Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It's all a party until somebody breaks something

So my lab has a general policy of sharing all our equipment, and in return, we borrow several items from other labs as well. This has been going along pretty well, but last week somebody broke something, something $$$. I still haven't got the full story so I don't know who to blame at this point, but the question is...Do I let people continue to share my expensive equipment, or do I start saying no to protect my investment, or do I have a more measured response?

People borrow our stuff when we are there, when we are not there, with training, without much training. We have SOPs (standard operating procedures) for all equipment, but as you may know you can't MAKE someone RTFM (read the f*ing manual). And from what I understand, my students were in the room when this occurred. It may have even been my student that suggested the steps that led to equipment breakage.

So, another question. If a student breaks something that is $$$, is there any chance of repercusion. Can I ask this student to pay for the equipment in some way or am I doomed to scraping the money together from somewhere?

Any thoughts?


At 9:58 AM , Anonymous A fellow young PI said...

It's a tough situation, but unless the damage was inflicted maliciously I really don't think you can ask students to somehow pay for the broken equipment: (A) if it's really expensive then it's likely impossible for them to afford, (B) it sends a terrible signal in your lab that discourages experimentation for fear of accidentally racking up a huge bill.

Maybe you could forbid the guilty party from doing unsupervised experiments until they've had more training or something (so that you make it clear that people can't just play around with lab equipment)?

At 10:36 AM , Blogger Ambivalent Academic said...

Even if you asked the student to pay for it...with what money exactly?

At 11:09 AM , Anonymous christina said...

wow. sucks that it happened, but I'm taken back that you would even consider making the student pay for it. Things happen on all jobs, but people really don't have to pay for mistakes with personal funds.

They do pay in other ways:
1) loss of job
2) loss of privileges

I would quit sharing the equipment for the time being and only allow those students you trust to use it. Lock it up.

Also- if it was the other lab's fault, then you might ask for some money from that lab's PI. Since it seems they need it too, the PI may be willing.

At 11:35 AM , Anonymous Hubby said...

Sharing (of both data and equipment) is the lifeblood of scientific collaboration, and of the scientific community as a whole. I understand the urge to retreat back, to pick up your toys and leave the sandbox, to adopt more protectionist policies. I say resist that. As soon as you do that, others will do the same and not share with you. Set an example of the kinds of sharing that you want extended to you.

I think it is very reasonable to set training requirements, familiarization of manuals, and general levels of responsibility. But in the end, this is the price of playing the game. If the equipment is so $$$ that you would incur hardship if it gets broken, consider insuring against the loss, either through a service plan/warranty or outright business insurance.

At 11:56 AM , Blogger EthidiumBromide said...

For our "shared" equipment, we have sign up sheets that individuals must sign before they start using it... 95% of the time, this works and someone actually signs up. Individuals within our lab help to police this -- if we see someone from another lab using the equipment, we double check that they have signed up. This helps troubleshoot when something goes wrong, in that we can contact who used the equipment last.

Personally, I cannot imagine asking someone to pay for broken equipment... as Fellow Young PI stated, if I knew that was going to happen in my lab, I would likely not be doing half the quality work I am doing now out of fear of having something accidentally go wrong and suddenly needing $100,000 to replace something, which clearly I do not have on a graduate student salary.

At 2:11 PM , Blogger ScienceWoman said...

OTOH, if you can confirm that someone from another lab broke the equipment, I think it is very reasonable to politely approach the PI and ask for help (and $) getting the equipment fixed.

I also like the idea of a sign-up sheet if multiple people are using the equipment. In my lab, with one $$ piece of equipment, I have a lab notebook specifically dedicated to that piece of machinery. Everyone, regardless of affiliation or project, is required to make notes in that notebook and paste a copy of their data into the book. It hasn't completely prevented breakage, but it would be easy to pick out who the culprit was (if it weren't always me...)

At 2:25 PM , Blogger PhD Mom said...

You guys are right. It is totally crazy to expect a student to pay in some way. I was just really upset.

At 2:41 PM , Blogger ScientistMother said...

Totally can not ask the student to pay but you can put in the policy that no one can use equipment unless trained by a designates person.

At 4:27 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The student can't (and shouldn't) pay, but their mentor can foot the repair bills. Even if it is shared equipment.

A tech from another lab lit etoh in our biosafety hood and used a fire extinguisher to put out the fire...ruining our hood and everything in it. His boss paid for repairs. Any collegial faculty member would if they could.

At 10:53 AM , Blogger SciMom said...

In my lab, we always had a "gatekeeper"; someone highly trained on the equipment, past whom anyone who wanted to use the equipment had to get a "passing" grade from after training. It may sound like a lot of extra work for that person but it's not. And it definitely prevents a lot of mishaps that could be expensive.

At 8:37 PM , Blogger PonderingFool said...

Agreeing with much that has already been written. Repair costs should be split on shared equipment especially if a member from the other lab breaks the equipment. It is only fair.

The lab I am in, pays half the service contract on a piece of equipment that was bought by another lab. Why? We use it as often if not more often than the "owning" lab. It is just good for community building.

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