Where sample management meets electronic lab notebook


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How to set up a new lab with an electronic lab notebook

I recently  came across a great primer on how to set up and run a new lab.  It’s called How to set up a new life science lab without HHMI funding, and it was put together by some people at Dartmouth to welcome new faculty members.  Their recommendations are simple:

  • You’re the best postdoc you’ll have for many years; stay at the bench
  • Grow slowly and selectively
  • Hire a research associate who is a stable person and not too proud to help you be more productive
  • Submit grants early
  • Compartmentalize and plan your time
  • Balance novel and risky experiments with meat and potatoes
  • Attend just one meeting a year

Hmm, I thought, eCAT can help with each of those recommendations.  Here’s how.

Stay at the bench

Spending time at the bench is one thing when your main focus is your own research, quite another when you have all the responsibilities and commitments that come with setting up and running a lab.  To make time for research, you’ll need to be well organized and efficient in carrying out and  documenting your experiments.  And you’ll need to be in close touch with the research  everyone else in the lab is doing — you’re not on your own or supervising one or two people any longer, you’re leading a group.

An electronic lab notebook can help on both accounts.  Larry Gonzalez  at the University of Okhlahoma summarized nicely how eCAT helps both him and his lab get better organized:

“eCAT  helps keep me organized, and it’s very good at increasing my efficiency in documenting my research.  Myself or a research technician or a post doctoral fellow can generate a protocol and store it in eCAT.  We can create the data forms that can be filled out manually and entered during an experiment, and we can link to external files.  And if someone would prefer to use another program like Excel to generate spreadsheets instead of entering data into eCAT they can create a spreadsheet and we can link to that file, and its all kept together and organized well in eCAT.  And then when an experiment is completed we’re able to export the data to an external statistical data program for subsequent analysis.”

Grow slowly and selectively

An important benefit of a good electronic lab notebook is that it is flexible enough to grow as your lab grows.  In the most obvious way, it should be able to accomodate the addition of new lab members by making it easy to set up new accounts for them.  There are also less obvious things a good ELN can help with, like  having the ability to set up groups of users.   In eCAT you can set up an  ‘all users’ group, with permissions set on what records the members of the lab can view, what records they can edit, etc.  So you don’t have to set up a new permissions regime for each new person who comes into the lab; you just add them to the all users group and it happens automatically.

Another aspect of eCAT’s ability to help integrate new lab members easily is that, as Alex Swarbrick of the Garvan Institute in Sydney pointed out,

“Since everyone uses the same interface, it is easier for new people to understand the way the lab works and to pick up on projects.”

Hire a research associate to help you be more productive

Postdocs have to be self sufficient and multi-talented to survive, much less thrive, so working with someone else who helps manage you and your new lab may take some getting used to.  To develop a good relationship with a research associate and get the most out of them involves not only interpersonal skills; you also need to establish an environment where collaboration and communication takes place as naturally and as easily as possible.

Introducing an electronic lab notebook as the place where everyone in the lab documents and shares experimental data, as well as meeting notes, protocols and other information not only makes your life easier, it also makes your research associate’s life easier.  And that’s crucial because given the explosion in demands on your time that come with runnning your own lab, your productivity is now impacted by your research associate’s productivity.  If they are left to chase bits of information scattered around other people’s paper lab notebooks, in random disk drives, and on personal computers, a lot of their time is going to be wasted.

With an electronic lab notebook, your research associate can have access to all group records, and can set up structures for recording and organizing things like lab protocols that make it easy for them, and you, to find information.  Heather McClafferty, research associate to Mike Shipton at The University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Integrative Physiology, said after the lab had adopted eCAT:

“Having everything tied together under one resource, so results, protocols, constructs, where things are physically, having everything together under one system has just been perfect.”

Submit grants early

Submitting grants early requires organization.  That’s pretty obvious.  What may be less obvious is that organization becomes a bigger challenge, but can also bring bigger rewards, when you are at the head of a group, even a small one like your first lab.  Your research associate and your students can both be useful resources for preparing for grants:  carrying out preliminary research, finding data from previous projects, and researching and preparing applications.  They will do all this much more effectively with an electronic lab notebook.  With an ELN it is easier to share data and communicate about it, data from previous projects is archived and easily searchable, and when it comes time to prepare the application, (a) people are already working in the same integrated environment, and (b) the data needed to support the application is readily available for inclusion into it.

Compartmentalize and plan your time

The organization theme is obviously relevant here.  But how does an electronic lab notebook help?  First, an online ELN like eCAT is accessible 24/7 from any computer with a web browser.  That means you don’t have to set up a specific time to see what others in the lab have been doing.  No need to make an appointment to go over a student’s paper lab book.  Instead, as Alex Swarbrick says, “I can use eCAT to remind myself of recent experimental results without hassling someone in the lab.”  And Alex, and other eCAT users, are free to arrange their time in the way that suits them, rather than having to fit in with arbitrary schedules, or what’s convenient for others.  The result is more time to spend, and to allocate in the way you find most effective.

Balance novel and risky experiments with meat and potatoes

One of the benefits of a flexible ELN is that it allows you to structure your experiments, and those of others in the lab, in the way that best suits your research.  Mike Shipston at Edinburgh put it this way:

“The great thing about eCAT is it’s incredibly flexible in terms of how you can set it up.  For example each member of the lab has their own folders and puts their own experiments within that, but its every easy to put that information together.”

Having a structured record of your lab’s experiments — yours but also everyone elses — means that you are more likely to spot patterns, discrepancies, and problems.  And see the woods from the trees and develop a better sense of what’s risky and what’s meat and potatoes, and why.

Attend just one meeting a year

This is one bit of advice you almost certainly are not going to follow!  The reality is that you’re going to find yourself on the road quite a lot, whether it’s attending a conference or meeting collaborators about a grant proposal or work on a grant in progress.  With an online ELN like eCAT, you can stay in touch with the work that’s going on back in the lab because you can login over the internet and see what people having been doing, in the evening, between meetings, or whenever it suits you.  And with eCAT’s notifications system, you can send and receive messages about people’s research, and even put links to experiments and other records in the messages, which makes it easy to work collaboratively even when you’re on the other side of the world.  So if don’t follow this last bit of advice, and end up attending meetings regularly, with eCAT you will still be able to keep up with other aspects of your lab’s research.

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