Columns Opinion

Setting up the lab: trekking this learning curve like amateurs

Ram Mishra

After I joined the perfect new institute to perform research and teaching simultaneously, the next logical step I embarked upon was setting up the lab. This required finding vendors, comparing specifications and pricing and procuring desired material. This was a responsibility I was utterly unprepared for and was completely naïve in the vendor’s market.

If applying and finding a job in academia is a monumental task that teaches a lesson in patience then the process of setting up laboratory is like appearing for an examination for that lesson.

Within the last few months, I have realized that it is rather easy to apply for grants and accumulate funding than ordering things required in your laboratory. Being eligible for institutional funds to support my research before any grant funding comes through makes it a bit easier for me than for others who need might need the initial grant capital to set up their lab. However, procuring the materials needed to start research in the lab is a whole another story. Approval for procuring reagents and instruments from the competent authority was rather simplistic but the process of procurement was way too complex for my imagination.

Our graduate and post doctoral training prepare us for tackling the scientific problems not the administrative one. In this regard, few privileged ones get simultaneous training in the art of chasing the fate of a file in purchase and accounts department in their respective institutes during graduation. However, most of us loose this acquired trait during post doctoral period reminding us of Lamarckism- we lose traits which we don’t use.

We join an institute with full awareness to basic requirements for setting up a lab. Apparently we forget to factor in inherent administrative hassles and delays. Institutes must positively help new faculties understand the complexity in procuring stuff by running a workshop like How to navigate ordering procedure?” This course must focus on and help us understand the nitty gritties of ordering and identifying people who control our research indirectly. An orientation to accounts and purchase section of the institute may precede such a workshop.

In the absence of such a workshop I am learning intricacies of the system by trial and error method. As a consequence, I spent a lot of productive time catering to non-productive issues. I am learning a lot in the process and gaining experience but alas this cannot be added to my CV neither will it be considered when I come up for tenure.

What I realized and probably everyone in my situation will agree with, is that setting up new lab requires understanding of indenting, ordering and material procurement process. We all need some orientation in that direction and institutes, universities or where ever we work can come to our rescue. I am more fortunate enough to have really cooperative set of people in accounts and purchase department in my institute yet a system of orientation undoubtedly help.