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BIO 150 Assignment Playbook

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Unknown Sample Lab Report: What Is It?

Unknown samplesThe Unknown Sample Lab Report (sometimes called Unknown Lab --or Laboratory-- Report) is, as the name suggests, a report written after identifying an unknown sample in the microbiology lab.  Students are typically handed one or more vials containing a mystery bacterium, and have to conduct tests to identify what this bacterium is. After the experiment is over, they write a formal report about their findings. This report includes a description of the experiment and a discussion of the results. 


In your BIO 150 Lab class you might write the sections of the report individually as practice for the final report. Whether the assignment is to write an individual section of the report or the whole report, the procedure is the same, and your research sources should address the bigger picture.

Read all assignments completely, and don't forget to read the rubric (grading criteria) to know what is expected of you. 

How to Write the Report

A lab report is a formal scientific document, and as such it differs from other forms of writing (such as literature). The aim of the report is to provide information about the experiement or study that was conducted by the researcher(s), and about the findings and implications.  There are several rules that apply to the report:

  • The language should be formal, direct, and plain.
  • The passive voice should be used. For example, instead of writing "We used a blood agar plate," you would write "A blood agar plate was used."
  • Most of the report (introduction, summary, materials & methods, and results) is written in the past tense (was used as opposed to is used).
  • The conclusion of the report is usually written in the present tense. 
  • Microbial nomenclature (the names of the bacteria) must be correct and free of spelling mistakes. Names should be in italics, with the genus capitalized and the species in lowercase. Example: Proteus mirabilis.  
  • After the first mention of the bacterium, subsequent mentions may be shortened (still maintaining italics). Example: P. mirabilis.


All reports must be typed. Read your instructor's instructions to make sure you follow any other requirement that s/he may have. It is important to be very precise and follow instructions to the letter. 

For more information, please visit these links:

How to Write Scientific Reports, from the University of North Carolina

How to Use the Passive Voice, from the University of North Carolina

References Section

For this assignment you will cite your sources using the Journal of Microbiology style. Please note this style is particular to this one journal; to see some examples of formatted citations check the class handout linked in this section. Please note this document is limited in the type of citations it gives examples of. This is the only available document with information about this citation style.

This style abbreviates the titles of journals.  To find the abbreviation, go to  the National Library of Medicine Catalog and in the search box type the title of the journal whose abbreviation you need, then click "Search."

Your results will include the journal abbreviation:

Red arrow pointing to example of search result from NLM

Report Sections

An lab report usually includes the following sections:

  • Title page
  • Introduction
  • Flow Chart
  • Materials and Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion 
  • References


Note: You may not be asked to do all of these. 

Finding Research for Your Report

In the Introduction section of your report you should discuss "the bigger picture." For example, why is there value in identifying the bacterium you found? 

When you search for sources for your report, keep in mind you are looking for materials that address one or more aspects of "the bigger picture."  You are not looking for articles that describe the identification process you just did in the lab.

Lab samples

For example, if your unknown sample was Staphylococcus aureus, you might look for articles that describe the impact of S. aureus on populations and relate that to the need to identify this bacterium in order to prevent the damage it may cause. Look for sources that tie into  the "bigger picture" issues that you have identified, and that backup the arguments you made. 

You may be required to have one or more primary sources. A primary source, in the sciences, is empirical research. This means a study or experiment where the experimenter is also the author of the article.


How do you recognize whether the article you are reading is a primary source? As you begin to read the article, you should see that the writers describe a study they conducted or an experiment they carried out. In fact, the article will sound a bit similar to your report in that it will talk about objectives, materials and methods, and will have a conclusion and a discussion. If the article you are reading is about an experiment or study someone other than the writer conducted, then you do not have a primary source. 

Find sources here