What happens when- the first time you hold a micropipette- your hands are super shaky, and you just can’t seem to manipulate samples in an aseptic manner?
Aseptic technique is really important when you work in a lab. It just means that you’re handling your samples in a way that prevents contamination. You only touch the sample, and then the vessel that it will go in. You don’t wave it around in the air, you don’t touch your face/phone/clothes, etc.
But this can get really hard if your hands are very shaky. In fact, most people that start out doing this type of work are always going to have shaky hands.
You have a pointy object that has a small plastic tip on the end. The tip contains less than 1 mL of liquid sample. Sometimes the amount can be down to 0.1 microlitres (0.0001 mL). Not only are you gripping the pipette with your hand, you also need to manipulate your thumb so that you can press the plunger up and down- without letting the tip (an object further away from your hand) from getting shaky.
Then you have to move the pipette tip into a small tube. Maybe the opening of the tube is about 10 mm in diameter, or maybe you’re loading a gel (DNA or maybe protein) with wells that are only 3 mm x 2 mm wide??
And then there’s the pipette guns.
Not only are you gripping with your hand, you now have to keep the long, pipette tip steady while either pulling the trigger with your index finger to suck up liquid into the pipette tip, or your middle finger to dispense. All the while your arm is raised almost to head height. If you have a lot of samples, your muscles get quite sore!
And this is all just focusing on your pipetting hand.
If you watch footage of someone pipetting, you might also catch them opening and closing tubes with their non-pipetting hand (usually their non-dominant hand). Sometimes they’re performing the task without even looking at the tube, because their attention is on the hand that’s pipetting. Maybe they’re grabbing a fresh tip between samples. It just means that your hands could be doing two separate actions simultaneously.
I find that it essentially comes down to separating your hand into three sections. Your pinky and ring finger is there to wedge the object (tube or pipette) to your hand to steady it. Your middle and index finger is there to perform some sort of weird manipulation in conjunction with your thumb- whether it be pushing on plungers, buttons, or opening and closing lids. The entire arm is there to stabilise the whole affair.
It can sound daunting when you’re just starting out, but the thing is- it’s like that for everyone. The more you do it, the more confident and steady you become. It’ll take a lot of concentrating to begin with, but over time, the movements become more natural, and you’ll find that you’re not exerting the same amount of brain power to will your hands to stop shaking!
Because holding a pipette is kinda awkward! And on top of this, opening a tube aseptically with your non-dominant hand is very uncomfortable. You’re contorting your hand muscles in a very unnatural way. It’s going to take some time to build up muscle in order to do this.
And that’s just it. The only way to get better at doing lab work is to just keep doing it. You don’t suddenly become a marathon runner overnight. You just have to keep running and working on the skill until you can build it up.
Now, equating lab dexterity to running a marathon might sound silly, but it really is just building up muscle strength.
So what happens when you stop doing lab stuff for a while? Can your hands just get it, again?
Well, this week I did lab stuff for the first time since early March. It was fine. 😅 Turns out, when you do something for 5+ years, your body just gets programmed to it.
So if you’re someone who is feeling a little deflated at not being good with their hands in the lab- don’t worry. Those things will improve with time and practice. Just make sure you always check yourself and aim for aseptic technique, rather than speed. Getting the job done fast means nothing if you contaminate your sample in the process. Be steady and methodical- and if anything, always doubt yourself. 😂 Change tips if you’re not sure you were careful enough.
That’s the lesson- always doubt yourself. 🤣
A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬