Getting Back to Laboratory Basics

Training a New Generation on Proper Pipetting

The pipette is the most universally important laboratory instrument, and liquid delivery handling is arguably one of the most critical skills for all laboratory technicians. No matter how accurate a lab’s instrument is, if technicians are not pipetting the desired volumes accurately and precisely, the ramifications could be even more serious than incorrect data, damaged samples or wasted reagents – people’s lives might be put at risk through disease misdiagnosis.

vamc_case_study-1Since laboratories are focusing so heavily on automation these days, it is easy to lose sight of the most important aspect of productivity: laboratory personnel. We have become used to calibrating instruments and running extensive quality control tests to measure their performance, however when it comes to assessing the accuracy and precision of laboratory technicians, we may be falling short.

Colleges and universities across the country are charged with training the next generation of laboratory technicians, but while liquid handling is one of the most important laboratory procedures, not all programs dedicate sufficient time and resources to teaching proper pipetting technique.

The School of Medical Technology program at a hospital located in Shreveport, Louisiana aims to change this by instructing students on proper pipetting technique, and verifying their performance. It is a program that has already yielded impressive improvements in the students’ ability to pipette correctly, and is helping to usher a new generation of well-trained medical and clinical lab technicians into the workforce.

Taking Pipetting Technique Seriously

Vanessa Johnson directs the School of Medical Technology Program at the hospital. For over ten years she has been working directly with students to improve their laboratory skills and capabilities.  The program requires an intensive full-time commitment for students and consists of a year of clinical rotations, with classes held five days per week. A significant portion of Johnson’s Orientation & Management program is dedicated to training on automated liquid handling devices and proper manual pipetting technique.

“You would think it’s a minor point, but improper pipetting could be very dangerous for laboratories,” said Johnson.  “Honestly, it’s a pandemic in the medical laboratory industry.”

Improper technique could potentially lead to inaccurate and imprecise results, wasting time and money and, in the worst case scenario, result in misdiagnosis, she said.

Johnson fears the teaching of correct pipetting technique is not adequately addressed at the university level, and that not all graduates are exposed to the full range of sophisticated pipettes that they will encounter when they enter the workforce. “We need to make sure students are prepared to work in laboratories, and that they are trained on the right tools.  Our goal is to have them better understand how to use equipment and deliver quality results in the real world,” Johnson continued.

An Olympic Discovery

Recently, Johnson made a discovery at the American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC) Annual Meeting and Clinical Expo that would change her curriculum forever.  Artel, the global leader in liquid handling quality assurance, was exhibiting at the show and holding a competition at the booth called the Artel Pipetting Challenge. During the event, each participant used a manual pipette to dispense the same target volume of liquid five times, and was scored on the level of precision (i.e. repeatability) with which the volumes are dispensed.

The Pipetting Challenge employs the Artel PCS® Pipette Calibration System to measure the accuracy and precision of the volumes of liquid dispensed by each participant. The PCS uses ratiometric photometry, which measures light absorption to verify volume, to instantly measure and document the accuracy and precision of volumes dispensed from handheld pipettes.  To prompt interest and generate some fun and excitement, Artel awards medals for exemplary performance.

Fun aside, the competition clearly demonstrates how poor pipetting technique can cause serious variation in dispensed volumes.

“Improper pipetting technique is a major source of error in laboratories,” said Dr. George Rodrigues, Artel’s Senior Scientific Manager. “The Pipetting Challenge gives users a hands-on training experience that’s designed to improve pipette operator competence in laboratories.”

One of the major reasons  the medical center purchased a PCS was to measure its students’ ability to pipette correctly.  By using the PCS, students can gauge quickly and easily how well they are pipetting and see firsthand the impact pipetting technique has on the volume of liquid dispensed – especially when pipetting small volumes.

With the installation of the PCS, an Artel Technical Service representative trained laboratory personnel on how to use the instrument and also on best practices in manual pipetting.  This training included guidance on proper pipetting technique, pipetting ergonomics and provided hands-on technique training with the PCS to quantitatively show the difference in results when pipetting properly versus improperly. Johnson now uses this same data-driven approach to teach her students.

Artel also provides a list of Ten Tips to Improve Your Pipetting Technique, which has been developed as a brief introduction to the manual pipette technique training service Artel offers to laboratory professionals. Johnson, who won a gold medal while participating in the Pipetting Olympics, took these tips back to Shreveport with her, and to this day uses them to teach her class about proper pipetting technique.

Teaching the Ten Tips

Artel’s Ten Tips include recommendations such as pre-wetting pipette tips to increase the humidity within the tip and reduce evaporation. Another recommendation is immersing pipette tips at just the right depth; too little immersion can lead to aspiration of air, while too much can cause liquid to cling to the outside of the tip, both affecting volume and therefore data integrity.  The Ten Tips and the PCS are now a large part of the program’s curriculum, and Johnson calls them the “perfect teaching tools.”

“Students come into our program with little or no knowledge of using modern pipettes, and by going through our training we’ve seen dramatic improvements,” said Johnson. “Because of the PCS we are able to train students better, and the skills they learn in class transfer directly to the labs in the field.”

The curriculum starts with an introduction to how pipettes are used in the lab, and includes instruction on a pipette’s mechanical function and the variables that can affect its accuracy and precision. Once a basic level of knowledge has been established, Johnson asks the students to pipette into the PCS to get a baseline reading of their skill level prior to training.  Instructors then walk students through the Ten Tips so they learn to operate the pipette correctly and use the PCS to continually verify performance.

“Between teaching the Ten Tips and using the PCS to quantify performance, we’ve seen a major improvement in pipetting technique with our students,” said Johnson. “The PCS also allows me to demonstrate the impact certain factors have on pipetting.  If I spot students not pipetting correctly while conducting assays, I show them the volume measurement on the PCS and they can instantly see for themselves the effect their technique has on their results.”

Calibrating Performance

In addition to training, the laboratory also uses the PCS to calibrate the many pipettes that circulate throughout its departments.  Regular calibration is essential to ensure the devices are functioning properly and delivering volumes according to accuracy and precision specifications. The PCS can rapidly verify pipette performance and uses a sophisticated software package, Artel Pipette Tracker™, to keep track of each individual pipette. It keeps a log of which department each pipette belongs to, all historical calibration data for each pipette, immediate pass/fail results during calibration based upon user-defined requirements, and sends email reminders when re-calibration is due.

“The PCS allows me to follow the path of each and every pipette we have in our entire laboratory,” said Johnson.  “It gives me an inventory so I know if there’s a pipette missing.  Now I know exactly where each individual pipette is being used, and if it has been calibrated.”

For Johnson, Artel’s technology and know-how have made important improvements to her program and enabled her to manage a critical part of her inventory better.  It has also enabled her to enhance the School of Medical Technology program’s curriculum, and the training offered to her students such that the next generation of medical laboratory technicians will be better able to conduct critical disease diagnosis assays.