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How to use experiment templates and other templates in an electronic lab notebook

Posted by Rory on December 15th, 2010 @ 9:56 am

Standard templates

eCAT has two kinds of templates.  First, there are about  50 standard templates (called classes) that come pre-loaded in eCAT.  Here are a couple of examples.  First, an experiment:

The experiment template is pretty straightforward.  It consists of seven text fields — method, objective, procedure, etc.

Here is another example, a freezer box this time.

This one gives you an idea of the range of fields you can have in eCAT, including text but here also string, barcode and reference.  You can also have lots of other kinds of fields, such as number, time, text box, etc.

Example Templates

eCAT also has example templates.  These are standard templates which have been filled in.   Here is part of the filled in experiment template

Some of the fields have been filled in with text, and a table has been created or inserted into one of the fields.

And here is the filled in freezer box template:

As with the experiment template, the fields have been filled in.

Creating your own templates

eCAT makes it easy to create your own templates.  You can do that by modifying an existing template, or by creating one from scratch with eCAT”s template builder — anyone can do it, no need for IT expertise!

Using templates

eCAT also makes it easy to use templates, both those that come preloaded in the system and those you create.  From the dashboard, select ‘Create New’, and then ‘Use Template’, as shown below

You will be taken to the following page which shows the templates in eCAT.

Click ‘Preview’ on the template you want, and the template will appear.  Then click ‘Copy Template’ at the top of the template and a new copy of the template will be created for you to work with.

How to record experiments in lab and science notebooks

Posted by Rory on November 8th, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

In the beginning there was paper

Traditionally, science experiments have been recorded with paper lab notebooks.  There are hundreds of guides on the web, like this one, with advice on how to prepare and keep a paper lab notebook.  Most scientists in pharmaceutical and biotech companies, however, have switched to electronic lab notebooks, and scientists in universities are gradually beginning to adopt electronic lab notebooks as well.

Science Buddies

When we brought out the first version of the eCAT electronic lab notebook in 2009, we wanted students in schools to be able to have access to an electronic lab notebook so that they, too, would be able to benefit from the convenience and increased efficiency that electronic lab notebooks bring.   To do that we established a cooperative relationship with Science Buddies.  Science Buddies is a nonprofit organization that provides “free science fair ideas, answers and tools for serious students”.

eCAT for K1 – K12 students

We wrote a brief overview of how to use eCAT to document an experiment, which appears on the Science Buddies website.  We also set up a dedicated instance of eCAT for K1 – K12 students to use in documenting their experiments, and we made that available through Science Buddies.  You can sign up for an account here.  You get the same functionality as with the normal Personal version of eCAT, and like the normal Personal version, the Science Buddies version of eCAT is free.

eCAT for teaching

We have also received a lot of interest in eCAT from K1 – K12  science teachers.  So, we recently put together a video on using eCAT to teach science classes like biology and chemistry.

To give you an idea of what an experiment looks like in eCAT, here’s an example

How to teach biology, chemistry or physics with the electronic lab notebook eCAT

Posted by Rory on September 27th, 2010 @ 11:53 am

People often associate electronic lab notebooks with research.  That’s not surprising since that’s mostly what they’re used for!  But there is also  growing interest in using electronic lab notebooks as teaching tools, in both  universities and secondary schools.  For example, Dave Lunt at the University of Hull has an excellent presentation on using ELNs for student research monitoring.  In this post I’m going to go through setting up eCAT for teaching a class in science subjects like biology, chemistry and physics.  We’ve made a video that covers the same ground, so if you’d rather watch the video, here it is!

http://www.axiope.com/electronic-lab-notebook/video/ecat_3.3.0/tutorials/teaching/teaching.flv

The scenario

To make it practical, let’s use a real  scenario.  Say you’re teaching Biology 101.  You’ve got 20 students enrolled in the autumn semester.  As part of the course the students will be doing some exercises and also carrying out some experiments.  Some of these will involve group work, and some will be individual work, for assessment.  You want to use the electronic lab notebook as an environment where students can document experiments and carry out exercises, and you can see their work and comment on it.  You want some of the students’ work to be private — only you and each student have access to it.  And you want some of the work to be accessible more widely so that groups of students can work together.

Setting up eCAT

You can use either of the group versions of eCAT — Team Hosted, which Axiope hosts on our servers, or Install, which is installed on your server.  To get started you login as admin.

Both versions of eCAT come preloaded with a Projects folder and a Users folder. You’ll be using both of these folders.  Here a a few screenshots of eCAT illustrating some of the actions described below:

  1. To get started, click on the admin tab and then Users, and set up user accounts for the students who will be taking the class this semester/term.  When you do this each user will automatically get a home folder with their name; these will appear under the Users section of the record tree.
  2. When each user logs in, they can create whatever they want in their home folder and only they (and you the admin) can see it.
  3. Staying in the admin section, click on Groups.
  4. Create an All Users group, and add every user to this group.
  5. Create four working groups (we’ll call them Group A, Group B, Group C and Group D) with five students each; these are the groups that will be working together on experiments.
  6. Now go back to the record tree and, under Projects, create a new folder for Group A. To do this, click on “Create New” and then select “Create as Owner” after selecting the Folder class type. Call this folder, “Group A Materials”.
  7. Click on advanced Sharing, and give Group A view, edit, append and download permissions.
  8. Then create a child record under the Group A Materials folder – an Experiment.  But this time click on “Create as Parent”. Then also create a Document record in the same way.
  9. Do the same to create Materials folders and Experiment and Document records for Groups B, C and D.
  10. Now go back to the Record Tree, click  the Projects folder, and create a child folder called ‘Course materials’.
  11. Use this folder to place materials you want  people to look at.  For example, you may want to create a set of instructions for using eCAT during the course.  You can do this by creating a new document in this Course Materials folder.  You also can import pre-existing documents, spreadsheets and images, for example you could import an ‘Initial Materials’ document. Give all groups view permission for this folder so that they can see all the course work.

Using eCAT

It’s that simple!   eCATis now  set up and ready to go.  How you use it is of course up to you.  But here are some simple examples of the kinds of things you can do with the set up you now have in place.

  1. Document experiments.  Each individual student and each group can use the Experiment record that has been set up for the group to document their first experiment.  As shown below, the Experiment record already is divided into fields for Method, Procedure, Objective, Results, Discussion, Conclusion and Comments.  For the Group records, you may want to set up some standard procedures (see below for more on this) to ensure that things are well organized and recorded.  For example, you could have a rule that each time a member of a group makes an entry in a Group record they should place their initials by the entry.
  2. Comment on experiments.  As admin, you have edit permission on all the records that have been created.  So, you can comment on the experiments  the groups and the individuals carry out.  Just do this in the Comments field, and it will be clear that the comment has been made by you.
  3. Create new records.  You, individual students and groups can create new records, as needed, as the semester proceeds. You/they can create new experiment and document records.  You/they can also create other kinds of records from the more than 20 preexisting templates that eCAT comes with.  And both you and they can also create records of your own design using eCAT’s class creator function.
  4. Communicate.  You and the students can use eCAT to communicate about Biology 101.  You can send messages about assignments, deadlines, etc., and you can also create tasks.  In both cases these can be addressed to individuals or to groups, and in both cases you can include links to eCAT records, so for example you could send a message to Group A about a particular experiment they are working on with a note that you have made a comment on it, and you can link to the experiment in the message.

Instructing the class on how to use eCAT

At the start of the course you’ll want to introduce eCAT to the class.  There are various ways to do that, and you’ll probably want to use some combination of:

  1. Having everyone view the Getting started with eCAT video, on their own and/or as a class so that there is an opportunity for questions and discussion.
  2. Preparing some specific instructions covering how you have set eCAT up, how you plan to use it and standard procedures to follow, and making these available, e.g. in a powerpoint presentation (which can be attached to an eCAT record) or a document placed in eCAT.
  3. A demo of eCAT.

Getting eCAT ready for reuse next semester

Your eCAT  licenses are reusable.  So if you have 25 licenses, and a class of 20 – 25 students, you can keep reusing the licenses each time you have a new group of students.  So, when the semester is finished, you simply delete from the User list the students who have just finished the course, freeing up the licenses for the students in next semester’s course or another course.

Try for yourself

Now you’ve seen how it works; why not try eCAT yourself?  You can sign up for a 30 day free trial here.

How to organize your lab with the electronic lab notebook eCAT

Posted by Rory on September 20th, 2010 @ 10:09 am

Background:  research in the lab

The electronic lab notebook eCAT can be configured in many ways.  One of the most common configurations is for the single lab, typically including a lab head, postdocs, students, support staff and possibly  visitors. In this post I’m going to show you a typical model for how to set up eCAT for a lab.  We’ve made a video that covers the same ground, so if you’d rather watch the video, here it is!

http://www.axiope.com/electronic-lab-notebook/video/ecat_3.3.0/tutorials/research/research.flv

Lab information basically falls into two categories. First, there is public, i.e., lab-wide, information, such as protocols, supplies, reagants, etc. This can include research data that everyone should have access to. Second, there is information generated by one person and typically thought of as private, or at least only available to others at the discretion of the author. There is a third kind of information, research data related to activities of a group — I’ll consider that later.

Basic eCAT set up

Data in eCAT can be organised to look like this diagram  from Mike Shipston’s lab:

At the top level there are two folders for the two different kinds of information:  Users contains the “private” information, and Lab Resources contains the “public”, i.e., lab-wide, information.

Within the “Users” folder there is a subfolder for each lab member. The lab member can put whatever they want in there, but there will always be a set of folders named for the projects that person is working on, and within those project folders a set of experiment records for each of the experiments that person has done.

Within the “Lab Resources” folder there are subfolders for each of the different types of resource, such as protocols and molecular tools, and within those further subfolders, for examples constructs and oligos in molecular tools.

Sharing

One of the important aspects of this organization of information is the way sharing is set up.

By default, everyone can see inside the Users folder.

Within that folder, the permissions on the individual lab member’s folders are set so that only approved people can see what is in the folder and its children – the individual themselves, and perhaps the lab-head or other supervisor as well. Records below that, such as Projects and Experiments, are set to inherit permissions from their parent records – so they have the same permissions as the individual lab member’s folder.

The Lab Resources folder  does not come preloaded in eCAT and needs to be created. All subfolders of Lab Resources need to be viewable by everyone. Depending on how you want to run the lab, selected people or anyone in the lab will have permission to add records and edit records. For example, permissions on the the Constructs folder can be set so that anyone can add to it or edit records in it, while permission on  the Oligos folder can be set so that only a few users can add to it or edit records contained in it. Again, lower-level records are set to inherit their permissions from their parent record so that they have the same behaviour as is set at the higher level.

Groups

We’ve seen how eCAT can work with individual users. You can  use Groups to make sharing even simpler. For example, you may want to create a group for the members of the lab working on a specific Project.

You might want all the work for that Project to be placed in one folder, with any member of the group able to add records and edit records in that folder. In that case you’d establish a folder Project X in the Projects folder. And for permissions you would create an eCAT group with all the people working on project X in it, and set the Project X folder to give permission to that group to add and edit. An advantage of having the group is that you don’t have to set permissions for each individual.  When someone joins the lab or leaves you can simply  add them to the group or remove them from the group.

Customizing eCAT

So that’s an example of a structure you can use to get your lab working with eCAT. There are also various ways to customize eCAT so that it better fits your work pattern. One simple way to do that is to customize the Favorites menu on the Dashboard page.

The Dashboard lets you quickly see records you have been working on and the Favorites menu lets you filter the Dashboard. So clicking on “My Projects” shows you just the Projects you can see.

You can customize the Favorites menu by clicking on “Customize menus” in your Preferences. You are taken to a page which shows the classes in the system. For example, if you always work with Lab Protocols and want to be able to quickly see them, you can add them to your Favourites menu.  When you return to the Dashboard My Lab Protocols is now visible, and clicking on the My Lab Protocols link shows you just your protocols. This is just one example of how you can customize eCAT by using Preferences!

So that’s a quick overview of organizing lab research information in eCAT. eCAT is incredibly flexible, so an almost infiite variety of  variations are possible.  Why not sign up for a free trial and explore what set ups makes sense for your lab!

Notifications in the electronic lab notebook eCAT

Posted by Rory on September 6th, 2010 @ 9:03 am

Increasingly electronic lab notebooks are about more than just recording experimental data.   They are tools, platforms, environments — call them what you will — that support collaboration among groups of scientists.  Sometimes those scientists are in the same lab or at least the same building.  Sometimes they are spread out around the world.  Regardless of the number of people involved and their locations, productive collaboration is not possible without effective communication.  So the new breed of ELNs needs to include good mechanisms for communicating.

With this in mind, Version 3.3 of eCAT, which was released in July, has a new notifications system.  It’s designed to be

  • simple
  • easy to use
  • closely integrated with eCAT’s collaborative research capabilities

A simple system

There are two kinds of notifications in eCAT — messages and tasks — and they are exceedingly simple.  They look just like emails, and in fact they are  kind of an  email system which is internal to eCAT.

Easy to use

The notifications tab appears at the top of each eCAT page.  To send a message or a task, you start by clicking on the notifications tab.  Then you choose create task or create message.  If you choose create message the following screen appears:

Then enter who you want to send your message to — one or more members of the group you are working with — fill in the subject, compose your message and press send.  Pretty simple — just like an email.  And a red flag will appear on each recipient’s notifications tab, so they know that there is a new message waiting for them to read.

Enhances research collaboration

So far so simple and easy, but the neatest thing is how notifications in eCAT integrate with the rest of eCAT.  To see how that works let’s look at another screenshot, this time of a task which has been composed and is about to be sent:

You will see that there is a link to the mouse colony experiment, the experiment I want Nigel, Jonathan, and Leigh to comment on.  And actually this is a record like other eCAT records, so you have the full power of eCAT’s editor at your disposal in composing this task.  In addition to making a link to the mouse colony experiment, you could have linked to web pages, inserted images, included more complicated formatting, etc.  So you’re able not just to send isolated messages, but to create messages and tasks which are tightly integrated with the work you and your colleagues are doing. eCAT provides an integrated environment for collaboration and communicating about that collaboration.  That’s useful when, as in this example, you are doing joint research.  It’s also useful for instructors who are using eCAT as a teaching tool.  You can send messages and set tasks for an individual student, a group of students, or the whole class.  And, with tasks, as shown in the above screenshot, you can set priorities and due dates.

So there’s an introduction to eCAT’s notifications system, and how it can help you and your group enhance your collaboration through better communication.

Free electronic lab notebooks: Evernote and eCAT compared

Posted by Rory on September 2nd, 2010 @ 9:19 am

The Personal version of  eCAT is primarily used by postdocs and graduate students who want an electronic lab notebook  tailored to lab work.  In this post I am going to try to unpick the details of what that means — what kinds of things can you do in eCAT that you can’t do in general purpose free ‘ELNs’ (which when you scratch the surface are usually note taking devices of one sort or another)?  As a way of getting at the answers I’ll compare the Personal version of eCAT with the most popular note-taking software, Evernote, which is  used by lots of scientists.

First, some  things the free versions of eCAT and Evernote have in common:

  1. They’re both online and accessible anywhere, anytime.
  2. They’re both used by scientists to record and manage data from their research.
  3. They’re both simple to use.

But here are four things eCAT has that Evernote doesn’t have, and which help make eCAT a great tool for lab scientists:

  1. eCAT “brings structure to your experiments automatically.  Since you are working with project folders you have your own experiments, and you also add protocols, and you add the data and you add whatever electronic stuff you get during the experiments to that folder.  So everything gets sorted by date and time.  It’s much more structure, automatically”.  (Andreas Johansson, Lund University).
  2. eCAT comes preloaded with templates specifically designed for capturing and recording different kinds of scientific research.  There is a generic experiment template, and there is also an  antibody template, a freezer box template, a protocol template, a construct template, etc.
  3. eCAT makes it dead simple to build records of your own design, so you can create structures that allow you to  to effectively capture the kind of research you are doing.
  4. eCAT lets you add files to records.  So for example you can attach a spreadsheet with numerical data relating to an experiment, and confocal images of data which is analyzed in the experiment, to the experiment record.

Those capabilities are pretty useful.  That’s why more and more postdocs and graduate students, like Matt Nicotra at the University of Pittsburgh, are turning to eCAT as an ideal tool for  organizing and managing their experimental data.  Watch Matt talking about how he uses eCAT in this video.

http://www.axiope.com/electronic-lab-notebook/video/ecat_3.3.0/user/matt/matt.flv

User preferences in the electronic lab notebook eCAT — it’s configurable!

Posted by Rory on August 30th, 2010 @ 7:00 am

eCAT was designed to be a very flexible system, so that you can set it up in a way that suits your research and your working practices.  The underlying system is flexible, and we’ve made it even more flexible by giving each user the ability to opt for different settings, by using the Preferences tab.  We recommend that you take a look at preferences, because they let you do some pretty useful things.

For starters, you’ll probably  want to organize your folders in a way that you’re familiar with in other systems, and suits your work patterns, your mental picture of your work, etc.  By default, when you create new records eCAT puts them in your User folder, and that may suit you just fine.  But there are two other options, to put new folders in the Projects folder or the Root folder.   If you want to use one of those folders instead of the User folder, just go to the Preferences tab and, under the Dashboard preference,  select Projects Folder, as shown in the image below.

Another preference a lot of users find useful is selecting a default class when creating a new record.  There are lots of different kinds of classes in eCAT, which is really useful if you are a group doing a range of different kinds of research.  But what if you are an individual, and 90% of the time you are working with just a single record class?  Say Experiment.  If that’s the case, then you  can select Experiment as shown below, and when you want to create a new record it will automatically be an Experiment record!   You can of course change the preference back if you later decide you want to create a record of a different class.

So there are two examples of using Preferences to tailor eCAT to suit the way you work.  There are plenty of others — why not check them out!


Permissions and sharing in the electronic lab notebook eCAT III: Setting up a project for multiple members of the group

Posted by Rory on August 23rd, 2010 @ 7:00 am

In the previous post and the one before that I covered the basics of the eCAT permissions system and explained how simple permissions work for individual eCAT users.  In this post I’m going to explain how you can set up a Project that multiple members of the lab can work on.  Again we will follow Sarah.  Only this time Sarah is not setting up an experiment  for herself, she is setting up a Project that will be worked on by some and possibly all other members of the lab.

To facilitate this, she sets the scene by not creating a new record directly from the Dashboard.  As we discoverd last time, when she does that the record goes directly into her personal user folder.  Instead she clicks on the Records tab and then on the Projects folder.  Then she clicks Create new, and selects Project.  And this time the project she creates (we’ll call it Group project) appears under the Projects folder.

To set the permissions for Group project, Sarah clicks on Sharing in the menu on the left.  This time she wants to access the full sharing settings, so when the Simple sharing screen appears

Sarah clicks on the ‘here’ link in the text at the top and accesses the full sharing screen for Group project:

This time by default Sarah has a full set of permissions for this record, and no other user — or group of users — has any permissions.  Sarah can then set whatever permissions she wants for each invidividual user.  Perhaps everone in the group will be given view permission, so they can all follow the progress of the project, and active participants will be given edit permission, but only Sarah, as the person managing the project, will have delete and sharing permission.

Since child records inherit the permissions of their parent, all the records that are created in this Project, e.g. experiments, antibodies, protocols, etc., will automatically have the same permissions as the ones Sarah set on the original Group project record.  That keeps things from getting confused.  But if Sarah — and only Sarah because in this case she has only given herself permission to set sharing permission — decides that it’s useful for any particular record that is created under Group Project to have a different set of permissions, then she can reset the permissions for that particular record.

So that’s it!  A quick overview of how to get started creating records in eCAT for your own use and for use by a group, and how to set permissions for those records.

4 ways to get the most out of templates with the electronic lab notebook eCAT

Posted by Rory on July 29th, 2010 @ 7:00 am

Version 3.3 of eCAT, which was released on July 8, comes pre-loaded with more than 20 templates.  Here are four ways to make good use of them:

  1. Get an idea for how other scientists are using eCAT.
  2. Understand the wide range of information that eCAT can help you to manage,  from experimental data to protocols to freezer samples to meeting notes to CHiP extracts to constructs to records about lab personnel and equipment.
  3. Grab a template for your own use; by clicking the “Copy Template” button at the top of the template, you will create an editable copy of the template in your home folder.
  4. Make a blank version of the template; clicking the “Create New” button at the top of the template will create a blank version of the template with the fields not filled in.

Using the electronic lab notebook eCAT as a replacement for a paper lab notebook

Posted by Rory on July 26th, 2010 @ 7:00 am

Wikipedia defines electronic lab notebook as “a software program designed to replace paper lab notebooks“.  So how can you use eCAT to replace something that looks like this?

Let’s look at this question first from the individual’s point of view and then from the lab’s point of view.  Here’s what Andreas Johansson of Lund University in Sweden says:

“I use eCAT for everything in the laboratory when I need to make a note of anything.  I use it for my experiments and my protocols.  But I also use it for things I didn’t use it for before I had an electronic lab notebook.  I use it for digital photos, so protein gels, screenshots of my HPC runs, screenshots of the small things I see during my experiment.  Before I would have just made a small note about it, now I have a photo of it.  And I also add time stamps during an experiment so I can easily see at what point I did a certain thing.

The main result is very very large quality improvements.  It also brings structure to your experiments automatically.  Since you are working with project folders you have your own experiments, and you also add protocols, and you add the data and you add whatever electronic stuff you get during the experiments to that folder.  So everything gets sorted by date and time.

And here’s what Alex Swarbrick at the Garvan Institute in Sydney, Australia says about his lab’s use of eCAT:

Everyone uses it as an electronic notebook, so they can compile the diverse collections of data that we generate as biologists, such as images and spreadsheets. We use to it to take minutes of meetings. We also use it to manage our common stocks of antibodies, plasmids and so on. Finally, perhaps the most important feature for us is the ability to link records, reagents and experiments. This allows us, for example, to connect an experimental mouse with the tube containing its tissues in the freezer, to the 6 different experiments (conducted over a year) that analysed those tissues in different ways. Managing this kind of ‘metadata’ is absolutely essential to our work, and very difficult to do without tools like eCAT.”

Of the many benefits of using eCAT as an electronic lab notebook noted by Andreas and Alex, three are worth highlighting:

  1. eCAT serves as  a ‘paper lab notebook plus’ because you can use it to record not only garden variety experimental data but also things like images and spreadsheets which can’t conveniently be entered into a paper lab notebook.
  2. eCAT allows you to manage other kinds of information such as notes from meetings, protocols and inventory, as well as experimental data, in a single, integrated environment.
  3. Unlike a paper lab notebook, which by definition is a tool for individuals, eCAT is a group tool that allows controlled  sharing of data.