Monday, January 3, 2011

Money well spent?

Today I spent a quarter of my start-up money. Most of it went to a few big ticket items that I have been carefully selecting and comparing for the last few months. It's a bit scary spending one's annual salary in a single day when there is no guarantee of future funding ever arriving, but it had to be done. There is zero chance of getting data when there is no equipment for running the experiment. Too bad this isn't like buying a car, where I can drive it right off the lot. I get to sit around for a few weeks now while the order goes through several purchasing and accounting personnel at Research U and then at the company. Then industrious German workers get to assemble it, test it, and ship it over. Then it will sit in customs and probably be delivered to the wrong building. About a month from now, if I'm lucky, I'll assemble my new stuff only to find out that they used metric screws and it won't fit in my Imperial unit setup.

Other items in my virtual shopping cart were more standard, but conversely took almost as long to select. I enjoy having a giant selection to choose from as much as the next guy, it is the American way after all. But would it kill "large supplier A" to obtain full descriptions for the stuff on their website. An added bonus would be some organization in how the information is actually presented. For example, I had to order some lab coats. There are over 75 types/brands of disposable labcoats to choose from. Once I got past the obvious things like color, length, number of pockets, and types of cuffs, I got the the good stuff. Will it protect me? People in my lab will be working with bacteria and some benign chemicals. There's no search column for this on the website. Some coats protect against minor spills, some against aerosols, some keep me safe from microparticles, some from medium blood spatter, and some are chemical resistant, but the overwhelming majority say nothing about the subject, nor do they tell me the material. They are soft and durable, but will that keep me safe? How about adding some more relevant information and having some sort of rating system for how much protection I can expect from a given thickness, material, coating on a coat? Ooh, ooh, I know, how about a chart? List the material, thickness, and price. Why bother carrying a product that is supposed to protect a human being when no information is given about how well it works? Or worse, you are given some cryptic value system like superior or 5 star protection. (Should I go with the lock or the shoe in of the week? It is a really big lock...) It's as if the manufacturers don't want us comparing their products. (I'm starting to suspect a conspiracy. Brand loyalty in the sciences, after all, is worse than Pepsi vs. Coke) Instead, you want me to call and find out the specs on your merchandise, then hunt around on the web and through lab safety manuals checking for compatibility. In this case, I didn't have a favorite brand, so I ended up going with one that had at least some information listed. Would others have done the job? Maybe, but we'll never know.

And don't even get me started on gloves and pipet tips.


  1. Ask for samples of any consumables. That will not only give you a chance to try them out, but with new labs it will often make your sales rep give you a "new lab" discount. The smell of start-up money makes them salivate.

  2. I am getting a generous "new lab" discount. All of the various promotions involved with that translate to more work for me. If you buy brand X incubator, we'll throw in a free hotplate, but it costs more than brand Y, etc, etc. This would be a great job for a technician or a grad student that had some lab experience. If I had a larger budget, I might not care as much and just stick to brand loyalty, but I'm trying to stretch the start-up as much as possible. I'm sure I will end up shopping around more for consumables in the future, (or hopefully my minions will do this) but right now I'm debating whether saving an extra $100 is worth an hour or two of my time.