Interview with Nick Oswald of Bitesize Bio, the Online magazine and community for molecular and cell biology researchers

Posted by Rory on November 3rd, 2010 @ 10:40 am

Something a bit different this week, a post not directly related to electronic lab notebooks.  But it should still be useful for those with an interest in ELNs.  I‘m going to introduce our Edinburgh-based neighbor, Bitesize Bio.  Bitesize Bio provides ‘Brain Food for biologists’.  Free brain food, I should add.  Bitesize Bio is packed with practical information for biologists working in labs: information about tools, software, techniques, life in the lab, your career, you name it and it’s likely to be found on Bitesize Bio.  I thought the best way to provide an overview of Bitesize Bio is to let its founder, Nick Oswald, describe it.  Here’s what Nick had to say.

Rory:  Give us a top level view of what Bitesize Bio is all about.

Nick:  Bitesize Bio aims to bring together all of the technical and vocational know-how that molecular and cell biology researchers accumulate through years of experience into a central place where it can inspire and educate other researchers. But Bitesize Bio is not just a series of written articles – the community that has developed around the website adds another dimension by adding their tips, questions and viewpoints to individual articles and also seeking and giving assistance to each other in our new Questions section. I think that the combination of considered, insightful articles and lively input from the community is what makes Bitesize Bio such a useful and interesting resource.

Rory:  The site has developed into a great resource for biologists.  How did you get started?

Nick: I was working as a molecular biologist for a small biotech company back in 2007 and was looking for a change of direction. Since training/educating people was the part of the job I enjoyed most, I started writing down the training and tips that I was giving people in the lab, then began publishing it in a blog. Once it started to attract attention, people came to me asking if they could write something for us and it just snowballed from there.

Rory:  Tell us a bit about the community – what kinds of people visit Bitesize Bio?

Nick: The site was originally intended for PhD students, but we have been pleasantly surprised to find that researchers across the full spectrum of experience regularly use Bitesize Bio. As I mentioned, the community aspect of Bitesize Bio is vitally important so the input of the more experienced users really enriches the site.

Rory:  One of the things I like about Bitesize Bio is that you are always introducing new features.   What’s in the pipeline at the moment?

Nick: Well, earlier this year we piloted a series of six webinars on various topics related to PCR. They proved a real hit so now we are looking to put together a full webinar program for 2011 where each week we will present a live webinar on a technical or vocational topic of interest to our audience. We are excited about the prospect of bringing really useful lectures into labs all over the world throughout 2011.

Rory:  I know you are always looking to get new people and organizations involved with Bitesize Bio.  If someone has an idea or a suggestion, what should they do?

Nick: That’s right Rory, we are always open to new ideas from individuals, institutions or companies for new additions to Bitesize Bio. We also gladly accept contributions of articles, videos or webinar topic suggestions. If anyone would like to  get in contact about any of this (or just to chat in general about the site) they can email me on nick [at] bitesizebio [dot] com.

So there it is, Bitesize Bio.  It’s already a great resource for biologists, and it’s always developing.  Definately worth a look at www.bitesizebio.com.

Who are electronic lab notebooks for?

Posted by Rory on October 13th, 2010 @ 10:48 am

In last week’s post I looked at what electronic lab notebooks are for, and said that they enable groups of researchers to conveniently carry out four central aspects of the research process:

  • Record experimental data and other kinds of information
  • Add structure to the data and information
  • Share the data and information
  • Communicate about their research

The answer to the question, ‘who are electronic lab notebooks for?’ is implied within that statement, namely ‘groups of researchers’.  This week I’d like to zero in on the makeup of a typical group of researchers in an academic lab, and ask the question, among that group, who benefits from use of an electronic notebook and why?  Just the PI?  Postdocs? Graduate students?  Research assistants and technicians?

PIs

Lets start with the PI.  In most cases the PI drives the decision to adopt an electronic lab notebook.  PIs benefit from their lab using an electronic lab notebook in lots of ways — some of the things they like include:

  1. Having everyone in the lab working in an integrated environment.
  2. Having everyone using common structures to document their research, e.g. for experiments and protocols.
  3. For online electronic lab notebooks, the ability to access their own work, and that of other members of the lab, 24/7, from any web browser, when they are at home in the evening or on the other side of the world at a conference.
  4. The ability for lab members to conveniently work in groups.
  5. The ability to link experimental data with other kinds of information, e.g. protocols, and with physical things like reagents.
  6. Having an integrated searchable archive of the lab’s work that allows them and other lab members to find and make use of work done by existing lab members and those who have already left the lab.

Postdocs

Postdocs don’t have the same global view on the lab’s needs as PIs, nor do they have the PI’s long term interest in the efficiency of the lab or creating a usable, searchable archive of its research.  But they almost certainly will be working closely with others in the lab — the PI, one or more graduate students, and perhaps a research associate or technician — on their own projects and other projects involving lab members.  For that they will benefit from many of the same group advantages of using and electronic lab notebook that are valued by PIs:

  1. Having everyone using common structures to document their research, e.g. for experiments and protocols.
  2. For online electronic lab notebooks, the ability to access their own work, and that of other members of the lab, 24/7, from any web browser, when they are at home in the evening or on the other side of the world at a conference.
  3. The ability for lab members to conveniently work in groups.
  4. The ability to link experimental data with other kinds of information, e.g. protocols, and with physical things like reagents.

In addition, PIs are likely to particularly appreciate the benefits an electronic lab notebook brings in terms of documenting their own research, including:

  1. The automatic introduction of structure into their research record.
  2. Ease of use.
  3. Having data well organized in a form that it can conveniently be incorporated into presentations and papers.

PhD students

PhD students, and other graduate students, are likely to value these last three benefits just as highly as postdocs.  And they, too, benefit from the group aspects of the electronic lab notebook. For example,with an electronic lab notebook they can share information and ideas online with others in the lab — the PI and other students whose brain they want to pick or whose experiments they are keeping up with.   An electronic lab notebook means easier access to the PI — it’s no longer necessary to corral the PI during office hours to look at your paper lab notebook — with an electronic lab notebook you can send the PI a message with a link to your latest experiment and ask the PI to comment when he or she has time.

Unlike the PI and postdocs, at the end of the day graduate students are focussed on getting a degree, and that means their own work is of paramount importance.  In this respect they are likely to particularly appreciate the fact that electronic lab notebooks provide the flexibility for some records to be shared and others to kept entirely private.  So graduate students (and of course others in the lab) benefit from the group and sharing capabilities of the electronic lab notebook while at the same time having their own private space.  They can keep some records private forever, and other records private until they are ready to be shared, or reviewed, by others in the lab.

Research associates and technicians

What makes the life of research associates and technicians different from that of PIs, postdocs and graduate students is that their focus  is not their own research but  the work of  others.  They are supporting others, and  helping to organize the lab and ensure that the lab and its equipment, computers, and systems are running as well as possible.  In that regard they will from the enhanced structure, organization, and communication the introduction of an electronic lab notebook brings to the lab.

  1. With the structured records you can set up in  an electronic lab notebook it is much easier to get buy in from everyone to use common forms and formats for things that everyone in the lab needs to use, like protocols.
  2. With an electronic lab notebook lab members can document their experiments in the same online environment that is used to store and share general information like meeting notes and protocols — that makes for much better organization.
  3. With the electronic lab notebook’s messaging system technicians and research associates can communicate with lab members 24/7, and do this in a targeted way — for example if they have a question about a protocol someone has submitted, they can send a message with the question and insert a link to the protocol, making it easier for the recipient to respond quickly.

The bottom line?  Everyone in the lab benefits from the introduction of an electronic lab notebook!