Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Lab Manager: what it takes to be “The Guy”

One of my roles at BioTek is “Lab Manager” of the Applications Laboratory. No I’m not a manager to any personnel, but rather I manage the lab facilities. While an unappreciated endeavor, every lab needs a manager. In the smallest of labs, (i.e. one person), the scientist is also the manager. In very large labs they often will have a person, often referred to as “The Guy”, solely dedicated to the management of lab facilities. Most laboratories have someone in the middle, where one person, either formally or informally, is in charge of the day to day operation of the lab. This is the case here at BioTek, where my main role is that of an Application Scientist, but I am also the Lab Manager. While the job is not without its headaches it is also a lot of fun.

The role Lab Manager is a cross between an accountant and an auto mechanic. Besides maintaining some sort of lab budget and expense ledgers, one also is responsible for instrument repair and maintenance. Besides coordinating equipment usage among different researchers (including myself), the lab manager has to purchase, find space and install new equipment. This lets me get my hands on everything in the lab and for a gadget person that is almost as good as sliced bread. Even the mundane portion of the role of lab manager, such as ordering of supplies has an upside in that you have your finger on what everyone in the lab is doing.

Coordinating schedules is the most daunting of tasks. Routine maintenance of equipment, which often takes things off line, has to be coordinated with everyone’s ever changing need for that equipment. Installation of new equipment may require the interaction of scientists, electricians, plumbers, movers, and facilities personnel. Sometimes it has the feeling of trying to herd cats. But all is forgotten when you fire the new piece of equipment up for the first time. Just like a getting a birthday or a Christmas present.

Even with the best of preventative maintenance, equipment fails from time to time. Failure of instrumentation always seems to take place at the most inconvenient of times, often at night. Either it takes place when that device is most needed by the lab or when you have a number of other equally important tasks to finish. Despite the annoyance caused by equipment down time, getting things back to normal provides a sense of accomplishment (and relief) for getting the job at hand done.

Over the years I have noticed that Lab Manager by committee does not seem to work. Regardless of the size of the lab that I have worked in; I’ve found that it is always best that one person plays this role. In the case of the BioTek Application lab, I’m glad it’s me.

By Paul Held, Laboratory Manager

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