Setting up a biomedical experiment: a hassle in itself (2015 edition)

When doing research that is more fundamental, you will want to do measurements at a certain point that no one else in this world has done before. Sorting that out can be quite a hassle, if turning out to work after all. But, especially in fundamental research, if it works it is worth it: most of the time you will get results that are exciting.

For future projects I have developed a strategy that will hopefully minimize efforts in the setup of methods, and give more time for the actual experiment, analysis and the writing it up. Here’s the flow chart:

For techniques that are NOVEL

  1. First, critically question whether the technique you are about to use will be absolutely necessary
  2. Secondly, try to get all the knowledge that you can aquire from the members of your research group. Find out who did similar things, or who has seen this maybe at an international visit somewhere else.
  3. Define clear end points: what do you want to measure? What if it doesn’t work (to your hypothesis, project, etc)?
  4. Always bring along very good controls when you are doing an experiment!! Good controls tell you if something worked, or didn’t, AND why.
  5. Dare to stop. If something is not working out, don’t try it more than a couple of times. Instead, think critically about your setup. Consult people (also from other fields, especially chemists or bioinformaticians can be sometimes helpful).
  6. Document well whatever you have done and when your technique worked, or not.

For adaption of well-known techniques

  1. Best thing possible is: someone in your lab has a working protocol and has tested it.
  2. If not, do a rigurous literature research. Find out how other people used the resources that you have to come to a desired outcome.
  3. Contact those investigators that have apparently well working methods. Ask them for their protocol, talk to them on the phone about it, be particularly eager to get clarifications. Try it out right away.
  4. Try to get one of the lab technicians involved in your thinking. They know generally a lot about the methodological tricks and might offer valuable input that you would have never gotten from PubMed or the book.
  5. Again, whatever you do, take along good controls that tell you where it went wrong.

Investing time in your methodological setup can be a hassle. But it will pay off eventually: both financial, and in terms of scientific outcomes (results, publications, impact on society).