Image created by DALL-E 2

The Lab is a Kitchen

Tasteful Experimentation at the Edge of Science

Recently I was reading Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain’s masterpiece in memoir-form about his experience in the seedy underbelly that is a kitchen and I had a startling realization…
Laboratory work and kitchen work are not altogether too different!

In fact, I think laboratory science could borrow quite a bit from kitchens (and if you work in a kitchen and are looking for a job, let me know because Spira is always in the process of hiring).

Both follow recipes in order to create thousands of iterations of the same results. For a kitchen that means making cranking out the same vegetable lasagna or a mock duck confit consistently every night for their patrons. For a laboratory that means mixing media, running gels, PCR or other tasks in exactly the same way.

For many in Silicon Valley they cry for the gods of automation to come take the humble role of pipette jockey away from the poor dumb and ugly hordes of students (I was one of you, I know how you smell) spewing out of universities seeking gainful employment. Not I (although automation does have a certain function to play in the world of biotech, a topic which I’ll discuss in future writing).

DALL-E’s “Robot on a pedestal commanding and cracking a whip at science lab workers below who are working on an experiment with glassware and pouring liquid in beakers while wearing lab coats in the style of an Egyptian hieroglyphic”

To the untrained masses, the first job one obtains is cleaning. This is not altogether unfamiliar territory in the kitchen brigade where one starts out as a lowly dishwasher before advancing up the ranks.

Scientific education is best taught as a tradecraft, an apprenticeship underneath someone who can train you properly. Therefore there is already an invisible hierarchy at work in the sciences that we should lean into just as the kitchen system has done to great success.

In fact, the modern kitchen brigade, first developed by Escoffier as a means of bringing order to kitchens. Modeled after the army brigade, the system that Escoffier designed was meant to promote order amidst the chaos of the restaurant business. In order to move quickly, and to ensure safety with so many open flames, sharp knives and seedy characters, there is a clear designated chain-of-command, specialties for certain roles, and a system of management that allows for speed, efficiency, repeatability and cleanliness in a kitchen.

Our current average methods of laboratory management in the sciences are sloppy and undignified at best. I heard a story from one of my friends that his fellow colleagues had brought their literature review systems with them from their PhDs and since there were multiple competing ways of managing papers, different groups in the organization couldn’t properly share information with each other and were competing for resources from the company. THE HORROR.

I feel like the modern biotech company could borrow heavily from the French kitchen brigade to help organize, streamline and bring much needed peace to a chaotic laboratory. I’m not advocating for totalitarian regimes ruled by an iron fist, merely a bit of order to govern the unwashed masses in order to do good scientific work. Some academic labs operate in a quasi-manner to this system of organization without directly stating it out loud, thus undermining the nature of this kind of work. I think working in this modality might bring peace to the management of scientific teams.

At the top of the pyramid there is the research director, the executive chef. This is the brainiac who devises the overall plan of experiments executed at the lab. Often, especially if they’re good, this person will have an active hand in all aspects of laboratory work and in particular, especially in the era of celebrity chefs/scientists, the marketing of the work done at the lab.

The second of the chef is the chef du cuisine, the executive officer, the lab manager. This is the project manager of the lab who works to plans the daily menu and manages the schedule and staffing for the crew of folks who will be working at all hours on making sure shit gets done.

They coordinate with the Communard and Aboyeur, or the inventory manager, and communications/HR director respectively, to ensure the personnel of the lab have everything they could possibly need to be successful and that the work of the lab is being communicated externally in the proper way.

Below the lab manager is the Sous Chef, or the most skilled all-around chef in the kitchen. This position normally falls to a post-doc in an academic lab, or a Research Scientist III in a company. This is the person who is in the thick of it, working at the bench to follow through on the research agenda.

Underneath the sous is a whole plethora of specialists ranging from the saucier, boucher, garde manger, patisserie, entremetier and so on. In a synthetic biology laboratory these chef de partie would focus on certain roles like: media mixing, running gels/chromatography, cloning/PCR, incubating cells, microscopy, bioinformatics/DNA design, robotics and automation, sequencing. These specialist roles enable folks to focus on what they enjoy doing best and/or cross-train in other positions.

One of the most challenging bits about laboratory work is your trust in other people’s ability. In such a high-stress environment where every variable needs to be accounted for otherwise an experiment might go awry, you want to depend on someone who is top-class best-in-their-field for a specific task, that way it frees up your ability to go do something else or to focus on becoming even better at your specialty. For a saucier or media maker, that involves figuring out the very best recipes for the cells to grow the most biomass or a certain metabolite. Maybe it involves making stocks or pre-mixes for all the stations in the lab. Or perhaps it’s experimenting with a turbidostat to figure out growth curves for a cell type. This is just one small example of how to practice excellence in these specialist roles.

Underneath these specialists are the commis (apprentices) and porters/plonguer (dishwasher). These are the folks who are starting to learn and working underneath specialists to properly train for the role. In a well-run lab, you’ll always have tons of aspiring folks who are training to build skills and work their way up the ranks to begin planning their own experiments.

Just like a chef carries their knives and other implements of destruction in a roll, a proper scientist should carry a standard set of pipettes, markers, label tape, notebook, scoops, tweezers, gloves, scalpel, thermometer, towels, timer. I also really like building what I call “kits” or “go-bags” for labs. These are boxes with all the proper reagents, materials and disposables for different functions. For example, making a kit for mixing LB involves stocking a box with tryptone, salt, yeast extract, some standard antibiotics (amp, kan), standard flasks, autoclave tape, scoops, weigh boats, label tape, markers and gloves.

Their mise-en-place (quite literally “to put in place”) for the station they work at should be spotless, clean and pre-prepped for work with pre-mixed standard media, plates with antibiotic selection markers, kits with any item they might need for work. Over top of the bench is stocked with any disposables they might need while underneath is any additional materials including storage for cells and/or incubator space for certain experiments.

Although initially while it might seem wasteful, this ensures that you never run out of necessary materials to the function of the lab which would bring things to a grinding halt. A scientist has everything they need at their fingertips and it’s possible to know what they don’t have and/or if something is disorganized or out-of-place you tend to identify that early before it becomes an issue. It also leads to greater speed of operation and systems of personalization/specialization to aid in the functioning of building momentum and getting more experiments out the door.

As we’ve built out our lab in the style of kitchen organization, I’ve fallen into the role of project manager to aid in my chief scientist’s research plans. We have an excellent research scientist who has his own apprentice learning the ropes. We’re starting to fill out specialist roles in the lab now to build out a full team. The dream is to have a team of 3 scientists working as specialists together — one informatics specialist working on the DNA prep, one cell-growth specialist working on the organism prep, and one analytical specialist working on the data collection, overseen by a project manager all with the aim of cranking out as many experiments as quickly as possible.

We’ve even started looking at how to standardize the space in which folks operate in to ensure repeatability. I’ve begun working on building out standardized shipping container laboratories so these groups of people can pack up and move to any location with knowledge and understanding of where everything is and immediately begin working with standardized protocols in place.

This may sound a bit overbearing to some and I agree, I’d like to live in a world in which laboratory work could be creative and free-flowing without overbearing systems of organization. I’m drawing inspiration from the restaurant world where there’s an explosion of creativity in recipes, speed and efficiency of production of a large number of recipes, and a well-thought-out system of management and discipline that ensures folks can apprentice and learn the ropes properly to rise up through the ranks to create their own recipes.

What is a lab if not a kitchen that plays with the variables of their recipes in order to learn? I’m excited to take these concepts further and test them out in the real world.



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Elliot Roth

Elliot Roth


Founder @spirainc - creating photosynthetic tech to tackle global challenges, starting with local production of industrial chemicals. @thatmre