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What are the different roles you can work inside of a laboratory?

Note: this is part of our Professionals series where volunteers share questions they wish they saw on the platform

Thank you comment icon There are many roles inside the laboratory it depend in your study and your interest but you have to know thing about every thing Demiana Oweda

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Joseph’s Answer

There's huge differences in the the type of laboratory which will determine the type of work you can do at each. Something that some of the other answers have missed out is that for pretty much every science, there's a different kind of lab studying it - there's medical pathology labs associated with many hospitals that process medical samples to diagnose illnesses; criminal forensics labs dealing with evidence of crime; pharmaceutical labs working to discover new drugs; environmental labs looking at the quality of the air, water and land around us; metrology labs making precise measurements for industry or calibrating instruments for other labs, materials labs doing physical testing like tensile strength and brittleness, and even large scale national labs with "big science" facilities looking to research fundamental science questions.

I've personally worked in a few labs measuring radioactivity. I started out in a commercial lab doing environmental radiochemical testing; then spent a few years at a company that set up a laboratory service for measuring radioactive waste; and am now working at a large international lab working on developing fusion energy.

To talk about what roles you can do in labs in general, perhaps it's worth remembering all labs are businesses or organisations of some kind, so some laboratory roles are all the usual business support roles - managers, HR, recruitment, finance, IT, safety, sales (usually business-to-business sales rather than to the public, but some labs do public advertising too). In larger organizations these might all be separate roles, and in smaller labs many of these responsibilities get combined with other roles.

Another important part of laboratory work is measurement quality. Many laboratories are accredited against standards like ISO/IEC 17025, so there's likely to be a quality team ensuring everything that supports the quality of measurements is done properly, like following procedures, maintaining environmental conditions, and keeping all records in order. In smaller labs, this is often a singular Quality Manager. My first job after graduating involved some quality work - I was crosschecking data and writing and checking the test reports.

Many labs deal with large numbers of different samples, so sample management is often a dedicated team or person. Some laboratories have people that go out and collect samples; others receive samples in from elsewhere, Sample receipt tasks involve recording Information about the sample like collection time and location, owner, sample conditions etc, and ensuring the sample is prepared for the right analysis. Preparation can involve things like physical or chemical processing (drying, homogenizing, acidification); taking subsamples for different kinds of analysis; ensuring proper containers and markings are used to prevent cross-contamination or any danger to lab staff; and organising storage until the analysts are ready to handle the sample.

Finally, the more technical roles of scientists and analysts. What exact roles involve depends on the type of lab - some of the other answers give some good examples in medical or chemical labs - but there's many more types of science and lab; I've met electronic engineers testing voltage, current, electromagnetic emissions, etc; mechanical engineers using crushing presses, tension tests, various electron microscopes looking at materials properties; and many more. I work in radiation measurement, setting up and using technologies like gamma and neutron spectrometry.

A particularly important difference in technical work comes out of the difference between analytical labs and research labs - with analytical labs, the science is well known, and the objective is just to analyse samples in a repetitive way and report on the properties of the samples. In research labs, you're looking to find out new science and discover new things, so the work is much less routine and much more exploratory science - that means there's much more academic research work for scientists, studying previous scientific papers, publishing new research, etc.

Joseph recommends the following next steps:

Consider asking a question specifically about the sort of lab you are interested in
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Mark’s Answer

There are several different roles in laboratories. I work at a chemical plant and we have laboratory testers, chemists, laboratory supervisors, laboratory managers. The Laboratory Testers run the different analytical tests. Chemists will fix the laboratory equipment and make sure it is calibrated and running properly. Laboratory Supervisors and Managers will manage employees and workload.
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John’s Answer

There are many roles that you can play in a laboratory. Some at the technical level and some at investigator's level. At the technical level you would have the duty of carrying out experiments for the investigator every day. Some of the experiments can be within the field of immunology, some in the field of biochemistry, or physics and the like. Such experiments include western blotting assays, ELISA assays, DNA isolation and PCR or qPCR, also many techs have the duty of small animal surgeries, removal of organs for testing of damage to the organ from drugs, methods of surgery, and to test new equipment developed by certain companies or investigators to seek improvement in detection of oxygen levels in blood or detection of tumors. Other methods include flow cytometry, Spectrophotometry of various kinds such as Infrared spectroscopy, Mass spectrometry, Near Infrared Spectroscopy which is used in many operating rooms to detect oxygenated blood levels in patients while they undergo bypass surgery. As an investigator you would have to be at the PhD or MD level and you would coordinate and designate what person is best suited to carry out each different type of experiment in the lab. Also, the writing of grants to maintain funding for the lab and their employees that work for them. Also, to come up with strategies for unique ideas that will include certain techniques that the tech would carry out. Also, to make sure they get feedback from their technical people as to their feelings of how each experiment goes and what can they do to correct them. If you step in at an entry level it is best to ask questions to more experienced people in the lab. Never be afraid to ask questions to both techs and investigators. They are your best resource for improvement in the work you do. If you plan to work at the tech level never be afraid to ask a more experienced tech or investigator how you can improve your methods. I learned this the hard way. But since asking questions I am better for it. Many investigators come to me for answers because of years of experience in many fields such as animal surgery, spectroscopy, ELISA, Western blotting, DNA and RNA isolation and PCR and qPCR for both, and flow cytometry.
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Jennifer’s Answer

The type of lab you're in determines your role. There are two main types of labs: Anatomic Pathology and Clinical Pathology. Anatomic Pathology includes Histology/Surg-pathology, Cytology, Cytopathology, and Forensics. Clinical Pathology, which most people refer to as 'the lab', includes Hematology, Chemistry, Immunology, Microbiology, Molecular, and Blood Bank.

But labs also encompass point of care, phlebotomy, transfusion medicine, informatics, andrology, research, and logistics. Your role could vary from collecting and preparing specimens for testing, to performing the tests and reporting the results. Some roles focus on maintaining the lab equipment and supplies, or working on the software side, developing new tests for technicians to use.

You could also work in quality assurance and management. The size of the lab and the facility it's in can influence the range of roles available. Some facilities combine many roles, while others have separate staff for each task.
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Dino’s Answer

Great question! Many students aren't fully aware of the diverse job roles available within a laboratory setting. This understanding can open up a world of possibilities, showing them that a laboratory worker can also take on various roles outside the lab. For example, a person working in a Chemistry Laboratory could also serve as a faculty member teaching science courses, provided they have the necessary qualifications. They could even take on the role of an assistant researcher or lead researcher in a specific project. The experience gained from working in a laboratory can potentially pave the way to higher positions within the department, particularly in colleges, universities, or industrial corporations. So, it's not just a job, it's a stepping stone to a myriad of exciting opportunities.
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