Dear Molly Cule

Professor Molly Cule is delighted to receive comments on her answers and (anonymized) questions at mollycule@biophysics.org, or visit her on the BPS Blog.

What do I do if my labmate is messy?

Even if you are a complete organization and cleanliness freak, there is often someone close by, or even sharing space with you, who is a messy labmate. Your messy labmate may say, “If your lab space is clean, it looks like you’re not working hard.” Indeed, in scientific research, an old adage is that “messier” people are more productive. Of course, this statement raises many flags, as seems obvious that a neat and organized workspace will be more efficient and safer! Addressing your labmate’s organization and cleanliness shortcomings must be handled with care. Your labmate is someone you have to work with daily, and it is important to remain collegial and treat your labmatewith courtesy.

There are a few ways of addressing this sort of situation depending on the circumstances. If your labmate is messy when using equipment, talk to them about the uses of the common equipment and how others rely on it. Some equipment is very sensitive to salt deposits and the like, so keeping an area clean can be critical to maintaining the proper function of the equipment. Safety issues can also become a problem if the mess involves leaving dangerous chemicals out without labeling or disregarding other safety precautions like secondary containment.Often times, there are people assigned to keeping common equipment running, perhaps a student or a lab manager. Talking to them about the normal and safe usage of the equipment can supply you with the information you need to address whether the mess is dangerous. They might also be responsible for training so keeping them informed about any issues with the equipment is important.

If the labmate is messy and you share a bench with her, try making similar arguments on a more personal basis. Does the mess prevent you from working? Does the mess make common bench equipment inaccessible? Does the mess create an unsafe environment? Are flammables being used near open flames? Clutter alone can make an environment unsafe! Keep in mind when addressing these types of sensitive situations to avoid inconsiderately making a scene. Instead, try to remind her about the right way to use the shared lab space. Calmly refer the labmate to your institution’s safety procedures, which normally include sections on clean, clutter-free work habits. In keeping words simple and civilized, you can avoid creating a larger conflict. Pointing out all your labmate’s faults at once with anger, or gossiping about the problem with others in the lab, could anger and offend your labmate, which won’t solve anything. If the labmate does not change his habits, suggest splitting the bench down the middle. Whether or not you decide to try splitting the bench, it may help to label your own space or equipment more clearly to make the messy labmate take note before he moves your belongings.

In many cases, a messy labmate has not been properly trained on the protocols of the new lab. This is particularly true for a younger scientist who is tasked with coordinating research across different fields. Sometimes postdocs may think that they do not need to ‘waste’ time taking safety courses or mandatory instrument training courses. If this is the case, this is not only a messy labmate, but a potentially dangerous one. Avoid the possibility of broken instruments by talking to your labmate to make sure they understand how to use the equipment. As discussed earlier, many labs have students or lab managers in charge of keeping common equipment in working order, so putting your labmate in contact with that person can help avoid problems down the road.

Having a messy labmate can be annoying, but remember, if your labmate’s mess does not impact you or others directly and does not create an unsafe situation, you should ignore it. Everyone has different standards, and while a labmate’s messy bench may look unsightly to you, she does not see it in the same light.

December 2012 Table of Contents