Tips for 1st year PhD students: Safety

Having recently completed my PhD in a Molecular Biology Lab I have been thinking back over my time as a PhD student and trying to think about what I wish I had known in my first year.

There are lots of practical things I could talk about and may blog about in the future such as: how to organise and plan your reading and your lab work. However I feel the most important thing to be aware of at the start of your PhD is your safety.

When I started my PhD I was really keen and enthusiastic, I was really happy that my hard work as an undergraduate had enabled me to get on a PhD program. I had worked in labs before, so wasn’t daunted by the idea of lab equipment and dangerous chemicals as I trusted that everyone was taking the correct safety precautions when using them.

Looking back I was really naive and an optimist.

  • If someone asks you to smell their lab coat-don’t!  Early on in my PhD another more experienced PhD student asked me to smell her lab coat. I was very trusting and did, not even questioning why, I said I couldn’t smell anything, she responded ‘are you sure you don’t smell almonds?’At this point I did ask why? As I  know cyanide compounds smell of almonds, and yes it turned out she had been working with cyanide compounds and was worried she had spilt them on herself and dumbly had asked me to check. As you start your PhDs do not be naive, always ask yourself why, and do not automatically trust scientists that are more senior than yourself as human error or a case of bad judgement can happen to anyone.
  •  Always check the material safety data sheet for the chemicals you are working with and take the correct precautions. I had a lot of respect for the other scientists that I worked with in the lab and so when I was taught how to make up a buffer by another PhD student I accepted that despite the terrible stench caused by this chemical it must not be harmful in this amount as they made this up regularly on the bench. However later on in my PhD I realised that this chemical is not nice to be inhaled and the buffer should be made in a fume hood, showing that you should double check advice you are given by others in the lab. If a chemical smells bad use a fume hood, to be polite to others in the lab but also as it is probably toxic.
  • If you are not trained to do something don’t do it even if someone is pressuring you. During my PhD I had an occasion where I ended up working with chemicals that required attendance to a training course and also required you to wear an monitoring device. I was under the impression that I was going to be aiding in the experiment by carrying out other work that did not require handling of this chemical and the other scientist who had been trained would be doing these steps. However when the day arrived the scientist showed me how to use the chemical once briefly talked me through the use of double gloves, observed me carry out one step, then left. Leaving me alone in the lab. This situation made me very uncomfortable but I felt I had to go along with it as otherwise I would be seen as making a fuss and as not being competent. I carried out the experiment and I was lucky everything was fine. However in hindsight I was not trained so it was not safe of me to agree to do this at the time, though I did go on to get trained at a later date. The scientist in question regularly used this chemical and because of this had developed a blasé attitude as things so rarely go wrong. You need to trust your own judgement of situations and not go along with other peoples poor lab practice.

I have used these examples to try and demonstrate that though you will not be coming across unsafe working conditions every day in your PhD you will at some point in the PhD process as human error and poor judgement happens to even senior scientists. It is best to be aware of this from the outset so that you know how to respond when it does occur, its too easy to automatically say yes when an person in authority asks you to do something, but instead remember you can say no, ask why, or question the safety of what they are asking of you.

I guess in the end my message to you all is:  Trust no one, question everything, be a realist, don’t get pressured into doing something you don’t feel comfortable with and in the end look after yourself. By doing this hopefully you will feel safe doing your PhD and avoid putting yourself at any unnecessary risk.




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