Lab Manuals

May 16th, 2013

ChemBark's Orby the InsectI’m always interested to come across instructional documents on chemistry professors’ Web sites. These documents can be great resources, because they often contain very practical advice about safety, direction on how to maintain instruments, and guidance on experimental technique from experts in the field. Taking the time to commit this information to writing also helps prevent “institutional” loss of memory when senior members of the lab graduate without having properly trained the next generation of students.

Unfortunately, you don’t come across that many lab manuals online. Perhaps this is because some of them are distributed in hard copy only. Perhaps, some professors don’t want to explicitly write procedures and safety guidelines in fear they might be used against them in court. My guess, however, is that most people can’t find the time to sit down and write out this information—or they don’t see the value in doing so.

Jim Tour’s “Guidelines for Research” is among my favorite documents. He gets very specific about some of the advice he doles out. For instance, all nitrogen bubblers left on overnight should have a flow rate of one bubble per second or less. Tour provides guidance on how he likes notebooks to be kept, and he also provides expectations about work ethic and vacations. Finally, there is the passage on personal hygiene:

Personal Hygiene: Although not customary in all countries, Americans generally bathe at least several times per week. As a result, many Americans are offended by the infrequent bathing habits of others (whether Americans or internationals). Thus, you may be leaving a negative impression of yourself without ever knowing it. Unfortunately, bad impressions are often difficult to overcome. Likewise, be sure to use an underarm deodorant since most Americans find body odor to be most offensive. I have seen people causing themselves to be ostracized by others simply because of poor personal hygiene habits.

It might seem trifling or overbearing to provide advice on this level, but the info is correct and I wish more people heeded Tour’s advice.

While the idea of writing a manual all at once seems daunting, I think that doing it in pieces seems quite reasonable. In fact, I think you can assemble some really good tidbits of advice from material that is already posted online. These documents are almost like official memoranda to members of professors’ labs. For instance:

The famous “How to Write a Scientific Paper” article in Advanced Materials had its beginnings as a type-written memo from George Whitesides to his lab.

There’s also Ken Suslick’s cool presentation on how to give a talk.

And I like how some professors provide specific instructions on how to ask them for letters of recommendation.

Anyway, before I go writing similar stuff in the future, I wanted to know if you all had come across any great lab manuals or memos. Leave them in the comments, and I’ll compile a list below.

Lab Manuals

Jim Tour’s “Guidelines for Research
Melanie Sanford’s “Group Welcome Kit
Dave Collum’s site
Bart Bartlett’s “Standard Operating Procedures
Turro Group’s site
Watson Group Manual
Tolman Lab’s “Standard Operating Procedures
Armen Zakarian’s site


33 Responses to “Lab Manuals”

  1. anniechem Says:

    I’m very much in favor of having clear and written expectations of ones students, and having a central document with all the important lab goodies :) If I am ever fortunate enough to run my own lab, there will definitely be such a document! Best wishes for you getting your lab off and running.

    I came across this one a while back. Don Watson at University of Delaware.

  2. Julian Says:

    The Tolman lab has some good stuff, such as this SOP document:

    See the ‘useful links’ on their page for more useful documents:

  3. bad wolf Says:

    I am also a big fan of the lab manual concept, having come across the Tour document ages ago. I think it said it was based on a John Wood manual that i’ve never come across, and Brian Stoltz didn’t seem to have something similar posted. Anyway it seems like a good way to avoid the game of ‘telephone’ most groups seem to be run by. Prof. Sanford’s specifically spells out situations to come ask herself for advice, for safety and waste disposal. Bravo!

    I came across some pdfs on the Armen Zakarian group website that aren’t consolidated ( , at the bottom of the page)–good coverage of air-sensitive material handling there.

  4. :( Says:

    Nick Turro, RIP, had fantastic centralized resources for his group:

  5. anniechem Says:

    I was just wandering through Turro’s resources (wow! amazing!) and found this little gem:

    “Mamoo (Must Appropriately Make Offices Orderly) is the annual Spring Cleaning, during which we update the Turro Group Inventory. Do not even think of dodging your Mamoo responsibilities. The day is miserable for all of us, but is required to keep entropy from taking over.”


  6. SN Says:

    I’m a fan of Dave Collum’s website which covers pretty much everything, down to what size disposable vials you should be using for which reactions.

  7. Paul Says:

    I’m floored Collum’s site lacks a page devoted to Austrian economics.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    Paul, you might also be interested in the safety section of Jim Tour’s lab website (

  9. Chemjobber Says:

    Does anyone have a copy of the Denmark manual? It is very interesting.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    Richmond Sarpong’s lab has pretty decent SOPs on their website:

  11. Young Padawan Says:
    I especially like the examples of what not to do in the lab.

    Quote from one of the pictures:
    “Remember, you are in graduate school in Chemistry, and not training for a medical practioner’s appointment….”

  12. wolfie Says:

    Personal Hygiene: Although not customary in all countries, Americans generally bathe at least several times per week.

    And they are the main contributors for the CO2 problem (30% of the world’s output).

  13. qvxb Says:

    Jim Tour’s comments on personal hygiene brought to mind the contents of a letter Napoleon supposedly wrote to Josephine; “Will be home in three days. Don’t bathe.”

  14. RB Woodweird Says:

    When I started in grad school, my PI tossed us in the lab and ignored us except for the occasional screaming and kicking of trash cans fit.

  15. prunesmith Says:

    The Dinca lab manual at MIT is useful.

  16. Anna Says:

    I’m most interested in the lab manuals that spell out expectations for group culture, beyond just listing safety and technical information. Several of the examples above do this, though when the idea is presented to some PIs, they shudder at the thought of making expectations explicit (maybe because they could be held accountable for being unreasonable?)

    Another old one that I don’t see linked here yet:

  17. Paul Says:

    That’s a great addition, Anna. Thanks.

    I always thought that profs were nervous about explicitly stating work hours (e.g., 60 hrs/week) because of possible violations of labor laws, but on closer inspection, I don’t think they need to worry. The Fair Labor Standards Act limits work weeks to 40 hrs + 4 hrs overtime (1.5x time) and Congress has set the minimum wage at $7.25. Even at 60 hrs/wk, students and postdocs surpass minimum wage. While the number of hours demanded by many professors exceeds the maximum in the FLSA, there is an exemption for workers who are not working purely for their employer—i.e., the nature of research as “training” means that students and postdocs glean benefits beyond their wages, which makes these employees exempt from the 40-hr rule and they need not be paid overtime. The situation is analogous to medical residents, who are often explicitly required to work 80-hr weeks.

  18. bad wolf Says:

    I appreciate the profs spelling out time expectations, although they could just say that that is how much effort a typical person needs to finish in a timely manner. (I don’t think undergraduates realize how easily you adapt to what sounds initially like a terribly long workweek.) They seem to vary a bit in whether 60h includes literature reading or not–i would hope ‘includes.’

    Those manuals also remind me of the ‘house rules’ i had at a boarding house–every rule or warning was basically the result of someone screwing up in the past and their infractions being written into the list. So when a professor complains about standing around drinking coffee, i assume there was some grad student in his or her past that really abused the privilege.

    Peter Wipf’s page shows his strong use of LIMS. Paul, have you given any thought to instituting any Lab Management software? I always thought it would be easier to institute it when starting up a lab than later.

  19. Amina Phenol Says:

    Kubiak lab manual:

  20. Dave Says:

    The Caltech Chem5b manual has a great appendix on high vac line techniques that was written many years ago by Barbara Burger and John Bercaw, though few labs have these kinds of set-ups these days.

  21. HaNO3S Says:

    I love the part where prof. Tour offers to bring chicken soup to group members who are ill :-)

  22. Moustache Says:

    Agree with Chemjobber – the Denmark lab manual is a must-read.

  23. Ian Says:

    In Sanford’s manual, they recommend reusing gloves (only 2-3 pairs a day)… this seems like not a good idea to me. I’ve always been a “use ’em and lose ’em” guy because the risk of contamination seems so high. Thoughts?

  24. Paul Says:

    I switch out of contaminated gloves right away. If there’s no obvious contamination, I’ll pull them off finger-by-finger, like a batting glove, and re-use them (assuming that I’m not working with something super-toxic).

  25. Ian Says:

    But how do you know when a glove is contaminated?

    Also, I keep forgetting to confirm that I am not a spammer. Checking boxes is challenging.

  26. Paul Says:

    I roll the dice for low-risk situations. For most experiments, I only chuck gloves for obvious contamination (that I can see or feel). I don’t reuse gloves if I’ve been working with something nasty, like OsO4, even if they appear clean.

    Also, my apologies for the slightly annoying “not a spammer” check box, but the new anti-spam plugin has been doing a better job than what was here before. I added a third anti-spam plugin today to fight trackback spam. Hopefully, the triple cocktail currently deployed will get the job done. I think the check box is preferable to a standard CAPTCHA, which can be very annoying.

  27. James Says:

    I found this advice on multi step total syn useful:

  28. Sterling Curtis Says:

    SECTION 1.4 – FIRES Fires are a common emergency in the laboratory. In the event of a fire, do the following things: A. Assist any person in immediate danger to safety, if it can be accomplished without risk to yourself. B. Immediately activate the building fire alarm system. This will automatically notify the Campus Police, and sound the fire alarm bells or horns to evacuate the building. It is best to have these people respond and not to be needed than to have them arrive too late for potential rescue. C. If the fire is small enough, use a nearby fire extinguisher to control and extinguish the fire. Don’t fight the fire if these conditions exist: a. The fire is too large or out of control. b. If the atmosphere is toxic. D. If the first attempts to put out the fire do not succeed, evacuate the building immediately. E. Doors, and if possible, windows, should be closed as the last person leaves a room or area of a lab. F. Do not use elevators; use building stairwells. G. When they hear the fire alarm sound, all personnel shall evacuate the building immediately. H. Upon evacuating the building, personnel should proceed at least 150 feet from the affected building. I. No personnel will be allowed to re-enter the building without permission of the Fire Department. J. You must report all fires to theEnvironmental Safety Office. All fires will be investigated by Environmental Health & Safety Officers and/or the local fire marshal.

  29. wolfie Says:

    might – but cannot, so far. At least.

    not forever. There is always change.

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