Moving Forward: Update on Work in the Lab

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The blog has fell silent for a number of months, mainly because my work and other endeavors has consumed all of my time. The work in the lab has taken on new dimensions, with our staff significantly expanded at the beginning of the semester. This has translated into a lot more time spent training and managing, rather than directly generating data. But I also spend a significant amount of time pushing some of my own projects forward.

On the professional development front I have been working on expanding my skill sets in statistics and programming, which mostly involves taking some courses (university, online, and books) and just putting in a lot of time getting my hands dirty with R. My work in the lab has started to shift to this area and I’ve spent many hours getting comfortable with a whole new set of tools.

One nice part with Dr. S is that even though I lack a PhD., I’m not treated any differently than those that have more degrees. So as one of the people in the lab with the most hands-on experience with a number of important protocols and experiments, it is often necessary to make recommendations and help with troubleshooting, as well as offer advice based on past experience. It’s been a nice challenge in shifting to a job that includes a lot of project management instead of primarily generating data.

Also, when I get a chance I keep up on a number of blogs in the science area, which mostly includes a lot of young PI’s, postdocs, and graduate students. It’s always interesting to hear how your experiences in science in compare with people at other universities and companies.

Getting a Research Associate Position

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I was able to secure an offer for continued employment as a Research Associate at Washington State University. I will be working in the lab of Dr. Skinner, who many know that I had also been working with during my undergraduate years. He has several NIH grants and recently secured new funding from the Department of Defense for a project that I will be closely involved in.

The job hunting was exciting early on, but quickly moved into the frustrating stage and finally the depressing stage. The fact is there are a lot of unemployed M.S. and PhD scientists around here, and they are all in need of income, which means that they had been forced to settle for research technician jobs that are normally taken by B.S. graduates like myself. My 5+ years of research experience had a favorable impact on getting into final candidate lists, but I was only able to secure two offers from a list of 8 or 9 jobs. The rest were largely taken by those with advanced degrees. I was fortunate to have an hourly position to keep the bills paid during the process, which I know from experience could have been far more than depressing.

In the lab, my “unnamed” project, which I have been working on since 2005, should be coming to the point of publication soon. For the longtime readers this is something they have probably heard before, and I should have learned my lesson long ago and just not make any predictions about it. Nonetheless, all the added data accrued during this time has been extremely productive, and should make for an interesting paper when it finally gets to that point.

As for my writing here, as you can see it hasn’t been consistent. Our family was able to take a couple trips over the summer, including one a week ago to the Newport, Oregon area, which is a spot my family regularly went to growing up. It was good to share that experience with my wife and stepson.

Hopefully now that the summer is coming to a close (classes start today here at WSU) the blog updates will be more consistent and often.

Merging Blogging with the Pursuit of Academic Tenure

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John Hawks, who has maintained a popular blog focused on his field of expertise in paleoanthropology, has begun a series of posts discussing some of the pros and cons of blogging during the early years of a tenure-track position, and how he was able to successfully integrate his blogging activity into his tenure application (Hawks was granted tenure last month). The first segment (How to blog, get tenure and prosper: Starting the blog) is both insightful and honest, which is just the sort of writing I’ve come to expect from John Hawks.

Free Epigenetics News Career Board Goes Live

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Since launching Epigenetics News in March 2006, I have received countless e-mails from companies and laboratories requesting information on posting an open position at the blog. On a few occasions I have posted the job opening here, but after looking for a better solution I chose to set up a separate job board for epigenetics-related positions.

Meet the Epigenetics News Career Board: Any employer worldwide that is looking to fill a position that requires epigenomics experience, or is related to the field of epigenetics, can post their job listing for FREE.

As of this posting, there are two positions posted, including the aforementioned scientist position at Affinity Scientific in San Diego, CA, and a new postdoctoral scientist position at the Baker Medical Research Laboratory in Melbourne, Australia.

If you’re seeking or looking to fill an epigenetics-related position, head to the Epigenetics News Career Board.

Affinity Seeks Epigenomics Scientist in San Diego, CA

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Affinity Scientific, a scientific staffing and recruitment firm, is seeking qualified candidates for a scientist in research and development with epigenomics experience.

The following is a reprint of the position information as supplied by Affinity Scientific.

Scientist – Epigenomics


The position requires responsibility for planning and executing research and development projects and collaborations in the Molecular Applications department. Candidates will be applying biochemical and molecular biological methods for the development of novel methods for genotyping, loss-of-heterozygocity (LOH) analysis and elucidation of epigenetic changes, in particular cytosine methylation, and other applications in the field of cancer research. A prerequisite for the position is a profound scientific background in molecular biology, biochemistry, design of experiments (DOE). Experience in statistical data analysis and data analysis tools like Excel and MatLab or R is preferred. Expertise in mass spectrometry and a medical background with a focus in cancer research are highly advantageous.


  • Responsible for planning, implementing and executing research and development projects within the Molecular Applications Department
  • Serves as a Molecular Biology and Cancer Research subject matter expert that is a resource within the company
  • Develops next versions of the company’s methods for analysis of epigenetic changes as well as inception and development of novel genotyping and comparative sequence analysis applications including methods such as ultrasensitive detection of methylation and detection of mutations in circulating tumor DNA.
  • Works on problems of diverse scope where experimental setup requires DOEs (Design of Experiment) and where analysis of data requires computational capabilities in Excel and MatLab or R.
  • Is able to select appropriate model systems and clinical samples for proof-of-concept of the developed methods
  • Strives to achieve objectives as set forth by supervisor and/or project lead
  • Executes laboratory research, and is responsible for ensuring projects and tasks are completed within the established time frame
  • Determines & develops approach to solutions exercising judgment within generally defined practices and policies in selecting methods and techniques for obtaining solutions. Works under limited direction
  • Expected to maintain a broad knowledge of and high degree of competence in the field by staying abreast of state-of-the-art principles and theories along with high technical visibility throughout the functional area
  • Responsible for programming and usage of liquid handling equipment
  • Tunes and calibrates laboratory instruments
  • Assists in projects requiring collaborations with other research development personnel within the Molecular Applications Department, inter-departmental Projects, as well as collaborations with external partners.


  • MD and/or PhD in Molecular Biology/Biochemistry, or closely related field, with 2-5 years experience in a research and/or development environment. Postdoctoral may serve as experience.
  • Experience in statistical data analysis and data analysis tools.


  • Requires hands-on experience with advanced molecular biology and biochemistry of nucleic acids and DNA preparation from various sample sources.
  • Hands-on experience with high-throughput genotyping and sequencing technologies is a plus
  • Proven track record in molecular biology research, cancer research and product and/or technology development
  • Expertise in DOE and statistical data analysis tools like Excel, MatLab or R
  • Consistently meeting critical deadlines
  • Ability to work in a team environment
  • Demonstrated technical proficiency, effective problem solving and critical thinking skills required
  • Proficient computer literacy in Microsoft Office
  • Excellent communication, interpersonal and organizational skills

To apply please send electronic copy of CV to

Margaux Wells
Affinity Scientific, LLC
4660 La Jolla Village Drive
Suite 500
San Diego, CA 92122
(858) 535-4874

10 Best Ways to Save Time at the Lab Bench

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I’ve been working in research labs for the past 3+ years now. During that time, I’ve picked up on some great ways to save time when working at the bench. Here’s my 10 best tips:

1. Don’t Make It, Steal It. If you don’t have a reagent already made for your procedure, “borrow” it from the person next to you. Either put it back afterwards or make a new label for it with your name or initials.

2. Make Your Reagents Thief Proof. So if you actually went through the trouble of making your own reagent, don’t let your lab mates take advantage of your time investment. Place ambiguous labels on bottles so others have no idea what is really in the bottle. For reagents with a distinctive color or appearance, don’t use a clear bottle. It can also help to hide the most likely stolen reagents in the back of your reagent shelf.

3. Don’t Break for the Phone. I work in a lab shared by 5-6 people, and there is one phone where calls come in. Trust me, if you sit there long enough, someone else will get the phone, even if you’re closest. Be extra mindful of this and make sure to claim a bench as far from the phone as possible. If you’re already stuck in a bad spot, come up with a clever reason to have the phone moved to another location.

4. Take Advantage of Friendly People. If you have to head to another room or even to the refrigerator to pick something up, watch for someone else heading out of the lab or in the vicinity of the refrigerator. Ask them if they will grab X for you while they’re going. This is a real time saver and your “friend” will take this as a compliment that you trust them with your reagents.

Another tactic is to use the pity approach. Say you need a couple boxes of pipette tips for your assay, but they’re all the way across the lab. You have a quarter full box of tips on your bench. Using a subtle nudge, send your tips tumbling to the floor. “Oh [expletive], I dropped all my tips! Can someone grab me a couple boxes, please!?” This one is money.

5. Protect Your Investment. You’ve invested a lot of time into a procedure, so don’t get greedy with your time and hand it off midway to an undergraduate or technician. If you want it done right, do it yourself. Even a foolproof, any-dummy-can-do-this assay can be screwed up by the most experienced of technicians.

6. Eliminate Extra Distractions. Put yourself in a position to get things done with the least amount of distraction possible. Whether this means turning off the cell phone, shutting down the e-mail program, or putting a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door, think of ways to eliminate those pesky interruptions. It can also be very helpful to work when others are not around — early mornings, late evenings, weekends, holidays.

7. Safety Is for Losers. You don’t need gloves for most things — just don’t bother. And if you have to wear them, don’t take them carefully off to save for after your lunch break. Toss them quickly and just grab new ones when you get back.

8. Make Your Things Exclusive. Are there things in your lab that are routinely shared between benches? It’s time to make them yours. Apply a brightly colored label to the item with your name and hide it in a secret drawer. This way you won’t have to go searching for it all the time when you need it. Don’t worry about others getting angry searching for it — your lab manager will eventually break down and get a new one.

9. Delegate Simple Tasks to Other People. So you weren’t lucky enough to find someone leaving the lab when you needed the reagent from across the hall. Just tell someone else to do it, particularly someone on their break or with less degrees than you. After awhile, they’ll understand that you’re busier than they are, and they should give you a hand.

10. Barter for Help. So you still can’t find free labor to help with your work? It’s time to get creative. Work out deals with your lab mates. “If you help me today, I’ll help you tomorrow.” Then make sure to reneg on the agreement.

Do you have some tips for saving time at the bench? Share yours in the comments.

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A Student’s Guide to Working in a Research Lab

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I’m now working in my third research lab as an undergraduate student. I wasn’t fired from either of the previous two positions. Rather, I switched positions as better opportunities became available.Many students find it difficult to find employment in a research lab. I didn’t. Here’s a few tips that may help students out there find a job in a research lab on their campus:

  1. Be flexible. If you’re only willing to accept a specific position that will enable you to do something, the odds of you finding a position that satisfies your specific requirements are slim. Further, you’re probably not qualified for that position. Instead, be willing to do the things that other people hate to do. In addition, keep your schedule as open as possible. Everyone knows that you have classes at certain times, but saying that you’re not willing to work before noon due to your sleep schedule will not win you any jobs on campus.
  2. Do your homework. This has nothing to do with your courses, but rather the lab where you’re trying to get a position. Find out about the research that’s being conducted in the lab. Talk to people working in the lab about the research, and what kinds of procedures are done regularly in the lab. Read recent research papers published out of the lab, and visit the principal investigator’s web site (nearly all of them have one) where they detail their research interests. With this information in hand, you’ll come across as knowledgeable and enthusiastic when you tell the person hiring that you’re very interested in this aspect of their research, and tell them in a letter or during an interview that it will be a tremendous experience for you to work in their lab on one of these projects.
  3. Advertise all of your skills. Whether you’re coming in with plenty of lab experience or none at all, you may have a skill that the lab could definitely use, and you may not have thought of it. For instance, you may be very technologically savvy, and have Web design or database management skills. You may have experience with simple lab materials from a high school chemistry or science course. (Almost) anything that allows you to distinguish yourself from the other applicants is a good thing.
  4. Be excited/interested/focused on this lab. Some students make the mistake of thinking that if they make it sound as if they have options, this lab will think that they are in a competition for this student, and they are a high quality hire. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Most lab managers will pass on a student that has options elsewhere. Lab technicians want to spend as little time as possible interviewing students, and saying that you have other options available to you means that you might not accept this position if they offer it. So they just won’t offer it to you, even if you were probably the best candidate.
  5. Follow up. If you were interviewed for a position, come back the next day and drop off a thank you card for the interview, and again express your enthusiasm for working in this position. If there were any “coin-flips” in terms of you or another candidate being selected, this simple gesture will likely give you an edge over another student. The thank-you card is something that few if any other students will take the effort to do, and will help you distinguish yourself as the lab is preparing to select their best candidate.

Harvard Epidemiologist Seeks Postdoc in Epigenetics

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Dr. Karin Michels, an associate professor of Harvard Medical School and clinical epidemiologist of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is seeking a postdoctoral research associate for her lab in Boston, MA.

    A postdoctoral position will be available at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, to study gene imprinting and methylation starting in February or March 2007. The focus of our research is to identify environmental factors that predict loss of imprinting. A birth cohort is available to study epigenetic variation in newborns. We also examine imprinting pattern in human breast cancer. Candidates with strong background in molecular biology and epigenetics are encouraged to apply. Experience in human genome research and transcriptional gene regulation is particularly desirable.
Dr. Michels’ research interests focus on nutrition and women’s health (via Harvard School of Public Health):
    Her research ranges from early intrauterine nutrition of the fetus, breastfeeding and early life and adolescent diet to the role of adult diet on chronic disease risk, in particular, breast and other cancers. As diet is difficult to assess, Dr. Michels is studying the degree of measurement error associated with the different diet assessment methods. She is developing improved methods to analyze dietary data in epidemiologic studies. Dr. Michels is the Principal Investigator of a research grant from the National Institutes of Health to explore methods in nutritional epidemiology in the Nurses’ Health Study.

    Dr. Michels is also exploring the role of intrauterine and early life exposures in chronic diseases in adult life. Numerous studies have indicated that events in vitro may affect the risk of chronic disease in the offspring later in life. Dr. Michels is using several databases around the world to study this challenging hypothesis in more detail.

Dr. Karin Michels’ most recent publications. Link

Open Position in Epigenetics at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

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Dr. Janet Partridge, an assistant member in the biochemistry department of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, has notified us of an opening for a postdoctoral fellow/research technician in her lab.

    A highly motivated, hard-working individual required to help drive genetic and biochemical experiments working on the RNAi pathway and heterochromatin assembly in the fission yeast. Experience desired in molecular biology, biochemistry and yeast genetics, plus a keen interest in biology.

    This position may be filled either by a postdoctoral scientist or by a research technician, thus the requirements span Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in an appropriate field through to Ph.D. Experience in yeast genetics, molecular biology and biochemistry is desired.

    St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, USA provides state of the art resources, an interactive and intellectually stimulating environment, and was recently voted the #1 place to work in academia by the Scientist Magazine.

    Postdoctoral candidates should contact me directly for more information (, including a resume, a 1 page summary of your research experience and aspirations, and the names and e-mail addresses of 3 academic referees.

    Research Technologist candidates should visit the website at (Biochemistry Dept. Job # 13884).

    St. Jude is an Equal Opportunity Employer and drug free workplace.

Scientists in Training: The Experience Dilemma

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I happened to be browsing the science blogosphere and came across a couple of interesting commentaries from Sandra Porter at Discovering Biology in a Digital World about the lack of opportunities for high school and college students to gain real world experience in the realm of biotechnology and lab research.

While I am in strong agreement with Dr. Porter’s contention that opportunities for students to experience hands-on lab work are few and far between, I thought it would be appropriate to offer an opposing view to balance this issue – albeit from the eastern side of Washington state – from an undergraduate college student that is doing independent lab research on a daily basis. Link

    So when I started college, I started looking for jobs that would do more than pay the rent. I wanted first-hand impressions of potential careers… My medley of part-time and volunteer jobs were eye-opening forays into the working world.

I couldn’t agree more with this outlook. My return to school and my interest in pursuing a degree in Genetics and Cell Biology were instigated by a summer job with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, working with a wheat geneticist on developing and testing new breeds of wheat. The job itself was grueling physical work in hot and dusty conditions, but my interest in science was piqued, and I ended up returning to college as a freshman again after a seven year holdout (including stints as a writer, editor, manager – all past lives).

    The job that I wanted the most though, was the hardest to get. I really wanted to work in a science lab. Every now and then I would go to the student employment center and look at the job postings, but I was never eligible. The lab positions at my University required either work-study funding or work experience and I had neither.

This is also fairly true at Washington State University, although a number of other undergraduate students and myself have benefitted tremendously from a few principal investigators (P.I.s) that have relatively stable and abundant grant funding. These researchers tend not to worry too much about whether they will have enough money to keep the students working for another year, but rather take the annual opportunity to identify 1) students that have remained productive, and 2) students that have not.

    Even though some business leaders might recognize the long-term benefits of contributing to a scientifically literate society, and inspiring future employees, few companies want to accept the risk of having an $80,000/year employee spend the summer babysitting a student intern.

Essentially, our lab treats undergraduate students as low-cost lab technicians. With the right selection of hard working students and a little training from postdoctoral researchers, the “student researchers” become efficient technicians without all of the hassle of a pay commensurate with a bachelor’s or master’s degree or the added cost of benefits. While work-study funding is especially enticing for the P.I., it isn’t absolutely necessary given the obvious benefits of adding productive workers at a lower cost.

    We still have the same catch 22 that I experienced in college. Biotech companies and University research labs want to hire experienced people, but they’re unwilling or unable to provide that experience. Students need experience to get jobs, but they can’t get jobs without experience.

Apparently, the lab that I work in does not fall into this category. The majority of the students that work in our lab have no experience in a research lab prior to being hired, yet are often completing assays independently within a few months of hire.

And with these opportunities to work directly in a university research lab, students become more aware, for better or worse, what doing lab research really entails. The work ends up enticing some students to the research path and sending others running away from it.

The second part of the series by Dr. Porter lists several intriguing options for “scientists in training” to gain hands-on experience in the lab, including hands-on programs from technical colleges and collaborations between community college programs and private biotechnology companies. Link

Epigenomics Seeking Scientist in Seattle

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Germany-based Epigenomics AG, which is at the forefront of developing assays for studying and diagnosing the link between epigenetic factors and disease, is looking for a qualified scientist for clinical assay development in its screening group in Seattle, WA.