Experiment Protocols | Scientific Productivity | On the Bench

7 Things to Consider When Exploring Supplies to Buy for Your Upcoming Experiment

There is a lot that goes into designing an experiment, which include: knowing your research question, formulating a hypothesis, figuring out the best experiment to address the question, figuring out proper controls, and determining if you have the resources to carry out the experiment. When you finally have things sort of figured out, then there is quite a bit that goes into buying supplies for the experiment!

Here are 7 tips that scientists should consider before purchasing lab supplies for the important upcoming experiment.

Have you ever thought you had everything for an experiment or thought you ordered everything but only find that you need one more thing? My advice is to create a protocol or game plan for the experiment and identify everything you will need. Jot down all the items as part of a “List of supplies.” Then determine which supplies are already available in the lab and which will need to be purchased. Taking some time to organize in the front end will save you a lot of time and hassle later on.

Vendors like Thermo Fisher or MilliporeSigma may be go-tos for your lab for certain reagents or products but do other vendors offer just-as-good and cheaper alternatives? In the case of ELISA kits or antibodies, multiple vendors may offer a similar array of products. In the case of lab consumables, such as gloves or pipet tips, certain vendors may offer discounted pricing for bulk orders. Some vendors may run special promotions. For budget purposes or if you are looking to potentially save some money, looking for alternative vendors will be valuable.

Figure out what you need for the experiment and see if the product matches your needs by looking at the product specification sheet. For example, does the organic solvent really need to be HPLC-grade? Does the antibody need to be monoclonal or can it be polyclonal? Do the pipet tips really need to be sterile?  If yes, then you will need to make sure that the product really is what you are looking for. Sometimes you may need to contact customer service for clarifications.

How do you know that the product you are looking to buy is a good product?  You might think: if a vendor is selling the product, shouldn’t it be good? Not necessarily. Sometimes an antibody may not be 100% specific to your protein of interest, resulting in a non-specific band on your Western blot.  Sometimes, an enzyme may not work to cut the His-tag off your recombinant protein, despite it being several hundred dollars a tube. That sounds ridiculous but it happens quite often. So it is important to be aware of other peoples’ opinions about a product, just like a restaurant review on Yelp.  What do other people say about the antibody and its specificity? Have others obtained quality data and published using this reagent or product?  Are there specific products that collaborators or colleagues recommend?  The process of finding reviews, digging up publications, or asking others for advice may take time but finding a quality trusted product will save a lot of time and hassle, not to mention money.

During the good times, cost isn’t much of an issue. During times of tight or restricted budgets – such as when a grant didn’t get funded and you’re strapped for cash – cost might be a top consideration. Still, it is important to make sure the product is of high quality and can be trusted. This is where reading reviews, publications, asking for referrals, and carefully evaluating online product specification sheets become very important.

If timeline isn’t an issue, you may consider calling the company to request a product sample. You may feel hesitant about spending $700 for a 50 ul tube of antibody when you do not know if it will work for your experiment. So, if you have the capacity to wait, you may want to consider requesting a sample. Some companies are happy to provide a 5 or 10 ul aliquot for free!  The same goes for buffers, gloves, tubes, and tips.

Regardless of whether you are a junior scientist or a senior scientist, sometimes you are just not sure about a product. You may consider asking for a second opinion from your PI, supervisor, friend, or colleague.  You may even post a question on research-based social media websites such as Researchgate.com.

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There is a lot that goes into product exploration and research for an upcoming experiment, especially if it is your first time performing a specific experiment! How do you know what products are best for you and can generate quality data?  I say: know exactly what you need, know what you’re buying, consult literature or with others, know your budget, and evaluate the potential tradeoff of quality versus cost.  Indeed, a lot of pre-research goes into research.

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