Plant Chemical Ecology Lab constitution

Last Update Fall 2020

This document compiles the guidelines and mechanics of the Plant Chemical Ecology Lab. It is intended to be a document that defines the beliefs, responsibilities, and rights of all members of the lab.

Welcome to the Plant Chemical Ecology (and Evolution) Lab at Florida International University! You are now part of our small community and I hope your time here will be both productive and fulfilling. This document is, in effect, the constitution of the Chemical Ecology Lab. A “constitution” is a body of fundamental principles according to which an organization is governed. By no means this is meant to be an exhaustive document, most constitutions are considered “living documents” for the always change with changing times. Nevertheless, the goal of this constitution is to help lay down the 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) and the lab. 

Safety and basic training

The expression “safety first” takes a completely different meaning in professional research labs. In our lab specifically, we safely store and work with very dangerous chemicals, from explosive solvents to neurotoxins. Although you might have been in other labs or lab-based courses, the dangers there are where likely to get a cut or a nasty burn. In a professional lab, the stakes can be much, much higher.  The Chemical Ecology Lab is classified as a “wet lab”. 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 the Chemical Ecology Lab, all members, graduate and undergraduate alike MUST get several certifications to ensure the safety of all. This training currently includes:

All the training modules below can be found at

  • 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
  • Compressed Gas Cylinder Safety
  • Chemical Handling Safety – Solvents
  • Chemical Handling Safety – Flammables
  • Chemical Handling Safety – Corrosives
  • Chemical Handling Safety – Basic Principles

All these certifications MUST be renewed every TWO YEARS. Completing all these certifications is MANDATORY at FIU. In addition to these certifications, each protocol we use or develop in the lab 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. 

“The Lab: OE-313”

The lab is a collective enterprise. It is the cornerstone of what we do. Indeed, it is directed by a single person, but we all depend on it to achieve our individual and collective goals. The better the lab, the better our research, our papers, our reputation, your chances to get a good job, the quality of you as a scientist. Collectively, we all what to move our field forward, add to the accumulation of human knowledge, and unveil new secrets of our natural world. Individually, we what to succeed, have engaging meaningful research experience, generate great science, get a higher degree, and eventually get that “dream job”. The most important tool we all have to achieve these goals is the lab 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 Chemical Ecology and Evolution lab MUST adhere to the following rules. 

  1. Keep the lab clean: Imagine you are going to eat at a very famous and expensive restaurant, but before you do, you are given a tour of the kitchen. The place is a mess; dirty, full of flies and rats, the floor covered with decomposing food, all the pots are dirty and piled up, etc. What kind of food do you expect to get from that restaurant? Do you think it will be great? And what will you think about the cooks? Are you going to think they are “world-class chefs”? Will you hire a cook that comes from this restaurant? Never forget that the state of our lab reflects the quality of our research and the kind of scientist and professionals we are. Remember, a good scientist with great research get good jobs, and all great research starts with a clean lab!
  2. Take great care of the equipment: There are so many reasons why this should be self-evident. Nevertheless, here a couple of important reasons for you to consider. Good equipment can help you make great science. Good modern equipment will not only give you the chance of having cutting edge data for your work but also, in a more practical and real way, it will help you save huge amounts of time and effort. This, in turn, allows you to tackle larger and more interesting scientific questions that will translate into better projects/publications and a higher likelihood of landing that dream job. We have gone through a lot of effort setting up a top-of-the-line research lab with some of the best equipment. This is not common for most ecology lab. Yet, the limited research funds available for our field make it INCREDIBLE UNLIKELY that we will EVER have the chance of acquiring equipment like this EVER AGAIN. If it breaks, 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, do it like you are doing it for everyone. Write a protocol that will not need you to teach it, so students in the future can use it, long after you are gone. Always create a written version but, if possible, also make a video! Video is a quick and easy way to share your knowledge with the current and future lab students. Train or help train the new students and show others what you have learned. There are so many things only experience can teach, and this is also the kind of thing that can only be taught face to face, from one student to the other. 
  4. Keep the Lab running: The lab, its equipment, and the supplies therein are there to help you succeed. But, like the fridge in your parent’s home, it does not get filled and refilled by magic. As you can already imagine, keeping the lab stocked and the equipment running is not cheap at all. So, when using supplies and equipment, and for the benefit of everyone, 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. Or in other words, do not use a laptop to hammer a nail. We have a lot of specialized supplies in the lab. if you do not know what the purpose of a particular tool or supply is, ask. And, do not use it just because it looks like “it might do the trick”, as permission first. 
    1. Keep it stocked: is the lab is about to run out of some supply, please let someone know.
    1. Contribute when possible. If your project has funds to replace the materials, do so. If you do not have the funds to replace the materials, look for some funding so you can replace the materials; either before, or after using the supplies.

“Ups, I think I made a BOO-BOO!”

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. In the lab, we value honesty above anything. Always remember the “Lab’s mantra”: 

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 that you don’t remember if you “tare” the balance for this sample. 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. And let someone know which samples have been compromised. 
  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.

Don’t Hurry!

The clue for good, accurate, precise, and overall good lab work is not to hurry. Not only working slow will improve your data, but also consider that 99% of all mishaps and accidents in labs are due to the lack of time or patience. If you do not have plenty of time to start a protocol, simply do to start. Most notably, doing things SLOW will always allow you to reach your goals and finish your projects FASTER as you will hardly need to stop to clean a spill, you will not damage the instrument you actually need, and you will not need to re-do any analysis. Thus, every time you are in the lab, remember the OTHER lab mantra:

Label, label, label!

One of the most common problems in research laboratories are samples without labels. This an issue of special importance in our lab. Here we have many different projects and across many types of plants. Nevertheless, despite the large difference in project objectives and the kind of plants each project focus on, ALL PLANTS LOOK THE SAME ONCE THE ARE DRIED AND PULVERIZED. Thus, a miss identified sample is a LOST sample. Always remember to label. Always label at the beginning of your work. Always label well. Always use appropriate labels and pens. Always include all necessary information in the label. Always label the containers of your samples. 

Lab regular cleaning and “Lab Cleaning Events”

Most people do not think about who clean research labs. It might surprise you, but research labs are not cleaned by the universities cleaning crews. Custodians cannot tell the difference between a valuable sample and an old dirty tube. Therefore, the task of regularly cleaning the labs falls on the researchers. Thus, it is the duty of all students in the lab to try to keep it clean. Although labs do not get dirty very fast, they do need a sweep/vacuum/mopping every now and then. We do not hold any particular student 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 student at random in the next 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. If the trashcans are full, leave them outside of the lab. 

It is also very clear that you are in charge of cleaning your glassware and other equipment after you use them. While doing so, please remember that:

  1. Glassware should not have any residue of soap.
    1. Glassware should be rinsed three times with DI water. 
    1. Once Glassware is completely dry DO NOT FORGET TO RETURN IT TO ITS PLACE. Do not leave the glassware in the drying rack once it is 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” This is a weeklong 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 materials and clean deeply. We also dismantle the fume hood for cleaning. All equipment is cleaned and organized. Refrigerators and freezers are organized and defrosted if necessary. Chemical inventory lists are updated. Supplies are inventoried. 

Undergraduate work at the Chemical Ecology Lab

Undergraduates students are an integral part of the chemical ecology lab and therefore, we are proud to have multiple opportunities for students to help, collaborate, and participate in scientific research. Nevertheless, it is critical to underline that the major and most important goal of this lab is to advance scientific research, therefore, opportunities for undergraduate students to learn and participate in our research projects MUST always align and synergize with this major goal. Thus, 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. It is clear that not all scientific work is glamourous and high-tech, a lot of the work that is necessary for science to advance can be boring, monotonous, slow, dirty, and even unpleasant (although it should always be safe). Additionally, there is a steep learning curve related to the skills and basic techniques of professional lab and fieldwork. Consequently, students never start their time in research labs working on delicate technical work using expensive equipment, they start working simple, non-technical, yet very valuable tasks and slowly move up as their knowledge, technique, and abilities improve. Only undergraduates willing to make a serious commitment to their research experience are accepted to the chemical Ecology 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 always accepted to the lab on a “trial bases”. 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 an Internship so their work in the lab shows in their transcripts. This is a non-credit internship that has no cost to the students in terms of their tuition (AKA: free). 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. 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

Ph.D. students’ responsibilities

As a Ph.D. student in the Chemical Ecology Lab, you are expected to:

  1. Define a research project within the first 12 months. As with any Ph.D. student, you have the choice of identifying and designing your own research project or work in one of the Lab’s pre-established projects. Note that if you choose to develop your own new project, the lab will not have any funds to support your fieldwork or data collection. But looking for research funds is a great training experience that might become invaluable for you in the future.
  2. Complete at least 3 chapters of a dissertation. A chapter is defined as a publishable research paper in at least a mid-level journal (impact factor 3 or more). Each chapter should have an introduction, a clear hypothesis, experimental design, ORIGINAL data, results, statistical analysis, results, interpretation, and discussion of said results, and conclusions. 
  3. Give at least two professional presentations at scientific meetings, and two presentations within the biology department.
  4. Apply to at least one grant per year. This is a great learning experience and you will have the change to have the advice of the PI and the senior students. These grants do not need to be for large amounts of funding.
  5. Participate in all lab meetings. Hopefully, self-explanatory.
  6. Starting your second semester at FIU, bestow 6 hours a week to the lab collective endeavors. This should be done until you achieve candidacy. This is a great way to learn a lot of the techniques we use in the lab, get familiar and proficient on using the equipment, learn the practical side of plant chemical analysis, and of course, give some “love” back to the lab. 
  7. Identify a dissertation committee within your first year at FIU.
  8. Have a committee meeting once per year, hopefully during the fall semester.
  9. Train new students when needed. 
  10. Participate twice a year in the lab clean-up event. 
  11. Help prepare the lab for hurricanes if ever needed.

Master students’ responsibilities

As a Master student in the Chemical Ecology Lab, 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, you also have the choice of identifying and designing your own research project.
  2. Note that if you choose to develop your own new project, the lab will not have any funds to support your fieldwork or data collection. But looking for research funds is a great training experience that might become valuable for you in the future.
  3. Complete at least 1 chapter of a Master Thesis. This chapter is defined as a publishable research paper in at least a mid-level journal (impact factor 3 or more). The chapter should have an introduction, a clear hypothesis, experimental design, ORIGINAL data, results, statistical analysis, interpretation, discussion, and conclusions. 
  4. Give at least one presentation within the biology department.
  5. Apply to at least one small grant. This is a great learning experience and you will have the chance to have the advice of the PI and the senior students. 
  6. Participate in all lab meetings. Hopefully, self-explanatory.
  7. Bestow 4 hours a week to the lab collective endeavors. This should be done only for the first year. This is a great way to learn a lot of the techniques we use in the lab, get familiar and proficient on using the equipment, learn the practical side of plant chemical analysis, and of course, give some “love” back to the lab. 
  8. Identify a thesis committee within your first 6 months at FIU.
  9. Maintain your committee updated on your progress at least once per semester.
  10. Participate twice a year in the lab clean-up event. 
  11. Help prep. the lab for hurricanes if ever needed.

Guest Graduate students’ responsibilities

At the chemical ecology lab, we welcome and encourage collaboration with students from other labs. 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. Undergraduate students must commit to at least one full calendar year to the Lab.
  2. Work at least 8 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. 
  5. Inform the lab if you will be missing lab work. The work in the lab is effectively voluntary, but to avoid wasting someone else time, let us know if you will not be coming to the lab during your pre-defined hours. 
  6. Follow all safety procedures.
  7. Do not eat in the lab.
  8. Participate in the lab meetings.
  9. Give at least one presentation in the lab meeting per year.
  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.

Document Database

The lab is constantly building a document database that collects all manuscripts 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 SUPER 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 these documents are to be plagiarized, either entirely or partially. For our ethical standards, even the use of a single sentence verbatim (copied word by word) will be considered plagiarism. 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. 

Document submission and review

  • 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. 

  • Abstracts, proposals, PowerPoints, and papers

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!

  • Letters of recommendation

All the information and instructions associated with the letter should be given to the PI at least 15 days 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). 

Undergraduate independent projects

After working for at least 9 months in the lab, undergraduate students can apply to have an independent research project. This project will be designed to take between 6 to 12 months to be completed. These projects normally will require between 2-4 hours of work per week. Only 2 hours of the 8 hours undergraduates are expected to work in the lab can be diverged to their independent project. The remaining time needed to complete the goals of the independent project will be outside (in addition to) the student’s normal lab duties. Every student and project will require a mentor. Both, the PI and graduate students can serve as mentors. Post Docs cannot be mentors for independent projects. The specific goals, hypothesis, methodology, and timeline of the project should be defined and written in a two-page proposal before the project is started. Every independent project should have a final product. This final product can be either a video, poster, talk, or paper. Undergraduate students will be encouraged to present their work at FIU’s, state, and national scientific 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. Nevertheless, priority is given to fit the schedule of graduate students. The meeting is composed of three 20 min sections: lab matters (all lab-related issues and info), the paper of the week (reading a chemical ecology 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). 

Departmental and ICTB participation

All students are expected to participate in departmental and ICTB activities. This is especially important for talks. Clearly, students cannot go to all talks in the department nevertheless, they should try to participate in as many activities as possible. Special attention should be given is our lab is the one hosting the speaker. In this case, students must go to the talk. Additionally, graduate students should do their best to participate in all activities organized by the ICTB. 

Research authorship

It is traditional in academia and science to be very inclusive in the authorship of published and presented work. Normally, 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. My personal threshold for “significant investment” on a research project is any person that collaborated with at least 5% of the total effort. This can include the collection of the data or samples, 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. The once exception is that, if the person was PAID to do a particular job, that person is classified as a “technician” and, normally, he/she is not considered an author. Traditionally, the PI of a lab is always included in the papers produced in his/her lab. 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.

Simple yet valuable advice for every scientist

(Modified from Richard Freynman)

1. See failure as a beginning, opportunity, a nudged in the right direction. 

2. Never stop learning, but never let the knowledge get on the way of your imagination. 

3. Assume nothing, question everything. Not only your ideas but also the context that gives your ideas form. 

4. Teach others what you know. Never be afraid of sharing your fears and confusion. 

5. Analyze objectively. Never rush to make conclusions.

6. Practice humility at all times. Always see your colleagues as your brothers in arms, not as your enemy or competition. 

7. Respect constructive criticism. Value the chance to see your work from someone else perspective. 

8. Take the initiative. 

9. Always give credit where it’s due. 

10. Love what you do. If you don’t, don’t do it. 

11. Try to remember that the way you learned how to do it, is neither the only way to do it nor the best way to do it.