Almost immediately, our plans were muddied. Days after finalizing the refrigerator and freezer locations, our department offered us another refrigerator. We had been planning to purchase a mini-fridge to place beneath the bench for bacterial work, but could not turn down the chance to save money by taking free equipment — even if it was too large for its intended location. We ultimately decided that the new fridge would fit perfectly next to the freezer, a placement that would free up space under the bacterial bench for extra consumables.

Pro tip number 2: try several set-ups for equipment and supplies. Your final configuration will probably be the result of a number of iterations, and that’s OK.

Storing supplies

Once our equipment had been placed, we realized that we had a lot of empty wall space. We asked the carpentry team to add rows of open shelving wherever they could, effectively tripling our storage space.

Our last organizational hurdle was deciding how to fill the space with consumables and supplies. We started in the tissue-culture room, because a lot of plasticware is needed to grow brain tumour cells. We use two kinds of culture plate, ultra-low attachment and adherent, which look identical but have very different functions and prices. Our priority in the tissue-culture room was to separate these plastics, so people wouldn’t accidentally grab the wrong type of plate — avoiding confusion and failed experiments. We also needed to allocate space for other supplies. So we grabbed a pack of sticky notes and used our supply spreadsheet to label drawers and shelves with tentative locations for items.

We then tested out working in the space, to see whether our system made sense. Often, it didn’t. For example, we originally labelled some shelves as storage for serological pipettes. But we quickly realized that these could be kept in large drawers, and that the shelves would be better for storing bulkier items. We used the same approach to organize the remaining lab benches. Finally, we replaced the sticky notes with large adhesive labels with removable inserts, so we could easily change how things were organized. Clear labelling means there is a place for everything, and everything has its place.

Let the science begin

Lab organization can seem intimidating, or even boring — but it’s neither. For one thing, it gave us the opportunity to meet people in our neighbouring labs: when we needed inspiration, we checked out how their spaces were organized. These steps were not completed in a day, but took months. And although we are satisfied with our current layout, it could change as the lab grows.

Let’s face it: research is difficult. Taking the time to mindfully set up a new space, with organization as a top priority, is an investment in efficiency. Most importantly, your team will be able to work together cohesively, tackling tough scientific questions with minimal friction. Your future self — and lab members — will thank you.