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Top 10 Laboratory Must-Haves

While some equipment will always be on that unobtainable wish list, here is a breakdown of the items your lab absolutely must have to function properly.

Legions of great new research instruments are released each year, ranging from high-tech microspectrometers to improved rotary evaporators. But, the hottest new technology is not necessarily what a lab needs to operate successfully. A handful of crucial items create the basic foundation of nearly every medical science experiment. For those trying to decide what to buy and what to skip, make sure to keep these must-haves on the shopping list.

Safety First

This saying exists for a reason: When working in any environment that includes potentially dangerous materials and equipment, tools that protect the researchers and lab stafiare crucial. The fume hood reigns as a chief necessity among these items, and no laboratory should even consider going without.

“Anyone working with hazardous chemicals needs one,” says Pei-San Tsai, lab director at the University of Colorado at Boulder and professor of integrative physiology with expertise in reproductive endocrinology of vertebrates and invertebrates. Although they do not come cheap, many labs have multiple fume hoods, as they are generally used on a daily basis and essential to many experiments.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) rivals the fume hood in importance to the safety and daily activities of a lab. Every individual in a laboratory must be outfftted with gloves, protective eye glasses or goggles, and a lab coat. The results of a chemical spill, or even a small splash, can be otherwise catastrophic — resulting in severe burns, blindness, and a litany of other horrifying accidents.

PPE also includes common sense items such as shoes, and, in some cases, specialty equipment such as respirators, ear plugs, and full body suits. The use of fume hoods and PPE work in combination to ensure safety and reduce liability — two top priorities for any lab director or researcher.

Phases of H2O

Water plays a central role in executing many lab activities. Three major devices allow scientists to freeze, wash, or dilute as needed in their work. First is refrigeration. Tsai claims that machinery for temperatures at 4° C, -20° C, and -80° C is essential for the preservation of various specimens.

Most laboratories require both a refrigerator and a freezer, or a machine that combines the two. These tools protect samples of all kinds for prolonged and delayed testing. Naturally, any human or animal substance must be preserved properly for an experiment or for a test to proceed properly.

The next water-related device in most labs is a highquality water purifier. Tsai recommends the Milli-Q system. Both pure and ultrapure water can be produced directly from a tap with this system, and it is designed to accommodate a variety of different types of bench work. According to the manufacturer, Merck KGaA, “the water produced following the system’s pretreatment step may be used for basic laboratory needs, such as buffer and reagent preparation, microbiology media preparation, histology, dissolution testing (with UV detection), and rinsing of glassware.”

Similarly, waterbaths and incubators are often essential to the operations of a lab — inciting chemical reactions using increased temperatures. Alternatively, waterbaths can be used to maintain a stable temperature over an extended period of time. The digital temperature controls on modern machines allow for precise management of degrees. Incubators also provide a controlled environment for the customization of several factors to meet the needs of an experiment.

Zoomers and Shakers

No laboratory can truly be considered an operating research facility without microscopes. These tools are the foundation of even elementary school science experiments, but they come in a wide range of prices and technology. High-power microscopes are necessary for nearly all medical research labs, while low-power microscopes are more likely to appear in secondary school science classes to examine dead insects and cloth fibers.

Beyond high school, few labs can survive a day without a centrifuge as well. These machines clarify and concentrate samples that need to be tested. In the fields of molecular biology, polymer science, and biochemistry, ultracentrifuges perform the most common functions and are considered a primary tool.

While centrifuges work to separate substances, vortex shakers and stir plates mix materials together. Liquids inside of vials oscillate together until they reach an acceptable level of suspension for the experiment. Stir plates — as common in home breweries as they are in research labs — can increase the cell counts in yeast starters through continuous stirring and spur a number of other favorable effects.

Precision and Computer Programs

For any job that requires the sectioning of tissues — as most research in the biomedical industry does — a cryostat is nonnegotiable for day-to-day operations. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and biological microtome type are the two primary functions of this technology, allowing for the careful separation and identification of tissues. Most, if not all, human-oriented research necessitates a cryostat on hand.

In this day and age, research across the spectrum — human or otherwise — requires one or more computers. The idea of any lab without a laptop is unthinkable for most scientists. A computer is required for everything from budget management to running test results, and no lab is complete without at least one, though likely a half dozen or more are needed. Tsai relies on computers for “data analysis, literature search, presentation, record keeping,” and numerous other functions.

Tsai says that she cannot imagine her laboratory operating without a single one of the tools on this list. A century ago, much of this technology was a far-off dream, but these inventions have largely contributed to the enormous pace of advancement in medicine. Today, these items are among the most basic of needs for any research project, and a good place for a new lab director to start building an inventory of must-haves for their workplace.

— Mapes is a Washington, D.C.–based freelance writer and a
frequent contributor to Endocrine News. She wrote about the
“Plan B” pill and overweight women in the August issue.

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