When You Think of Mentoring, Do You Think of Safety?

My undergraduate Biochemistry professor was a stickler for proper, safe laboratory technique. It was impossible to get through her lab course without paying attention to detail and being aware of your surroundings while conducting experiments. Everything had to be in its place, with no solution or reagent left open or unaccounted for. And by all means, you had better know if you were using a blow-out pipette or a to-deliver pipette!

By the time I had reached graduate school, I already had acquired a proclivity for safe laboratory practices. This is why I was quite taken aback during my first lab rotation, when the advising professor chided me for my reluctance to mouth pipette.

Um, no.

Although we were working with bacterial cultures attenuated in virulence, I was not going chance getting sick. I took my chiding and joined another lab.

Thinking back on this experience reminded me of how different cultures are from one institution to the next. Even in an academic setting, the expectations and standard operating procedures were vastly different between these two professors. When I joined Argonne as a postdoc, I felt prepared to embrace a safety culture, but still had much to learn.

When starting a new job or working in a new environment, there is a fresh energy that makes one want to get research projects off and running as quickly as possible. It is up to us to embrace this enthusiasm, while ensuring new group members and colleagues understand how to work productively and safely, and that the two are not mutually exclusive.

This is where a little bit of mentoring can go a long way. When you have conversations with your mentors or mentees, do you discuss safety? Would you think to bring safety into the conversation? Consider looking out for new employees and help them acclimate to a safe work environment. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about how to perform new tasks or procedures safely. Make sure new group members know their way around the lab and how to find the right contacts. This will not only build a safety culture, it will help them be more productive in making progress on their research.

For more on this topic, see this quick post by the Dow Lab Safety Academy at the C&EN Safety Zone.

About Kristene Henne

Kristene “Tina” Henne is Argonne’s Postdoctoral Program Lead for the Argonne Leadership Institute. In this role, she facilitates the postdoc appointment process, postdoc career development, mentoring, advises the Postdoctoral Society of Argonne and serves as a navigator for postdoctoral issues.
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