Tuesday, 14 February 2017 14:21

How to Turn Biology Student Workers into Lab Assistants

Written by 
Published in Teaching Microbiology
Johanna Gomez, one of the author's student workers. Johanna Gomez, one of the author's student workers.

Written by Alena James

In many academic departments, student workers perform administrative tasks and are paid through campus employment or federal work study. They find themselves monitoring desks in a residence hall or shelving books in the library. These jobs assist many departments, but giving students the chance to work in their intended field of study provides a greater advantage in getting employed in their professional field after the completion of their degree program.

For the past four years, I have hired student workers to execute advanced laboratory techniques. Instead of tasking my lab assistants solely with conducting inventory, cabinet organization, dishwashing, or filing papers, my student employees practice their lab skills while being paid. Students selected to work in my labs already have a good theoretical foundation of biological principles from their course work. However, science students require more hands-on experience to develop their knowledge of advanced laboratory techniques. Providing this opportunity makes them more marketable to future employers.

A Few Tasks for Biology Lab Assistants  

  1. When employed in my laboratory, students complete the following tasks:  
  2. Running the autoclave system
  3. Washing test tubes and other labware
  4. Preparing media—nutrient agar slants and plates, nutrient broth, differential media
  5. Preparing bacterial and fungal cultures
  6. Doing Gram stains, negative stains, and endospore stains
  7. Preparing decontaminating reagents such as bleach solutions and ethanol solutions  

These are routine tasks that students will encounter if they obtain employment in nearly any lab that involves work with bacterial cultures, and the skills practiced are also great for work in other labs such as biochemistry or animal culture.  

Safety Training  

Before their work in the lab, I spend a day undergoing safety training and lab orientation with the students. This includes:  

  1. Discussing the importance of open communication with me, the supervisor. This is essential to minimize the risks of hazards in the lab.
  2. Creating a list of laboratory tasks that relate to the work that the students are interested in completing. These tasks very from student to student; some perform lab techniques that relate to the research we are conducting together, while others assist me with the preparation of cell cultures, media, and reagents.
  3. Demonstrating proper lab techniques to student workers.
  4. A demonstration by the students of their lab techniques.
  5. Providing constructive criticism of lab technique and feedback to the lab assistants.  

Through close observation and open dialogue, I can make the call on whether or not the student is ready for independent work in the lab.  The average time I spend working with a student employee during training is four weeks to ensure that good lab practices and techniques are being employed. Examples of techniques include aseptic transfer, pipetting, media preparation, proper labeling of specimens, and slide preparations, among others.

Although the training phase takes a great deal of time, it is very much worth the energy to ensure that students are fully competent and capable in completing the tasks that are delegated to them. In addition, providing such an opportunity for student workers not only helps to reduce a faculty member’s or lab coordinator’s workload in specimen and reagent preparation, but it also helps to foster lab skills that will make the students more marketable upon the completion of their life science degree.  


Alena Marie James is a Microbiology Adjunct at Marymount University in Arlington, VA. She also serves as the university's Biology and Physical Science Laboratory Manager. She holds an M.S. in Biodefense from George Mason University, an M.S. and B.S. in Biology from Winthrop University, and a B.A. in Political Science from Winthrop University.


Bethany Adamec is a Science Education Specialist at ASM, where she communicates about ASM’s work in student and faculty professional development, supports the ASM Education Board, and works with colleagues to promote evidence-based education reform.