Moving the lab can be quite an adventure

An illustration showing a researcher among dozens of packed up boxes labelled as fragile

Source: © M-H Jeeves

Where did I put that B34 thermometer adaptor? 

The days of three students sharing a fume hood are over. Or so you think. Your research group is moving to a new lab, and the news is both exciting and daunting. Important considerations immediately arise, including how long until the lab is set up as normal, what the facilities will be like at the new place and if there will be anywhere within two minutes’ walking distance where you can get good coffee.

The experience of moving labs can vary significantly, depending on distance, budget and size of research group. For some, the move can be a very hands-on experience. For others it may involve packing all the equipment away and letting a removal company do the work, hoping that you don’t arrive at a new location to unpack boxes of broken glassware. Regardless of the fine details of the move, many of the same worries and challenges arise.

First, the equipment and glassware need to be packed away. Remarkably, this is the only occasion where bubble wrap stops being fun. Soon you realise 50 metres of bubble wrap has been used for 10 small beakers, nobody can agree on who should go to get more bubble wrap and you have to plead with someone to stop popping it as a release for the bubble wrap-related stress.

After the easy-to-find items have been packed, it is time to tackle the cobweb-covered cupboards and sort through items that are rare, obscure and downright ridiculous. It is helpful to divide objects into the groups ‘take with us’, ‘waste/recycling’ and ‘Antiques Roadshow?’ It can take some group members a lot of persuading to convince them that they don’t need to pack seemingly useless items and it’s at this moment that you come to realise who in your research group is a hoarder. Every group has one – that person who is first in line when there are free chemicals or glassware given away without considering why such items are being given away in the first place. You can never have too many B34 thermometer adaptors, can you?

Once everything is safely packed up and the old lab space is cleaned, it is time to leave the equipment to the mercy of the removal company. However, there are certain pieces of glassware or apparatus that are so precious, whether it be an instrument that is key to a research project or something that’s simply very expensive, that it’s impossible to pass on the responsibility for its safe transport. This can lead people to take drastic measures. You might think that it’s unusual to see a group of PhD students carrying equipment on the Glasgow underground but the bond between a synthetic chemist and their manifold should not be underestimated. Just try to avoid travelling when train is completely packed.

When you have arrived at your new place, staring at a lab that contains dozens of unopened boxes can be quite intimidating. You may make a start on unpacking but then realise you have to raid several other boxes to carry out your plan. Inevitably, there will be a moment where you need those items that were so confidently discarded prior to packing (the hoarder was right after all!).

Initially you have expectations to restart your chemistry one or two days after arriving at your new lab space to make up for lost time, but it can be weeks before you’re back into your old routine. When you realise you won’t be setting that reaction up as soon as you thought it’s essential to stay calm – at least there will be plenty of bubble wrap that you can pop to help.

Once the lab is finally set up, researchers, fresh from the horrors of the move, will usually vow never to repeat the organised disorder inflicted on the previous lab by former research group members. However, the short-term nature of PhD and postdoctoral projects means that even with good organisation and the best intentions, dismantled instruments and obscure apparatus will inevitably turn up in cupboards within months. This, in turn, sets up the unique experience that is the lab move for a future generation of researchers. Perhaps the lab equipment you use every day will be a mystifying find in 20 years’ time.