Pinching pennies...

Sep 29 2011 Published by under Lab

So I have a buddy of mine who is a business manager for an academic department at a SLAC and he was particularly concerned with a new PI that they just hired.  This kid came from BSD lab that was well funded and never wanted for anything.  This guy had it all, supplies, technicians, as many expensive machines as he wanted.  Now he is starting off year 2 in a not so well funded lab as he has been unsuccessful in pulling down any external funding.  I know what his start up package is and lets say that it is actually very generous for a SLAC and the department even kicked in for two years of a technician and covered the stipends of more than a few undergrads.

Well a few months back when I was visiting my friend, I met with the PI who was stressing over money woes and we toured his lab.  My buddy wanted me to come in and see the place and thought maybe I could come up with some ways for this guy to save some money. The business manager and I go way back to the days of me working as a TA and setting up labs, slinging reagents, and helping more than a few PI's build mini-scientific empires from the ground up. I've run more than my fair share of cat5, installed cabinets, put expensive equipment together (sometimes the wrong way, you're not supposed to have extra screws I guess), and done it on a less than modest budget.

So when I laid eyes on noob PI's lab I saw many opportunities to save money that he did not and brought them up to him.  He was very receptive to my suggestions and just never saw where he was wasting money because well, he never had to worry about the bottom line.

Here are some of the ways I told him to trim the fat:
1. The noob PI had at least $1k in expired protein gels sitting away in the freezer and boxes of old Laemmli buffer that had gone bad. When I suggested pouring his own gels and making loading buffer he initially bristled but when he sat down with my buddy and they crunched the numbers he almost shit a brick with how much he could have saved.

2. Bacterial cells. Dude was spending a big chunk of change on competent cells. Once again I got look at as if I just told him the Earth was flat when I suggested making your own competent cells. Its not that hard and you can make a ton up in a single batch. That means you only order one box and never have to order it again. This may not sit well with Invitrogen but it will save you and hopefully him, a little money.

3. Homie was about to drop some money on additional thermocyclers when I suggested why not use the ones in the teaching lab that would work just fine and largely sit unused but for a few weeks out of the year. The point is to ascertain what common equipment is around you and try to take advantage of it. If you can use a shaker or a spec that is common equipment why waste your precious start up on one?

4. Buffers...Its okay to order premade buffers when you are rolling in cash and its not worth your time but when you are running a lab on a shoestring budget, you should be making a lot of them.

5. Cell culture media... Once again make it if you are pinching pennies. Its easy like a lot of the other things above and its a skill that he could teach one of his undergrad minions to do.

6. Don't buy every single summer undergrad flunkie in your lab a labcoat that is monogrammed with their and the labs name on it.

7. Beg, borrow, and steal (if you have to) old equipment. Dude passed up the opportunity to snatch up a freezers, fridges, and glassware from the lab of a retiring PI. Why you ask? Because the stuff was older or had someone else's name scrawled on it, or it wasn't new. This is just plain retarded take advantage of it. I know of a new PI at my institution that probably inherited enough stuff from a retiring PI that was worth maybe a third of his overall start up. And he got a ton of stuff. This parcel of information made me think that this noob PI's chances for success are dim if he is not capitalizing on opportunities such as these.

8. Software. Buy it if you really need it or go in with another lab on a license pack but you'd be surprised at what you can find for free. I say this because noob had very expensive software packs sitting in the box for experiments that he had neither conceived nor had the equipment to do but wanted it because that was what his old lab had.

I'm not telling you how to run a lab, in fact many PI's do it successfully by violating all the rules that I have listed above. But if you are faltering and trying to get off the ground with a less than generous war chest, then maybe some of these cost saving ideas can help you. Fuck now I sound like the Suze Orman or Clark Howard of science.

4 responses so far

  • Pascale says:

    Pouring your own gels may not be cost effective. If you run a gazillion every week, then the odd gel or two that doesn't work out right becomes trivial. If you don't run as many, then one bad gel may negate the cost of buying them precast. The latter turned out to be the case in my own lab (as we figured out after 3 bad gels).

    Another suggestion is creativity. I always inherited a bunch of "useless" stuff from predecessors. Items could often be repurposed for another task (and it's fun to use binder clips, super glue, and duct tape).

    • True but you also are not taking into consideration the failure rate of commercial gels as well too. Once you get enough experience pouring them, you success rate is probably comparable to commercial gels.

      But also if you are running a lot of gels then you probably have the money to do it but for small labs that infrequently run gels, cast your own so you don't waste money by having unused precast gels expire.

  • I hope you told this profligate fuckebagge to start growing and purifying his own restriction enzymes. You know you can grow like eleventeen kajillion units of EcoRI in only a couple liters of LB, right?

  • RespiSci says:

    noob PI sounds like the struggle is managing the research not just supplies. Managing via the supplies is a classic mistake finance/bean counters make. The real key to managing the lab is to know what and why experiments are being performed AT ALL TIMES. If you manage the research, the supplies fall into place.

    As for turning one's nose up to used equipment/glassware, that is silly. If you know who used the equipment and you trust their maintenance of it, take it especially if you can get it for a song or better yet, for free! And you comment about sharing software is bang on.

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