How much is too much?

Whilst I wait for my afternoon coffee to load up those proposal writing brain cells with focus and energy, allow me to pose a scenario and question on lab etiquette.

Miser. Penny-pincher. Scrooge. Captain Frugal. Cheap bastard. Whatever we call them, it’s easier to get blood from a turnip than it is to get money out of some people. These people may be friends or family or some random acquaintance.

Sometimes they’re PIs.

Now I understand reasons for saving money, cutting costs where possible. For instance, I find it ridiculous to use a kit to purify genomic DNA for standard genotyping of mouse strains or buying packets of pre-measured Tris and glycine for making transfer buffer. Undoubtedly we all have a list of “it’s silly to spend money on this” things.

But there are plenty of things a lab has to spend money on. Sometimes that stuff gets loaned to other labs. Most are willing to help out neighbors. We share reagents when one unexpectedly runs out. We loan aliquots of protein or antibody or reagent so a colleague can test it out before investing hundreds of dollars in a whole kit or vial.

Then there are labs where the PI won’t let go of money and tells hir people that s/he won’t buy the antibody or reagent or ELISA kit they need for their experiments, that they should “borrow” it from the X lab.

What happens when you’re working in the X lab? Where do you draw the line? It’s one thing to give some Blotto or enough antibody for a trial run. It’s a completely different thing to hand over multiple aliquots of the same antibody or run half a plate worth of ELISA samples because someone’s PI either won’t or can’t pay for it.

So my question for you, dear readers: Where do you draw the line between helping out and asking too much?

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7 Responses to How much is too much?

  1. A lot of exchange goes on without the PIs ever knowing (more than it probably should when couples are employed in different labs within the same department). Anyway you feel bad for the student of the poor/stingy PI so you help them out. What is worse is when the PI is called out and he blames the student! When is it too much? It’s tricky, especially when your loyalties are split.

    However, I do think the give-take needs to be reasonably balanced. How you say NO depends on the dynamics of the labs – you could say it to the student or the PI, or have your PI say it to their PI.

    When we wanted our PI to cough up for something we had whoever had the pleasing data ask for it. PIs tend to be more willing to spend money when presented with exciting results!

  2. Chemjobber says:

    $100 of time or money (or a similar amount… $200? $500) would seem to be reasonable. More, and they’re just mooching.

  3. Dr. O says:

    We generally follow the rule of “you scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” We provide a LOT of materials to a lab in our department that is hard up on funds. But they provide plenty of expertise, equipment usage in return. I also don’t worry about it if it doesn’t cost me anything (sure you can use X piece of equipment that nobody in our lab has used for 5 years). If we’re getting nothing back, AND it’s inconveniencing us (broken equipment, lost reagents, etc), that’s where we draw the line.

    We also have a lab mom who takes care of cutting the cord for us, and makes the final decision on when to cut the cord. She’s kind of scary, too. So it works well for keeping other labs from abusing this trade-off.

  4. funkdoctorx says:

    Interesting post…I agree with the “if you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” approach, and the “it’s no skin off my back” viewpoint. However, if it starts to become one-way, that’s when I’ll consider doing something. We actually had an issue in one of my previous labs in which a grad student, who used to be in our lab but then moved to another lab, felt at ease coming into our lab and asking undergrads for various odds and ends. I had a problem with this because I don’t think it’s appropriate for undergrads to be placed in a position of giving permission to use equipment or some reagents. I just took it to my PI and it got dealt with that way.

  5. Worm Pilot says:

    While I don’t know your exact situation, I would say 2-3 aliquots of something is more than enough for another lab to test something out. After that, I would just nicely say “you know, that’s pretty expensive, I’m not sure we can really part with too much more of it. How much more do you guys need?” Or something along those lines. I guess you have to see if the moocher is the student or the PI. And if saying something like this to the student doesn’t work, then you could go to your PI to talk to the offending PI. We happen to have a kick-ass lab manager who takes care of stuff for us, so if we have a problem, we’ll talk with her about it and she handles it like Don Corleone! Problem solved!

  6. neurowoman says:

    Actually, it’s not your call if you’re not the PI. You have no idea what kind of understanding goes on between PIs. A senior PI may be helping a junior one get established. One PI may be partly paying for another’s tech support, or sharing student costs that you’re not privy to. They may be planning future collaborations and helping out with the occasional reagents (or recurring help) may be part of the quid pro quo. If you are concerned about excessive mooching, bring it up with the PI, by all means.

    • biochembelle says:

      (Wow, it took me how long to respond… My apologies…)

      In my experience, if there is some sort of understanding, the PI usually lets the lab know.

      Sometimes, relations between lab heads are, shall we say, less than ideal, even though relations between the people working in the labs are amenable. In these situations, a concern can expand into something bigger than it needs to be, and this tends to directly impact people in the lab more than those in charge.

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