – maybe your minion will have really good handwriting or something.  However, the first time that you realize you forgot a control or want to quickly test out a new idea and text your minion “also cycle mp72 with p312 & p313 when you do that PCR.  Tell you why tomorrow”.  BOOM!  You just saved a day.  With the log, the instructions are clear and information dense.  Most importantly, they can be flawlessly carried out in the absence of immediate understanding.  First of all, the exact location of the reagents is specified – not “I think the tube is in the box marked Minion 2009 with a white sticker with a red star on the top that should say something like badass plasmid on the side”.  Second of all, all of the relevant information  – like antibiotic selection or concentration or whatever – is accessible to your minion, should they need that information.

But, you say, my lab already has a logging system in place.  Why not just use that?  You could, except in my experience general lab logs usually lack in two ways that are useful for untrained temporary personnel.  The first is that they tend toward “finished” reagents, and not things that are “in process”, so they probably won’t capture the majority of what you’d find most useful for your minion to be able to find.  The second is that they tend to be hard to access, since they are often made using proprietary software and hosted on a shared drive*.  A temporary minion, if they can get the credentials to get to the shared drive, is unlikely to have the credentials to install the software to read the logs.  That means that your minion will need you to both figure out where stuff is at as well as enter new information about the stuff they create.  For these reasons, I suggest creating a private logging system for your stuff (that perhaps contains working stocks of stuff from the lab logs) that is easily accessible and editable by both you and your minion(s).  Because I wanted the information in my logs to be private yet easily accessible to the member of my scientific army, I ended up using a google doc spreadsheet.  When a new minion comes, I click the “share” button and add their e-mail address.  Done.

Alright!  You’re sold.  You probably already know the sciency stuff you’ll want to include in your logs.  I leave you with a few more pieces of advice.

1) Put in the log number explicitly as a field, to avoid “sorting” disasters.

2) Include the “source” (as in the name of who made/logged the material) and “date” – both of which will help you search your logs electronically.  And will help you cross-check with a notebook, if necessary.

3) Include a “notes” field and encourage verbosity; it will end up containing some gems.

4) Have a field for “box number” to make physically finding the right tube a little faster.

5) Don’t over-think it; grab any tube and label it number 1.  Grouping or prioritizing are completely unnecessary since spreadsheets have search buttons.

6) If a minion makes something good, have them log it right away.  Minion projects can lapse for periods of time that are long enough for an agar plate to completely dehydrate, even in the fridge.

7) Your private log is awesome, but don’t neglect your lab logs.  Anything that hits the threshold of “possibly useful to someone else” should be in a place where it can actually potentially be useful to someone else.

Your logs will be so awesome and useful that it will be hard to shut up about them.  “Did you put that in the logs yet?”  “I don’t know, you should check the logs.”  “Check it out! I just put those new constructs from our collaborators in the logs” “I was looking through the logs last night and thinking…”  Prepare yourself for a little gentle mockery.

* Sometimes restricted access is required by law.  For example, in the case of clinical samples tied to patient information.  Inquire!  Don’t go rogue.

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