Posted by: Calvin C | May 27, 2009

Lab work outside the classroom

If you ask me to rate the differences between a classroom lab in Chemical and Biological Engineering (CHBE) and the iGEM lab on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being “exactly the same” and 10 being “not related”), I would give it a 7.  Why? I can provide a few reasons to show it:

1)      You get more than 4 hours to get some data

  • The time restriction in a classroom lab really decreases the accuracy of the data.  Although the time limit pushes us to work more efficiently, the quality of the work greatly decreases and accidents are more likely to happen.

2)      The correct data actually matters

  • Back in 2ndyear engineering lab, the correct data was not for marks.  However in iGEM, getting the data right is everything.  Any result that is unsure must be retested for accuracy.

3)      There is no TA to give you the correct answer

  • In the classroom, most questions related to the experiment can be answered by the TA.   In iGEM, you have to seek answers from literature or other lab members.  However, sometimes no one has the answer, so they must be obtained through experiments.

4)      The experiments are not always perfect

  • In the classroom, all the lab procedures are tailored perfectly for the experiment.  In iGEM, procedures are not written as perfectly as the lab course manual and some important steps may be forgotten.  For example, forgetting to cover up light-sensitive antibiotics is something that happens quiet often….but then again, some steps are often done incorrectly in CHBE labs too.

5)      Everything must be prepare ahead of time

  • Unlike the classroom lab where all the reagents with the exact concentration are already prepared by the TA, all the reagents must be ordered, prepared and stored correctly by yourself in iGEM.

6)      There is always more than one way of doing something

  • Classroom labs have a strict procedure that must be followed.  In iGEM, there are usually multiple protocols to choose from and they often could be modified to suit specific needs.

7)      The results tell you that something went wrong, not your TA

  • In a classroom lab, your lab TA knows exactly every step of the procedure and can identify your mistakes (it is often their job to look for your mistakes) during the experiment.  In iGEM, mistakes are often not noticed until you get your results the next day when you find out that none of your cells survived…

Of course there are similarities in the iGEM lab and in the CHBE lab.  The lab courses are designed to simulate real laboratory work, but models are only accurate to a certain degree as anyone who has done differential equations would know.

Working on the iGEM bench allows me to practice my lab techniques much more often than in my 2ndyear chemical engineer labs.  Back in CHBE, we spent 15% of the time in the lab getting nonsense data, 80% of the time writing up the report and 5% of the time looking for the TA to mark our work.  In the end, we learn that the skills to explain data and tailoring graphs are much more important than getting the correct data.



  1. Exactly…

    This is also the difference between a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree: as an undergraduate, the instructors are trying to pass people through the pipeline in the time allotted (3 hours lab time per week, 14 weeks?). Whether the experiment works is irrelevant.

    A Master’s degree gives you few classes but lots of lab time. They expect you to “Master” the techniques, knowledge, etc. If the experiment doesn’t work, you’re not going to graduate, so work, work, work!

    And the PhD: well, by this point, you’ve mastered the techniques, so let’s see you do some world-class research! No classes, except maybe a one-week course (a seminar) now and then if you think it’ll help you do your research. Maybe being the TA for a class or two, or even teach a class! Woohoo!

    That’s what makes iGEM so special: you get the main benefit of a Master’s degree while you’re still an undergraduate! And if the team wins at the contest, even better!

  2. It’s interesting to reflect on “real-life” vs the “classroom” isn’t it! Perhaps you’ll find that once you’ve had this real life research experience, that you’ll be able to go back into the classroom to find out more of the similarities… i.e., pick out the materials that you’re learning that directly relate back to the kind of research you’re doing now. Who knows? You’ll have to post another reflection next term to see if this happens.

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