Where sample management meets electronic lab notebook

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What if the scientists in Naturally Obsessed had used iPads?

Posted by Rory on October 4th, 2011 @ 12:40 pm


Professor Mike Shipston using eCAT on the iPad in his lab


Imagining Naturally Obsessed in the age of the iPad

About a year ago I wrote a post speculating about how the research dynamics in the Shapiro lab might have differed if the scientists in the film Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist had used an electronic lab notebook.  The award winning film chronicles the experiences of three PhD candidates in the laboratory of molecular biologist Lawrence Shapiro at Columbia University Medical Center.   Here’s the plot, as summarized on the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center website

“In the film, shot mostly in Dr. Shapiro’s lab, the students are trying to beat worldwide competition in identifying the molecular workings of the protein AMPK, which controls whether fat is burned to produce energy or is stored as fat. The three scientists struggle with various personal challenges: Robert Townley has a history of rebellious behavior; Kilpatrick Carroll questions whether he should leave academia for industry; and Gabrielle Cubberley wrestles with self-doubt about succeeding in such a competitive environment. At the end of the film, Townley achieves success in his project and publishes the results, with Dr. Shapiro as the only other co-author, in the journal Science.”

I concluded that the use of an electronic lab notebook would have changed – for the better – the relationships between the lab head and graduate students, among the students, and between individuals and their own research.

A year has passed since that post but it seems more like a generation because of the advent of the iPad.  It occured to me that it would be fun to take another look at the Shapiro lab, and speculate about how the research dynamics in the lab would have further evolved if the lab members had accesss to iPads.  To bring home the possibilities that have emerged with the iPad, I’ve used a couple of photos of the iPad in action in a lab environment, not the Shapiro lab, but the lab of Professor Mike Shipston, Director of the Centre for Integrative Physiology at the University of Edinburgh.  Using Mike’s lab as an example brings the story down from the cloulds of speculation into the concrete world of the here and now, because the members of Mike’s lab are already using an electronic lab notebook – eCAT – and eCAT is now available on the iPad.

Reimagining the way you relate to your research

Some quotes from the film give a flavor of the research experience of the Shapiro lab members:

“Two and a half years of doing experiments and having them not work.”

“We did an experiment a year ago, the crystals were too disordered.  We went back to the drawing board.”

“You learn so much from failure, nothing from success.”

With the eCAT electronic lab notebook on an iPad, you have an electronic version of your lab book.  That’s pretty amazing.  Like your lab book, you can take it with you everywhere in the lab — at your workbench, to meetings, etc.  And eCAT has a sample management system built in, so you can also use your iPad when you’re checking samples in or out of the freezer.  But unlike your paper lab book, eCAT is electronic, so you can  make links between experiments and protocols or meeting notes, and between experiments and the samples used in the experiments.  And searching for information is much easier, and can be carried out in a fine grained way that’s impossible in a paper notebook, e.g.  you could search for all the experiments that have a methods field containing the word Elisa.

So it seems clear that if Rob, Kil and Gabrielle had been using eCAT on the iPad, their experience would have been markedly improved.  Yes, there would have been plenty of failed experiments, but they would have spotted the errors and problems much quicker, and hence made better and earlier use of their failures.  And they would have had a better handle on the crystals and how they related to the experiments the crystals were used in, again accelerating the learning process.

Mike with eCAT on the iPad at the freezer

Sharing your research with colleagues

There was plenty of one to one interaction between the Shapiro lab mambers  – Kil sums it up when he says, “It’s not just my data that enriches the experience, Rob has been sitting across from me, working here, and has done many experiments that I never would have thought to do, and they’ve turned out to be really useful.”

The possibilities for sharing and digesting information would be greatly enhanced just by using an electronic lab notebook — Kil and Rob could have shared their experimental writeups online, anytime, anywhere, not just when they were together in the lab, looking at someone’s lab notebook.  With eCAT on the iPad, the potential for sharing and collaboration takes another leap forward.  With iPads you can ‘compare notes’ and quickly find past experiments and, e.g. the protocols that were used in those experiments, anywhere in the lab, at the workbench or the freezer, or outside the lab, over lunch.   And the iPad is inherently ‘shareable’ in a way that a pc or mac, or a lab notebook, is not; Kil would be able to say to Rob, ‘here, let’s try this,’ on Rob’s iPad if he wanted to illustrate an idea.

Improving lab dynamics

eCAT on the iPad makes possible better communication and sharing not only on a one to one basis, but also across the lab.  In the absence of an electronic lab notebook, the Shapiro lab appeared to operate through a series of one to one relationships, between the PI, Larry, and each student, and between individual students.  An electronic lab notebook  provides a convenient environment where the lab, as a group, can share research and ideas about their research.   eCAT on the iPad enables this sharing to take place in an instant and immediate fashion.  For example, in a lab meeting you can show the other members of the lab the results of your current experiment, and if you have made a link in the experiment record to the protocol used in the experiment, when the PI asks about the protocol, instantly bring it up for discussion.  Then, if you are tasked with taking notes about the meeting, when the meeting moves on you can switch to the document you’ve created for the meeting note, and then share that with everyone as soon as the meeting has ended.

Naturally Obsessesed and Nicely Enabled

The Shapiro lab depicted in Naturally Obsessed and Mike Shipston’s lab are engaged in the same pursuit of scientific knowledge and understanding, and use the same (painstaking) experimental method of trial and error.  But thanks to its use of eCAT on the iPad, the Shipston lab is improving the dynamics of the research process for individual members of the lab and for the lab as a whole in ways that the Shapiro lab, back in 2004 – 2007, could barely have imagined. Fundamentally, the Shipston lab is enhancing and accelerating the ability to learn from trial and error, by making it possible to carry out higher quality experiments and complete them more quickly.  That’s pretty exciting!

Mike with eCAT on the iPad in his office