The majority of biochemistry research is based on wet laboratory experiments, yet undergraduate degrees strongly focus on the theoretical aspects of this discipline. The first lab project can be a significant learning curve for students, involving challenges in laboratory techniques, research reproducibility, consistency, resilience, and practical skills. Drawing from my experience in two research internships, a master’s project, and completing three rotations in a PhD program, I have outlined here valuable tips and advice to help undergraduates navigate this transition smoothly, enabling them to excel in their first lab project.

Most undergraduate biomedical degrees focus on delivering lectures and theory, with little hands-on lab practice. Theoretical knowledge is, of course, an essential component for successful wet lab projects, as it facilitates formulating ideas, interpreting your results, and understanding the underlying mechanisms behind various laboratory techniques. Usually, however, many important practical aspects of laboratory work are not included in the syllabus. For a large number of students, their first stand-alone lab project is part of the bachelor’s or integrated master’s degree; for others it could be a summer research internship. The latter, particularly, has many advantages and I highly recommend this very rewarding experience. It is a low-pressure and relaxed environment, where results typically do not affect your overall degree grades, providing you with the freedom to delve into various branches of biochemistry and learn from your mistakes. It develops your hands-on skills and boosts your confidence in the lab, which will greatly contribute to the success of your actual degree lab project. Regardless of the nature of your first lab project, it may seem like a very overwhelming and daunting process. However, with sufficient preparation and guidance, your project can be accomplished stress-free. I hope that the following tips will help you excel at your first lab project and make you feel more confident about your future research.

A few weeks before starting your lab project, it is fruitful to schedule a meeting, in-person or online, with your future supervisor and principal investigator (PI) to discuss the project in more detail and ask for a reading list of relevant background literature. To ensure a smooth transition into your lab project, it is important to openly communicate with your direct supervisor (usually a PhD student or a postdoc) and PI. Discuss expectations and the level of guidance you require. If you are especially keen on your project topic, you may want to already start with some in silico research and preparation. For instance, inspecting the AlphaFold2 model of your protein of interest, searching for homologous sequences, doing phylogenetic analysis, or designing primers. There are plenty of free online bioinformatics tools to help you with this; have a look at www.expasy.org or www.ebi.ac.uk/services. Additionally, you may inquire about the availability of any necessary reagents or time-consuming materials (like strains or plants), to have them ready right from the beginning of your lab work.

In your first few weeks at the lab, you will most likely get plenty of support from your supervisor and colleagues. It is absolutely natural to be overwhelmed at the beginning with the completely new environment, not knowing where you can find different lab consumables or specific devices. Make sure to note it down, as their location is not always intuitive. It is important to get help early and not being afraid to ask plenty of questions. Bear in mind that your supervisor has their own project to carry out, so after 2–3 weeks in the lab, you should be fairly independent. Nevertheless, the time taken to get a hang of the lab reality is individual, so do not hesitate to openly discuss this matter with your lab mates.

Maintaining a successful project involves passion and enthusiasm; however, a well-organized schedule and good lab bookkeeping will help significantly. I recommend setting up a Google or Outlook calendar and sharing it with your mentor. Try to plan your work, in consultation with the supervisor, a week ahead. Some experiments include long waiting times (like running gels, growing cells or plants), which you can fill with other tasks. Make sure to read protocols ahead of time, as some materials may need to be prepared a day in advance, like autoclaved medium or cooled down equipment (Figure 1). Making a ‘to do list’ can help with that. When writing your own protocol, I recommend writing it clearly and in very fine detail, even including exact reference numbers for consumable products. Imagine that someone might need to repeat your protocol in a few years, and hopefully reproduce your results. Little, seemingly irrelevant, things could be a factor contributing to your observations. On the other hand, I usually found very detailed protocols to be difficult to follow, once immersed in the actual procedure. Writing a brief summary protocol with just the essential steps can streamline the task, but keep in mind all the little details.

Figure 1

During my undergraduate research project, I have worked on E. coli peptidoglycan cell wall division, testing activity of different β-lactam antibiotics. I had to prepare the LB agar medium with proper antibiotics concentrations in advance.

Figure 1

During my undergraduate research project, I have worked on E. coli peptidoglycan cell wall division, testing activity of different β-lactam antibiotics. I had to prepare the LB agar medium with proper antibiotics concentrations in advance.

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When it comes to lab work etiquette, clear sample labels are a must. Usually a unique title, initials and date should suffice, since the date can link the sample to more details which you have included in your lab book. Once you get dozens of microcentrifuge tubes scattered in many different boxes in your freezer, it is convenient to make a spreadsheet to keep track of them. Make sure you include not only the contents of the tube and other essential information (e.g., plasmid map, concentration, buffer/solvent), but also the location of the box. Believe me, you don’t want to spend hours searching through a –70°C freezer risking frostbite and defrosting everyone else’s stocks.

A helpful habit to have is recording your lab activities in your notebook every day after finishing work, again with plenty of details. It is surprising how quickly one can forget the specific details of the day’s work. This becomes particularly challenging when troubleshooting the same experiment repeatedly for a few weeks. Despite the apparent similarity of each day, you would make subtle modifications to refine the protocol until it eventually succeeds. I recommend noting down small bullet points of your tasks as you progress through the day. This greatly helps for recalling your work when completing your notebook. One of the biggest challenges during my first lab experience was keeping track of my progress in cloning 18 different constructs at the same time. Each construct would fail at a different step, starting from polymerase chain reaction (PCR), through Escherichia coli transformation to sequencing. Making a checklist and timeline for each individual construct was really helpful.

During your placement, you will most likely have weekly or biweekly meetings with your PI to check on your advancement and to help with any potential obstacles. Creating a meeting agenda and a slideshow can help you avoid awkward silences and guarantee a more organized and productive discussion. Equally be sure to consistently take notes during these sessions. Frankly, I do not want to admit how many times I have forgotten crucial points of the meeting as I trusted my memory too much.

Undergraduate lab projects and summer internship programmes are usually accompanied with useful training in career advice and science communication. Take advantage of the advertised workshops that interest you, but try to be selective in your choices, as one could spend an entire doctorate just on training. I encourage you to be inquisitive about the techniques and machines in the lab. PhD students and postdocs are very enthusiastic when it comes to sharing their knowledge. Feel free to ask whether you may shadow them, as you might learn about interesting methods which could prove valuable in the future.

In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges in a lab project is building up resilience. Research is a very slow process and most of the experiments will not work the first time; some may not even work for a few weeks or months. However, you need to remember that even failures bring you closer to a proper conclusion. By testing things that ended up not working, you are narrowing down the conditions that could be successful next time (Figure 2). No one expects you to make a major breakthrough during an undergraduate project. I suggest taking it slow and steady to avoid making careless mistakes or simply burning out. During your first lab project, you are mostly meant to learn how to do good research with robust scientific integrity. It is much better to do a few sound, well-thought experiments (including all the essential controls), rather than get ample results of questionable quality and reproducibility.

Figure 2

During my lab project, I have also performed HILO fluorescence microscopy. The microscope was controlled by a game controller! To get proper fluorescent stanining I had to try a few different dye concentrations and incubation timings.

Figure 2

During my lab project, I have also performed HILO fluorescence microscopy. The microscope was controlled by a game controller! To get proper fluorescent stanining I had to try a few different dye concentrations and incubation timings.

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When your experiment eventually works and you get some exciting results, do not rush with impulsive interpretations. Many times, an interesting observation can be explained by something very mundane. Once you validate your results, ensure the data is backed up. I recommend using a cloud service (such as OneDrive or servers provided by your institution), which is more resistant to malfunction compared to a hard drive. The latter may be necessary for huge files, like raw microscopy images, when transfer speed and cloud storage are limited. Another benefit of online storage is the ability to access it from anywhere – other computers in the institute, your computer at home or during a conference.

To summarize, it is crucial how you start your research, but how you finish is equally important. Ensure that all your research is safe, and your legacy can be utilized by future students. Preserve genetic material by, e.g., making glycerol stocks or storing sufficient number of seeds. Moreover, update the spreadsheets; clean up your bench, fridges and freezers of unnecessary samples and solutions. I suggest copying the data you generated to your own USB stick and personal cloud storage. In a few years, when you are writing a paper based on your research, having the data will be very convenient. Scanning your lab book may prove useful too; just make sure to ask your PI for permission. Additionally, I found the scans advantageous in my future labs, when I reused the protocols and troubleshooting ideas.

Undergraduate lab projects are an amazing opportunity to put to use your knowledge as part of cutting-edge research. They allow you to have a sneak peek of PhD life and decide whether this career path is for you. Moreover, they will significantly improve your CV, and your application will be more competitive for future positions, in both academia (like master’s, PhD or research assistant) and industry. You may wish to keep in touch with your PI, to ask for a reference letter, which is essential in almost all applications. Additionally, the connections you make during the project may spark future collaborations or exchange of expertise. In my case, I have returned for my PhD to the same institution where I conducted my first lab internship. For many students, the undergraduate lab project is actually the most enjoyable part of their degree. With that, I wish you a great experience!

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I am currently a first-year rotational PhD student on an interdisciplinary PhD programme in Norwich Research Park, namely The EDESIA programme. During my first rotation, I worked on starch digestion by Bifidobacterium bacteria, members of our gut microbiome. My second rotation focuses on iron biofortification in wheat. I studied an integrated master’s in biochemistry at the University of Oxford, with my master’s project in microbiology. Via two summer research internships, I had the opportunity to explore the beauty of plant research. I would like to thank Thomas Redpath for lots of useful feedback on this article. Email: [email protected] Email: [email protected].

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