Simple Essentials: Analog tools I love

Technology has changed how we do things in many ways. If you have written a grant, review article, or dissertation, you can appreciate how it’s made that aspect of your life easier. Have you ever thought what it would be like to go back to pre-ref manager days when you’d have to curate and cite your bibliography by hand? It was a pain in the ass in high school and undergrad when you only had 10 to 30 references. Or what about typing your entire dissertation on a typewriter? I shudder at the very thought! No spell check, no grammar check, and setting the margins and spacing manually… One mistake and you might have to go back and retype the entire page (or chapter) to correct a mistake or satisfy the dissertation format drill sergeant.

Despite the wonderful tools the digital age has brought us, sometimes there is no substitute for a simple, frills-free, analog approach. Inspired by a recent camping/biking trip, George Williams at ProfHacker started thinking about the “simple tools essential to my academic life“. He comments:

At a certain point you have to realize that it’s not about the gear you’re using; it’s about what you do with the gear…

My realization made me start thinking about other areas of my life—and, specifically, my academic life—in which I’ve opted for simple, effective gear instead of fancier, more complex alternatives. Why? Because I think we all run the risk of chasing the next big thing instead of assessing whether or not we have a real need that our current gear doesn’t satisfy.

Likewise, in research, there are always new slick applications or instruments debuting, to bring us into the age of “Science x.0”–e-readers, electronic notebooks, protocol wikis… Some digital tools have already proven their utility, others likely will with tweaking and increased use, but some may never (at least in my career) replace their analog counterparts. Here are some of my simple essentials:

Lab notebook

There are several electronic lab notebook (ELN) applications out there. Particularly in cases where patents are likely to be filed, I can see the appeal of ELN for the purpose of creating an audit trail that (I presume) is harder to backdate. However, I don’t see myself embracing ELN. Give me a bound notebook for recording my experimental methods and results. I prefer something that I can scribble in, jot down calculations, attach dried polyacrylamide gels or films from developed Western blots, write thoughts for how to improve the experiment or what to do next… For me, there often are electronic elements–experimental methods that are used often with small variations, indices for notebooks, calculations and data sets from various instruments–but even when these are used, they still end up printed and pasted in.

Notepad/notebook for seminar and conference notes

A pair of classics

First: Yes, I really do take notes during seminars and conference talks. Second: I have tried taking notes for a meeting on my laptop, using Microsoft Word “Notebook” format, and I didn’t particularly care for it. There’s the clickity-clack of keys, which I find a distraction to myself and (no doubt others). And I can’t figure out what to do when someone throws up a diagram or structure or important equation. Then there’s the linearity of the document that makes it difficult to quickly jot down a thought or question about an earlier point that pops into mind later on. I much prefer having a bound book for such talks. Because I do actually refer back to these notes on occasion, I prefer to keep a dedicated book for seminars, one that’s separate from lab meeting notes and the scratch pad for jotting down things I need to do. Moleskin Cahier journals are my favorite for this purpose. They’re small enough to fit easily in a meeting abstract book. The narrow lines fit my handwriting. They’re durable. And they’re just the right size to contain all my notes from a five-day conference without having to shoehorn in the last talks and without having many blank pages left.

Ink pen, black or dark blue

This is my requisite accoutrement for the first two items. When I can afford them, my preferred choice is uni-ball® Vision Elite Rollerball with Micro point tips. I avoid click-top pens for general writing and meetings so I won’t be clicking incessantly when not writing. I like the micro tips for the nice narrow lines of script, and I’ve never had issues with the micro tips of this brand bleeding all over or through pages.

Lab tape + fine to ultrafine Sharpie

Do I really need to explain this one? Lab tape is almost to the research world what duct tape is to the outside world (although we do have our own uses for duct tape too). Combined with Sharpie, you have an instant label for almost everything–bottles, shelves, boxes… I’ve also used lab tape to label the spines of my research notebooks, so that I can quickly locate the one I want when they’re all lined up on a shelf. Oh, and when I say Sharpie, I mean Sharpie®. I’ve used VWR lab markers, and although their ink is solvent resistant, they are lightyears behind Sharpie® in every other regard.

Sticky notes and flags

In addition to jotting down reminders to myself, sticky notes are great for buffer/reagent recipes that are constantly used. Rather than double checking my notebook every time, I just pull the sticky off the wall and take it to the balance. Small post-it notes or sticky flags are useful for marking notebook pages that I may need to consult frequently, such as protocols.

Dry erase board and markers

I love having access to a whiteboard. And I’m not talking about a small one–I want a big one that nearly takes up the entire width of a decent-sized wall. Why do I desire one of this size? Because this is where I do a great deal of thinking. When I’m trying to pull together data from multiple experiments/sources to generate a conclusion, model, or hypothesis, I need to see all the information in one space. This process is very much nonlinear for me, and sitting down with bullet lists or stacks of data is not so helpful. Sometimes I just need to sit and stare at the information, to let my mind wander from point A to B to G and then back to B–without having to shuffle through a stack of papers or flip through notebooks. At one point in grad school, I filled a whiteboard (~5′ x 10′) with data, open questions, and hypotheses for one particular question we were trying to answer. As I ran out of room, I started taping notes to the board with questions or proposed experiments relevant to a particular point. Once finalized, Bear took a picture of it–either to preserve it for posterity or as evidence for the level of crazy wrought in his lab, I’m not sure which. Whenever I end up with an office of my own–either at work or at home–I will probably transform at least one wall with whiteboard paint. I suppose it can be one of my eccentricities, opening the door for jokes about the fumes from the dry erase markers getting to me.

What about you?

What technology-deficient tools keep your work going or organized week to week and day to day?

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6 Responses to Simple Essentials: Analog tools I love

  1. Dr. 29 says:

    OMG … you and I are lab-gear soulmates. Yes, and yes on Notebooks and moleskins. Yes, and yes on Tape and Sharpie (yes, VWR is not even close to Sharpie). It’s funny cause I had to write a report for a class …. on a typewriter (1998 high school, we couldn’t afford a 2K computer). Sticky notes, gel-ink pens (blue for me baby, have you checked out the Sharpie ones? they’re finer than sharpies ultrafine, and don’t bleed). Flags and sticky notes are the best … and my poor lab notebook is all pink, green and yellow with these. I have to say that I like the bulbs one inflates/deflates to get solutions in and out of bottles. Though I know there are the semi-automatic ones, that look like guns, I prefer the control of the bulb ones. I do have to say that I prefer taping photos of my gels than saving them, but that’s because I love taking pics. Great post BB.

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  4. namnezia says:

    I agree that lab tape and sharpies are key to a sane lab life. In addition – lab notebooks, pencils, notepad (for writing ideas, discussing science with lab folks, outlining grants, papers, posters, blog posts, etc.). Giant bound notebook for seminar notes. And a glue stick for posters. Yes, I don’t like to travel to meetings with large oversize poster tubes, so I print each figure on 8×12 card stock and mount it on thin poster board. The whole thing fits nicely in my computer bag. As far as everything else – my laptop is the center of my (academic) existence.

  5. biochembelle says:

    Dr. 29, I have not tried the Sharpie pens… might have to check those out.

    Namnezia, I also keep a notepad for jotting down notes or outlines, although I generally prefer the whiteboard approach for the latter. If you don’t like the poster tubes, you can get foldable cloth posters some places, though they’re a bit more expensive than the standard glossy paper ones. Often my figures are too big to fit on a single 8×12 without being too small to read easily. Like you, though, my laptop is also the center of my existence.

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