Where sample management meets electronic lab notebook



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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 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.

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

Permissions and sharing in the electronic lab notebook eCAT II: simple permissions for individual eCAT users

Posted by Rory on August 19th, 2010 @ 7:00 am

As noted in the last post, the underlying principle of eCAT’s permissions system is that all records inherit the permissions their parent record has, unless the permissions on the record are reset.  With that in mind, let’s see what happens when a new user creates their first record in eCAT from the eCAT dashboard. You can do that in one of three ways:  by creating a new record, by importing a document, spreadsheet or image, or by creating a record from one of eCAT”s preexisting templates.  In all three cases, the new record will by default be created in your personal ‘user’ folder.  For example, when a new user called Sarah creates her first record, Experiment 1, it is automatically saved in her sarah folder, as shown below.

Like all records, the Experiment 1 record inherits its permissions by default from its parent record, which is the sarah folder. Like all user folders, by default’ sarah’ has all six permissions available in eCAT.  As noted in the previous post, these are:  view, append, edit,  delete, download, and sharing.   So, Experiment 1 has these permissions too, and Sarah can view the Experiment 1 record, edit it, delete it, etc.  Sarah doesn’t need to do anything to make this possible, it just happens automatically in eCAT.

But Sarah has more control that that — she can also change the permissions on Experiment 1 (and of course on other records she creates).  To do that she clicks on ‘sharing’ in the menu at the left of the screen and the following page appears:

By clicking the boxes in Step 1 she can give other eCAT users the ability to view Experiment 1, to edit it, to delete it or to set permissions for it.  And, using Step 2, she can decide which users have these permissions.  Its completely flexible, and well suited to actual lab practices.  For example, Sarah might decide to give view only permission to most members of the lab, and edit permission to another lab member she is working with on Experiment 1 and to the PI, so that the PI can make comments in Experiment 1.  And Sarah has this flexibility for all the records she creates.  If she does nothing they remain private.  But if she wants she can share a record, again in whatever way she wants.

In the next post I’m going to cover sharing and permissions for groups, and give an example of how a lab testing eCAT can set up a Project that multiple members of the lab can work on.

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.

Familiar interfaces: Why the electronic lab notebook eCAT and Google Docs have similar dashboards

Posted by Rory on July 12th, 2010 @ 7:00 am

When we brought out  version 3.3 of eCAT last week we made the interface

look a lot like the Google Docs interface

Why?  We’re following the advice of our eCAT users! One eCAT user, Andreas Johansson at Lund University in Sweden,  made the point that:

If something is hard to get started with and easy to use a lot of people will just have a look at and never get around to starting the first experiment. The main reason I chose eCAT is because it’s really easy to get started with and use.

We want you to take advantage of  the extra functionality  eCAT offers without having to spend time finding your way around an unfamiliar system.  We know that a lot of labs are using Google Docs as a document sharing and group editing tool, so we thought it was the obvious model to look to when we decided to redesign eCAT’s interface.

The first thing you’ll want to do in eCAT  is either create a new record or import/upload an existing one.  In both Google Docs and eCAT you can do this at the top left.  Then across the top of the page in both Google Docs and eCAT there is a set of tabs giving you access to other things you can do.  And finally, they both give you a list of your recent records in the main body of the page — just like your email inbox.

Another feature  that people find useful in Google Docs is the template page

So, we’ve made a new template page in eCAT that, once again, is modeled on its Google Docs counterpart

So if you use Google Docs, you should find eCAT easy to get started with and use.