Much of this document was inspired by and adapted from the FIU Plant-Chemical Ecology Lab. Compiled here are the guidelines and working mechanics of the UPRM MADDReptiles Lab ran by PI Timothy J. Colston, Ph.D. It defines the core values, rights and responsibilities of all members of the Lab.

Welcome to the MADDReptiles Lab at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez! You are now part of our small, but growing community and I hope your time here will be both productive and fulfilling. This document is to serve as the constitution of the MADDReptiles Lab at UPRM. A “constitution” is a body of fundamental principles according to which an organization is governed. Most constitutions are considered “living documents” always changing and updated with changing times, and this one is no different. The goal of this constitution is to help lay down the overall mechanics of the lab, your responsibilities to the lab and your fellow students, and what you can expect to get back from the PI (Principal Investigator—Me) and the Lab. In addition to this Constitution, all MADDReptiles Lab members ARE REQUIRED to review and sign the Lab’s Code of Conduct prior to joining and working in the Lab.

Safety and basic training

The expression “safety first” takes a completely different meaning in professional research labs such as ours. In our lab specifically, we safely store and work with potentially very dangerous chemicals, including solvents and biological materials such as animal venoms (i.e. neuro- and hemo- toxins). In your other labs or lab-based courses, the dangers were likely to get a cut or a nasty burn, whereas dangers in our lab could be much greater if proper protocols are not followed. Our lab is a wet lab is a research laboratory where it is necessary to handle various types of chemicals and potential “wet” hazards. As such, to be able to work in MADDReptiles, all members, graduate and undergraduate alike MUST get several certifications to ensure the safety of all. This training currently includes:

All the required UPRM training modules can be found listed in the UPRM Laboratory Management Plan and include but are not limited to the below topics:

  • Small Spills and Leaks
  • Safe Use of Emergency Eyewash and Shower
  • Safe Use of Fume Hoods
  • Safe Management of Biohazardous Waste
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Laboratory
  • Laboratory Hazard Awareness
  • EPA: Hazardous Waste Awareness
  • Chemical Handling Safety – Solvents
  • Chemical Handling Safety – Flammables
  • Chemical Handling Safety – Corrosives
  • Chemical Handling Safety – Basic Principles

Training is carried out through the UPRM CEP and certifications MUST be completed during the first semester and renewed every TWO YEARS. Completing all these certifications is MANDATORY at UPRM. In addition to these certifications, each protocol we use or develop in the lab or field has its own set of safety guidelines and mechanics. If you have any concerns about the safety of any procedure, please ask a senior lab member or the PI. 

In addition to the lab, we conduct both local and international fieldwork which present their own unique sets of safety challenges. When conducting fieldwork, whether with the PI or with other team members, you are a representative of the Lab and UPRM, and are expected to adhere to the guidelines and principles to promote a safe and equitable environment as covered in Ramírez-Castañeda et al. (2022): be collaborative, be respectful, be legal, and be safe.

Additional Rules Regarding Fieldwork (these are RULES, NOT GUIDELINES):

  1. Before beginning fieldwork, all Lab members must complete general field safety training.
  2. Before beginning fieldwork, all field protocols, research permits and field sites must be approved by the PI and relevant documents deposited on the Lab Research Drive project folder.
  3.  Always use the buddy system. No Lab members are to conduct fieldwork alone, regardless the situation.
  4. All Lab members in the field must have cell phone service activated and/or two-way radios when applicable.
  5. Emergency contact info, including locations of closest medical services, must be in all vehicles used for fieldwork.
  6. Appropriate field equipment, including clothing, helmets, safety vests, headlamps etc must be utilized at all times when conducting fieldwork.
  7. The Lab has a zero-tolerance policy regarding instances of harassment or violence, including altercations with the public. Any Lab member that engages in behavior that is in violation of UPRM policy, or the Lab Code of Conduct, will be immediately dismissed and removed from their project.

“B-360; The Lab”

Our lab’s research is a collective enterprise. Indeed, it is overall directed by a single person (the PI), but we all depend on its collective function to achieve our individual and collective goals. The better our lab, the better the products we produce in it will be, from our manuscripts and presentations to our outreach and community engagement. Ultimately, the quality of these products has a direct impact on the research we produce, the knowledge we contribute and to the obtaining top-tier jobs, fellowships and post-graduate positions. The most important tool we all have to achieve these goals is our laboratory space and therefore, we should all feel responsible, invested, and motivated to keep the lab running at its best possible potential. Accordingly, ALL members of the MADDReptiles Lab MUST adhere to the following rules. 

  1. Keep the lab clean: The state of our lab reflects the quality of our research and the kind of scientist and professionals we are.
  2. Take EXCELLENT care of the equipment: Good equipment can help you make great science. Some of our equipment is old, but in great working condition whereas others have been recently purchased. We have gone through a lot of effort setting up a top-of-the-line research lab with some of the best equipment, using limited resources. This is not common for many labs and with the state of funding in higher ed, it is not a guarantee that we can easily replace even the most essential basic equipment. If equipment breaks or is not maintained, not only you but all future lab students, will not be able to use this equipment or benefit from it. Take great care of the equipment and the equipment will take great care of you. 
  3. Pass it forward: When developing a protocol for the field or lab, do it like you are doing it for everyone. Always create a written version that is clear and with enough detail that future students can use it without being taught by you,  but, if possible, also make a video! Videos are a quick and easy way to share your knowledge and can be easily uploaded to the Lab’s research drive along with your written protocol. Always budget time to train or help train the new students and show others what you have learned.
  4. Keep the Lab running: The lab, its equipment, and the supplies therein are there to help you succeed. But, just like your refrigerator, it does not get filled and refilled by magic. Keeping the lab stocked and the equipment running is not cheap and requires collective effort. When using supplies and equipment, and for the benefit of everyone, Lab members MUST adhere to the following rules (note that these are NOT guidelines but actual RULES). 
    1. Use materials wisely. Do not waste materials and supplies. Carpenters have a simple rule: measure twice, cut once. So, think very well how you are going to do the work before you do it.
    1. Do not HACK. Simply put, do not use a tool or supply design for a particular purpose, to achieve another. We have a lot of specialized supplies in the lab and if you do not know what the purpose of a particular tool or supply is, ask.
    1. Do NOT HURRY: The key to good, accurate, precise, and overall good lab work is not to hurry. The majority of mistakes and spills in the lab (see below) are related to rushing/hurrying a protocol. If you do not have time to complete a protocol slowly and with the most attention possible, do not start it.
    1. LABEL and Document:  The second most common mistake made in research labs is due to improper labeling. Every tube, container, plate etc should have the appropriate label (including date). When opening a reagent for the first time it needs to be labled with the date and your initials. All samples should be labeled with the appropriate project ID, sample number, date and initials. EVERY lab member is required to keep track of all projects in a physical Lab notebook and update sample sheets, metadata and project protocols on the Lab research drive. 
    1. Keep it stocked: If the lab is about to run out of some supply, please let someone know (the PI or senior grad student). In addition to this, add the item to the Lab Ordering list on the research drive.
    1. Contribute when possible. If your project has funds to replace the materials, do so. If you do not have grant/project funds to replace the materials, look for some funding (see potential funding sources on the Lab research drive) so you can replace the materials; either before, or after using the supplies.

Mistakes will happen

The Lab, like any other complex system, has many moving parts and it is normal for things to “go wrong” every once in a while. This is also part of doing science—learning from some amount of trial and error. However, when mistakes happen it is always better to be honest. This not only helps to promote a safe collaborative environment but also will produce better science in the end.  

If an issue arises, don’t worry, remain calm, think clearly, and try to follow the guidelines below. 

  1. An issue with the equipment: If the equipment malfunctions, breaks, or does something clearly out of the ordinary, stay calm. If you are not 100000% sure you know what you’re doing and do not have the right training, do not try to “fix” the problem. If possible and safe, take some pictures of the issue with your phone. Turn the equipment off if needed. Contact the PI or a senior Graduate Student. 
  2. An issue with a protocol: Once in a while you might find yourself making a mistake while performing a protocol. It might be an issue of labeling, it might be an issue of missing a reagent, or adding it twice. It could also be an issue of “forgetting” what sample was next, or not properly calibrating equipment. This kind of thing happens.The most important thing to remember is that you should always choose to “re-do” the sample(s) instead of doing them with the “possibility” of doing it wrong. If there is an issue, just continue with the samples that remain, the ones you are 100% sure they are fine. Let someone know which samples have been compromised and always be sure to document exactly what happened in your lab notebook.
  3. An issue with a spill or broken glassware: Just follow our spill protocol and let someone know it happened and how. This is the only way we can take the required actions to try to prevent this kind of issue from happening again.

Lab regular cleaning and “Lab Cleaning Events”

It might surprise you, but aside from emptying non-biohazard trash and occasional floor cleaning, research labs are not cleaned by the universities cleaning crews. Custodians cannot tell the difference between a valuable sample and an old dirty tube, and uncleaned labs can have a buildup of old reagents and samples that can reach dangerous levels. Therefore, the task of regularly cleaning the labs falls on the researchers. Thus, it is the duty of all Lab members to try to keep it clean. Although labs do not get dirty very fast, they do need a sweep/vacuum/bench cleaning every now and then. We do not hold any particular individual responsible for this task, we expect each one of you to take action when action is needed. If this does not happen organically; the PI will choose a member at random during lab meeting to take care or organize any cleaning necessary.

As a general rule, you must clean your workspace once before you start working and once after you have done your work. Make sure you take the time to do a good job. This includes making sure the equipment is clean, also check under the equipment, check the floor, the benchtop, etc.

It is also very clear that you are in charge of cleaning your glassware and other equipment after you use them, including returning clean glassware/equipment to its proper location once dry.

Despite all these rules, the dirt and grind will slowly accumulate in the lab, sinks, fume hood, equipment, etc. To tackle this issue, we organize two yearly “Lab Cleaning Events” at the beginning of fall and end of spring. This is a week long cleaning activity where all members of the lab devote at least 2 hours of their weekly scheduled to perform a DEEP CLEANING of the lab. During this week, all benchtops are cleared of equipment and cleaned. All equipment is cleaned and organized, and refrigerators and freezers are organized and defrosted if necessary. Chemical inventory and supply lists are inventoried and updated on the Lab research drive.

Undergraduate Research at the MADDReptiles Lab

Undergraduate research students are an integral part of the Lab and therefore, we are proud to have multiple opportunities for students to help, collaborate, and participate in scientific research. These range from purely data entry and assisting with field or laboratory data collection to fully independent projects where students conduct all aspects of the research including data analyses and manuscript writing. We use these opportunities to integrate education and research, a major goal of the Biology Program at UPRM. However, students working in the lab should understand that the task and activities in which they can participate are based on (a) the needs and objectives of the research and (b) the abilities and experience of the students.

That said, only undergraduates willing to make a serious commitment to their research experience are accepted to the lab. The lab will be expecting a high level of responsibility and professionalism from ALL of our students. Consistent work schedules, care, attention to detail, constant curiosity, and willingness to constantly improve their work are some of the most valuable traits we seek in our students. 

Students are typically accepted to the lab on a trial basis and are expected to commit a minimum of 1 year to the Lab to enroll in research credit. After their first 6 months, depending on their performance and commitment to their research experience, students can be promoted to FULL lab members. Students failing to be promoted to FULL lab members will be dismissed to grant opportunities to other students. Undergraduate students that are FULL lab members have the opportunity to register their lab work as research credit so their work in the lab shows in their transcripts. Depending on the availability of funds and the abilities and experience of the student, the Lab can sometimes also offer PAID internships to undergraduate members. Similarly, experienced undergraduate FULL lab members can also have the opportunity to carry out independent research projects and apply for grant funding under the direction of the PI. For completed projects, the Lab can support the publication of the work and/or its presentation in regional and national scientific meetings. 

Once promoted to FULL lab members, undergraduate students can remain active members of the lab for as long as they wish. However, it is crucial to note that FULL undergraduate lab members should maintain a high commitment to their research experience during their time in the lab. Failure to consistently (a) follow safety protocols, (b) observe work protocols and follow instructions, (c) adhere to the guidelines within this constitution, or (b) missing their agreed work schedule for three consecutive weeks without giving the lab a timely “heads-up”, will cause students to permanently lose their position in the lab. 

Student responsibilities per student categories

Master Students’ Responsibilities

As a Master student in the MADDReptiles Lab, in addition to the formal requirements of the UPRM Biology Graduate Program, you are expected to:

  1. Define a research project within the first 6 months. As with most Master students, you are recommended to join one of the Lab’s pre-established projects, but this is not mandatory, and you also have the choice of identifying and designing your own research project (but see #2).
  2. If you choose to develop your own new project, the Lab will not have any existing funds to support your fieldwork or data collection. However, looking for research funds is a great training experience that might become valuable for you in the future, and the PI will support you in these endeavors, including assistance with grant writing and providing letters of support.
  3. Complete a literature review chapter relating to your topic in the first year. Ideally this will be a novel and impactful synthesis of existing work, and should be prepared for submission as a REVIEW paper in a peer-reviewed journal.
  4. Complete at least 1 research chapter of a Master Thesis. This chapter is defined as a publishable research paper in peer-reviewed journal. The chapter should have an introduction, a clear hypothesis, experimental design, ORIGINAL data, results, statistical analysis, interpretation, discussion, and conclusions. 
  5. Give at least one presentation within the biology department and one external presentation.
  6. Apply to at least one small grant.
  7. Participate in all lab meetings and weekly one-on-ones with the PI.
  8. Dedicate a minimum of 4 hours a week to the lab collective endeavors.
  9. Identify a thesis committee within your first 6 months.
  10. Update your committee on your progress at least once per semester.
  11. Participate twice a year in the lab clean-up event. 
  12. Help prepare the lab for hurricanes if ever needed.

Guest Graduate Students’ Responsibilities

We welcome and encourage collaboration with students from other labs and universities. As guess members of the lab, we expect you to follow all applicable rules stated in this constitution. We also ask that you:

  1. Give at least one presentation about your project in one of our Lab Meetings.
  2. Do everything you can to help replace the materials and supplies you will use for your project. If you have no funding and are not able to secure any soon, please consider returning some “love” to the lab by helping in its maintenance, cleanliness, improve its organization, helping in other projects, etc. 
  3. Help prep. the lab for hurricanes if ever needed.
  4. Do not forget about the lab at the time of publication.

Undergraduate Students’ Responsibilities

  1. FULL Undergraduate student researchers must commit to at least one full calendar year to the Lab, including 1 summer.
  2. Work at least 4 hours per week on the lab collective endeavors. 
  3. Undergo all necessary training and submit your training certificates before starting your work at the lab.
  4. Keep a consistent work schedule, and update research hours on the Lab research drive. 
  5. Inform the Lab if you will be missing lab work.
  6. Follow all safety procedures.
  7. Participate in all lab meetings and bi-weekly one-on-ones with the PI.
  8. Give at least one presentation in the lab meeting per year.
  9. FULL undergraduate student researchers who develop independent projects are expected to apply for a least one small grant, and submit a draft of their project including introduction, a clear hypothesis, experimental design, ORIGINAL data, results, statistical analysis, interpretation, discussion, and conclusions upon project completion.
  10. Train new students when needed. 
  11. Do not bring unauthorized people into the lab.
  12. Participate twice a year in the lab clean-up event. 
  13. Help prep. the lab for hurricanes if ever needed.

Research Drive and Document Database

The Lab is constantly building a document database and growing the research drive that collects all drafts of proposals, abstracts, presentations, posters, and papers authored by members of the Lab, and that is the product of the research produced by our workgroup. It is  important that all students understand that these documents are made available with the intention to serve as EXAMPLES of how these kinds of documents are made; their structure, organization, format, etc. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES are these documents are to be plagiarized, either entirely or partially. Any student that is allowed access to this database should commit to respect and honor the spirit of this collective endeavor. Hence, students are allowed to read these documents and used them as examples but NEVER copy ANYTHING from one of these documents to their own work.

Our Research Drive serves as a permanent repository for Lab protocols, project metadata, permits, inventories, research team hours and emergency contacts. It is EXTREMELY important that all Lab members keep their information up to date, and to comply with version control on Lab protocols.

Document Submission and Review

1)   Forms—All forms that need to be fill or signed by the PI should be given to the PI AT LEAST 7 days before the deadline (day in which the paperwork needs to be mailed, submitted, or required). You have the responsibility to complete all the information related to you. As much as possible, try to fill these forms on a computer and not by hand. 

2)   Abstracts, Grant Proposals, PowerPoints, and Manuscripts—These documents normally require several revisions and go through multiple versions. If the document is the first draft, make sure this draft is given to the PI at least 30 days before any deadline. If the document is a FINAL draft, this should be given to the PI at least 7 days before a deadline. Please, never assume that your second draft IS the final draft!

3)   Letters of recommendation—All the information and instructions associated with the letter should be given to the PI at least two weeks before the deadline. This information includes details on the program where this letter will be sent, specific instructions on how to send or write the letter (if required by the program you are applying).  If it is your first time requesting a letter of recommendation, this information should be given to the PI and request made AT LEAST 1month prior to the deadline. Requests made outside of these deadlines will be handled on a case-by-case basis and are not guaranteed.

Undergraduate Independent Projects

After working for at least 6 months (1 semester) in the lab, undergraduate students can apply to have an independent research project. This project should be designed to take between 6 to 12 months to be completed. These projects normally will require between 4-6 hours of work per week. Every student and project will require a mentor. Both the PI and graduate students can serve as mentors, as well as Postdoctoral Researchers. The specific goals, hypothesis, methodology, and timeline of the project should be defined and written in a one to two-page proposal before the project is started. It is highly encouraged that potential research students discuss their project ideas with the PI and graduate students early on, even in their first semester. Every independent project should have a final product such as a poster, talk, or paper. Undergraduate students will be encouraged to present their work at the UPRM Biology and PR-LSAMP research symposiums, as well as national conferences. If the lab has the resources, travel funds will be made available to students to present their work. 

Lab meetings

Lab meetings take place every week. The day of the week is determined every semester and is subject to change based on availability and schedules of all students. When necessary and appropriate Lab meetings can be attended virtually, although in-person participation is highly encouraged. It is the responsibility of the senior graduate student (chosen each semester) to liaison with the PI and send out lab meeting updates and maintain meeting notes/schedules. The meeting is composed of three 20 min sections: Lab matters (all lab-related issues and info), the paper of the week (reading a relevant scientific paper chosen by a student), meeting presentation (a presentation on a subject by a member of the lab. these can be a practice talk, a draft paper or proposal, a mini class on some interesting topic). 

Research Authorship

Academia and science have made great strides to be more inclusive in the authorship of published and presented work, however not all labs and PIs have the same authorship philosophies. In our Lab, all people that “invested a significant amount” of work on the project will be considered as a possible author on the paper, poster, or presentation. This can include the collection of the data or samples, obtaining funding, proper research permits or land accesses, the processing and analysis of the samples and data, the design of the project, and the writing or preparation of the final document. This is independent of whether the person is a graduate, undergraduate, Postdoc, or even private individual. There are two exceptions: 1) if the person was paid to do a particular job, and is otherwise not associated with other aspects of the project, that person is classified as a “technician” and, normally, they are not considered an author, 2) if the person was assisting in data collection purely as part of their training on a particular technique in the Lab, and is otherwise not associated with other aspects of the project, normally they are not considered an author.

Traditionally, the PI of a lab is always included and listed as the corresponding author in the products produced in their lab. First authorship is determined PRIOR to the manuscript being written (and ideally at the beginning of the project) and is typically the student/researcher who is directing the project efforts (including the main writing/preparation of the manuscript). For students/researchers that plan to remain in academia, they can also be listed as co-corresponding author along with the PI. If 100% of the project was done in the PI’s lab, the PI is placed as the LAST author on the list. If most of the work was done elsewhere the PI is included somewhere at the end of the list of authors BUT not at the end. Other authorship positions are usually determined by one of two ways: 1) alphabetical except for first and last author, or 2) in order of contribution as determined by the PI and project team.

A Few Lab Core Principles

These principles are meant to encourage an engaging, inclusive and collaborative research environment but are also broadly applicable to maintaining a positive outlook outside the Lab. Many of these have been modified from others such as Richard Freynman and Ray Huey.

1. Always be kind and respectful to yourself and others.

2. Expect the best, but see failure as a beginning, opportunity, and nudge in the right direction rather than a dead-end. 

3. Never stop learning, and learn broadly, but never let the knowledge get on the way of your imagination and creativity. 

4. Assume nothing, question everything. Allow yourself time to think exhaustively. Deep thinking is NOT a waste of time and you will never have more time than you do now.

5. Teach others what you know. Never be afraid of sharing your fears and confusion. Always share your negative experiences as well as the positive. Seek out opportunities to hone your communication and teaching skills.

6. Analyze objectively. Never rush to make conclusions. Always try to ask questions.

7. Practice humility at all times. Always see your mentees and peers as potential collaborators, not competition. 

8. Respect constructive criticism. Value the chance to see your work from someone else’s perspective. This includes learning to handle rejection.

9. Take the initiative and always try to contribute in useful ways. 

10. Always give credit where it’s due. 

11. View every project as a potential publication.

12. Develop your persistence and creativity.  Academia is a marathon, not a sprint.

13. Prioritize your mental and physical health. All other aspects of your research and teaching will benefit.