Friday, November 22, 2013

What mobile technology would you like to see for use in the lab?

Friend of the blog Philip Skinner (@KayakPhilip) generously donated $200 to the Geek Girl Con DIY science zone. He asked for a post about mobile technology for science, which makes a lot of sense, since he's a marketing director at Perkin Elmer Informatics(@PKI_Informatics), the folks behind ChemDraw (@ChemDraw) and ChemDraw for iPad. He asks:
If technology was no barrier, what sort of mobile (or other) technologies would we want for science - either in research or even in education?
This is a great question, and one that I’ve wrestled with for a while now. In my personal life, I’m a bit of a Luddite. I don’t own a smartphone (yet) and it wasn’t until earlier this year that I owned a tablet. In my professional life, I still use a pen and paper quite a bit, and it’s been a while since I’ve used an electronic notebook for work.

But if I were trying to dream up technology that would make a working scientist’s life easier, it would be a weird meld of Google Glass and a broadly integrated super-LIMS. Ideally, it would record everything I did in the laboratory, and it would keep track of every bit of chemistry I’ve ever thought about.

The Google Glass part: Do you accurately write down every single thing you did in the lab? I try to, but was that 0.459 grams of reagent, or 0.457 grams? How many minutes between the 2nd time I pulled an aliquot of that sample and the 3rd? Humans are pretty good at observing their experiments, but computers, would be far, far better. People are, most of the time, the recorder of scientific information coming out of an experiment -- perhaps it's the experiment that should be recording itself.

If there was a way to capture all of the data and keep track of it, notebooking would cease to be the drudgery of “I added reagent A, and then reagent B, and then reagent C” and be more about why you did certain things and not how. Obviously, really smart cameras would be a major part of this technology…. It could take photographs of my reactions and my TLC plates (now there's a simple something that needs to happen -- a TLC UV lamp that takes pictures and sends them to your electronic notebook!). Better yet, everything would be integrated into the laboratory of the future through…

A super-LIMS: If I am not mistaken (since I have never worked with one) a LIMS system is how laboratories that have to process a lot of samples keep track of all of their data. But why stop at a HPLC or a GC? Why not integrate all of the laboratory's instruments and inventory into said system? Then, you could link your reaction with all of the data attached (brand names, lot numbers of solvents, reagents, the water content of the solvents, the exact weights) with all the analytical data attached to the file. I know that a lot of the pharmaceutical company e-notebooks probably will integrate HPLC traces and pdfs of NMRs, etc. into files already. Wouldn’t it be great if those e-notebooks would also advise the chemist of previous literature that was relevant to the experiment, or previous experiments within the company that had been tried, or solvent/reagent combinations that might work better?*

But what if the chemist thought of something later that night? That’s where the third item comes in: the super-tablet. Instead of looking for a Post-In note or something, you could pull out your tablet, access your company’s intranet and scribble something down to yourself that day. Want to check out how your overnight run on the HPLC is doing? Check it out on your mobile device! Naturally, the super-tablet would have access to all the literature and internal documents that your company had, if you wanted to take a brief moment and browse through some relevant journal articles. (Of the three things I’ve talked about, this is the one that is most close to fruition -- I suspect most major pharma company laptops can access most internal data at home.) It would be even better if it could keep track of all the reactions that you'd ever done and all the papers you've ever read.

Readers, what is the mobile (or not) technology that you would like to see in the lab? Is there is there something that you've always wanted?

*Or you could imagine some horrendous version of Clippy: "It looks like you're doing an olefin metathesis! Did you remember to degas your solvent?" 


  1. This is a harder question than it should be. CJ's suggestion are good - an easy way to record experiment data for transfer to a notebook. Also, remote monitoring of running equipment from an app might also be nice.

    One thing that might really help is some kind of app to easily compare equipment prices and perhaps find used/refurbished equipment.

  2. Where to about instrumentation without proprietary data systems so you could walk up to the instrument with your iPad and tell it to run your samples, then have it send you the data from the last set you ran directly to your ipad which has a lab notebook running and have that data drop into your experiment.

    Along those lines, I would love to see an electronic lab notebook that was designed for the huge audience of high school and undergraduate students that we are trying to teach about science rather than for the major research labs only.

    Also, I would like to see a dictation app that is designed to understand scientific talk. I tried the "best" ones available for normal dictation and my spoken notebook entry was quite comical. (I recommend trying it some time if you need a laugh). This would be great integrated into an electronic lab notebook so you could dictate your procedure as you perform it without having to stop and take off your gloves to write what you did.

  3. An interesting idea re TLC lamps sending images. We’ve been working on enabling mobile phones to send images into an ELN, as scientists would normally have them with them at most times. Our current thought is to use devices to their strengths (and not weaknesses) - so a phone is often available but has a very small screen for example.

    An interesting thought though to have lamps have the ability to capture and send images though.

    1. The biologists and biochemists already have this kind of cool imaging technology for gels.


      It shouldn't be too hard for chemists to come up with something like that.

  4. Full automation so I won't have to work so hard… what's this, a pink slip? Damn you automation!

    Beware more extracranial devices that will turn your brain to mush.
    Siri, is that rain? Do you know where I live? Siri, what do I do when you run out of battery… Siri?

  5. I LOATHE paper and ink notebooks! I got spoiled using an electronic notebook, but then I changed facilities (within the same company) and due to network reasons (aside: ever notice how "network" is only one letter different from "not work"?), an electronic notebook was not available. Back to paper and ink and printing out HPLC traces and spectrophotometer scans and cutting them out and pasting them into my notebook. Grumble, grumble, grumble.

    Seriously, CJ, your ideas are pretty good. I've wanted a way to video record my lab work for some time now.

    For TLC plates when looking at them w/UV, I use my cell phone (it's not a smart phone, but it has a camera) to photograph the plate under UV, then email it to my work self. We have a flatbed scanner to scan plates developed with iodine, ninhydrin, or other stains. The scanner scans the plate; we crop it, name it, and save it onto the server, then pull from the server into the electronic notebook (those in the company who have an e-notebook).

    Layne Morsch, I like your comments. I've tried the speech to text tools (we had Dragon on one of our lab computers), but, yes, the results are comical. Editing the resulting text is an inefficient use of time, so we don't do it anymore. In a lab where you have multiple vacuum pumps and multiple rotary evaporators running simultaneously, the noise also makes dictation difficult. I suppose a Bluetooth connection could put the mic right at my mouth, but organic solvents and water just don't play nice with quite a bit of modern technology, and you can rarely fully protect that technology from the hazards of a production lab.

    I'm sure if I thought about it, I could come up with lots more devices I'd like to have, but for now, I'd be tempted to sell my soul (well, okay, rent it for a year ... maybe) to have a functional electronic notebook in the lab in which I currently work.

  6. >95% of the graphs and charts I see in my life are produced in Excel, as well as around half the published ones. Yet Excel's graphing capabilities have essentially gone unchanged for at least ten years. Yes, I know there are third party software platforms which are more powerful, but those cost money and bosses are stingy. It frustrates me that Microsoft adds so much bloat but can't make decent software for plotting anything but the most simple data.

    1. I agree with you. The greatest graphing program in the world isn't worth anything at all if its price puts it out of consideration in the budget. I'd like to see some of these great graphing programs get rewritten as plug-ins to Excel or other spreadsheet programs and the prices cut to something more affordable.