How Good Are Your Lab’s Pipette Skills?

Allison Callahan
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What is a lab Pipette?

We use pipettes constantly to accurately or easily measure liquid volumes. So maybe the common use and seeming simplicity leads anyone who has seen the pipette in action once to assume they’re proficient. Does this mean they are truly familiar with the best and safest pipetting practices? Pipettes aren’t cheap. They also require regular calibration to make sure they are measuring volumes correctly.

While I was doing pre-clinical ocular research, I noticed there were persistent pipette use problems — ones that affected even those research associates with bachelor’s degrees. When a colleague attempted a topical ocular dosing on a study (that I was working, too) I noticed she was going to the wrong stop on the pipette. 

This meant all the study animals had been inappropriately dosed. Anytime there was a deviation from protocol, we had to explain to the customer why it happened. This dosing error might have resulted in inconsistent data. That can cost money, erode trust between the client and the lab, and create delays. 

Pipette Misuse is Costly!

The issue doesn’t apply just in CROs. Misuse is a common issue in academia as well. During my JoVE visits, faculty have shared their own pipetting horror stories. I once met with a professor who said that he had instructed a medical school student to do in-situ hybridization. When he looked in the water bath to check on the student’s work, there was 0.5 ml of reagent instead of 10 uL.

It turned out the student was going to the wrong stop on the pipette, wasting the reagent. Then the professor retrained the student, repurchased reagents, and instructed the student to repeat the experiment. However, this time the student forgot to use pipette tips entirely and destroyed the pipette. After these failed attempts, the professor suggested that the student never return to his lab!

Recently, I met another professor who now only use pipettes with filters, because students keep holding the pipettes upside down, damaging them. Both of these mistakes could have been avoided by finding a reliable way to explain how to measure liquids and properly dispense them. 

Successful Pipetting

While nothing replaces hands-on training by an expert, I suggest using video to supplement in-person instruction, or as a substitution if necessary. Video demonstrations illustrate the details and nuances of lab techniques, making them easier to reproduce quickly and safely. 

We know from studies that video has a real impact in classrooms and labs. For instance, in one study of JoVE videos, researchers found that video-prepped students performed:

  •  100% better than those using only written prep materials on a pre-lab assessment
  • And 76% higher than those using written materials on a post-lab quiz

Among other plusses of videos are that they:

  • Can be viewed anywhere, anytime
  • Don’t require scheduling for classes with other students, and a potentially expensive training session
  • Help with retention and comprehension and reduce the time needed to train
  • Help learners get the processes right the first time
  • Reduce the waste of lab resources/time expended in failed practice experiments
  • Enable labs to accelerate time to actual productivity
  • Can come with closed captions for non-native English speakers 

At JoVE, we offer several videos that have demonstrations of pipette use. I invite you to look here. Perhaps there’s one for you. Want more information about how JoVE can help you in your classroom or lab? Contact me here.