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Scientists Need a Smarter Bench

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A lab design that fails to integrate computers into each step of experiments and analysis is not a total success

 

Internal data from Compaq’s life sciences group surveying the biotech industry documents a 12 percent computer downtime rate, according to company consultant Kevin Sanders. Other industries panic at three or four percent. I interpret that out-of-whack number as evidence of the failure to properly integrate computers into the wet lab.

The disconnect is really a design issue. Computational biology requires an Internet-ready workstation with a big monitor — equipment that fits with office furniture, not laboratory casework. Even when processes have been automated, lab design physically separates computer-based analysis from experiments.

How to bridge the gap? The Labscape project, a computer-science driven element of the Cell Systems Initiative at the University of Washington, is Larry Arnstein’s effort to meld computers into the fabric of the bench scientist’s daily work.

Labscape is based on a major research thrust in computer science called invisible computing. Despite a name that reeks of techno-complexity, the idea is simple. Arnstein explains: “It means thinking about computing like a utility. All that extra stuff — the sensors, cameras, computers, monitors — goes into the background until it’s needed.”

At the Georgia Institute of Technology, researchers built an entire house from the ground up, a digital sandbox and testbed, to develop invisible computing applications for the home. For biology labs, Arnstein eschewed the highly controlled setting that comes with such a monolithic design. Rather, the goal is to design smart environments built to meet the rigorous requirements of biologists: “making it work for real people with real work to do,” he says.

The lab bench is where information is both created and needed, yet it remains a largely computer-free zone. Even at benches where computing workstations are close by, when a researcher is mid-experiment, the PC 10 paces away might as well be in a separate time zone.

Labscape’s solution: turn the entire laboratory into an assistant to capture and organize data as work is performed, eliminating the gulf between experiment and analysis.

Arnstein settled on a handful of requirements: Labscape should provide utility but require minimal user interaction. It must be compatible with almost any cell biology laboratory and be able to operate 24/7. This means that a minimal system must rely only on basic computing equipment and networking infrastructure.

Okay, but what does that look like? The way Arnstein sees it is, “Labscape doesn’t have to look like anything.” How things work matters far more than how things look. In the initial UW installation, relocateable, wirelessly networked, pen/touch-driven tablet computers the size of laptop screens sit in platforms close by essential process equipment.

The touch-panel displays occupy the biologists’ natural field of view without obscuring their work and provide a window into a database that can answer a variety of questions that might otherwise require an interruption. The software documents everything from material barcodes to experiment steps. Ultimately, everything gets imprinted in a digital record that can stand in for a lab notebook with tremendous detail. If the data moves, people don’t have to.

In truth the Labscape pilot looks little different from any other lab, and could be incorporated into any existing lab. Two sites coming online, an Immunex cell purification lab and a Seattle public high school bio lab, bear that out.

“We need to focus on today’s laboratory,” says Arnstein. “We want our system to be a facilitator … toward the lab of the future.” He knows he can’t get there on his own — scientists will be the ultimate meter of whether systems like Labscape get accepted in everyday labs.

 

Do It Yourself

Until Labscape comes to a lab near you, what’s a bench scientist to do? These temporary fixes increase integration and bring software apps to all corners of the lab without a top-to-bottom renovation.

• Use notebook computers. The difference in compute power between laptops and desktops lessens with each generation of machines. Don’t forget to beef up security as you add hardware that can walk away fairly easily.

• Get comfortable with handheld devices. The day is coming when PDAs will augment many bioinformatics apps running on servers and PCs.

• Use a wireless network if dataports aren’t available on the lab casework, and take measures to protect your information from getting lost or stolen.

• You might get by with a LIMS — it’ll help organize and store data, but the highly specific software on your average system won’t be nearly as versatile as what Labscape aims for. Think about extending the LIMS for data analysis at the bench.

• Keep an eye out for Bluetooth, a new wireless data transfer standard that allows for interdevice communication. Instruments talk to a PC that talks to your PDA — getting close to the idea of Labscape.

 

Brad Stenger is a freelance journalist who researches human-computer interaction in computational biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, designs bioinformatic interfaces for Yale’s Gerstein Lab, and worked as a laboratory planner for architectural firm CUH2A. Send your comments to Brad at [email protected]

 

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