Re-imagining the lab. Or, when science meets art

Author: Mike Jackson
Posted: 13 Mar 2014 | 15:07

LabBook being used with a tablet and stylusLabBook is a mobile app and online service that allows users to securely record and share their experiment notes. LabBook's developers - Mark Woodbridge, Geraint Barton and Derek Huntley of Imperial College London's Bioinformatics Support Service - asked The Software Sustainability Institute for consultancy as part of the Institute's open call.

I've been working with them to provide advice on the LabBook software, how it is developed, and how it can be moved towards an open source product.

Technology and the lab

In February I attended presentations by students on the Royal College of Art's Information Experience Design masters course, led by Kevin Walker. Previous courses have seen students working with galleries and museums. This year, for the first time, students worked with scientists as part of a project with the LabBook team on "Re-imagining the lab". Pairs of students shadowed scientists to understand how they work within the complex physical space of the laboratory and how technology might affect their use of this space. 


The first pair of students had shadowed a researcher in antibiotics. Due to health and safety concerns, the scientist had to remove their gloves before using their LabBook-enabled mobile phone. The students proposed that LabBook's features be voice-activated, with concern for the challenges that catering for non-native English speakers might create. They also suggested that mobile devices be mounted on an "arm" so that scientists do not have to handle their device directly. An alternative proposal is to have devices that are the property of the lab, like other lab equipment, rather than the property of individuals. This in turn prompts questions about the funding of these devices, and, more generally, how labs are equipped in future.

Possibility of the pen

The second pair of students shadowed a scientist at work in both office and lab. They noted the large number of devices and information sources the scientist uses to capture and analyse information: mobile phone, laptop, whiteboards, windows, catalogues, sticky notes, notebooks, multi-coloured pens, lab software, a timer, and even a bit of tissue paper. The students suggested a solution around the "possibility of the pen". Rather than a mobile app, LabBook-style functionality should be incorporated within a smart pen which could feature: a scanner, SD card, USB connection, wifi, recorder, projector (to use a wall as its display), and a pen. Existing smart pens, eg from LiveScribe, already support some of these features. It was noted that clicking the tip of a pen can be a good way to relieve stress!

Russian dolls

The third pair focused on the structure and nature of objects within a lab, especially the hierarchies that exist eg different microscopes support different degrees of magnification, different incubators support different temparatures, buildings contain floors contain laboratories contain racks contain test tubes contain samples. The students were considering an art installation based upon this Russian doll, recursive, container-of-containers heirarchy.

They observed that scientists are very good at using paper in conjunction with other lab objects and that they are good at pre-editing their thoughts before they note them down. This has implications for how devices that capture scientists at work in real-time (eg Google Glass-style) could be used within a lab. For example, transcribing 1 hour of audio in effect doubles or triples the time taken to do an experiment. 

Another possible application of digital devices is to serve as memory aids for scientists who may be working step-by-step through several activities concurrently. However, the flashes and beeps from such devices could be distracting.

Returning to funding, it was noted that there is a balance to be achieved between funding equipment or scientists, and that scientists may take or bring equipment with them to a lab. Contrary to what might be imagined, labs are not static spaces, but are evolving as the staff, and the experiments, they contain, change over time.

The secretive world of the scientist

The last pair were inspired by writer Charles Boyle, who takes bad photos then writes about them in a very detached manner. The students' very amusing video presentation revealed they had little knowledge of what their scientist did beyond that it involved "yeast"; an agarose gel electrophoresis image looks like an "upside down graphical equaliser"; the lab's fridge is just a fridge but its water heater is not just a kettle. These helped to demonstrate the challenges that scientists can face when trying to discuss their research with non-scientists. The students suggested, for example, banning scientists from using certain words or phrases. 

One of their observations was that, as a result, science can seem "really secretive". This, they appreciated, was a consequence of limited funding and the fear of having one's research scooped. They suggested that perhaps more could be achieved with limited funding if everyone shared their results. This led into a group discussion of the role of open journals, eg. PLOS ONE, how or whether these journals can gather the same respect and recognition as more established journals, and the challenges around open-ness, peer review and competition within research. 

Returning to LabBook, its secure transmission and storage of data in a known location (not somewhere out there in "the cloud") is a selling point that addresses related concerns of data privacy. Another suggested option was for institutions to provide physical places where scientists can hand over their data (eg on a USB stick) to be deposited for secure storage.

Summing up

The students' projects had a wider remit than to just provide requirements for LabBook and, as a result, the outcomes covered a wide spectrum, including LabBook features (eg a QR code reader and timer within LabBook), policy (eg how to fund lab-specific devices), and public engagement (eg helping scientists and non-scientists communicate), and beyond, into the realms of art (eg an installation of containers of containers).

It was a most interesting meeting and shows the possibilities that can arise when the left-brained and right-brained come together, when art and science meld. Maybe we should do this more often!


Mike Jackson, EPCC

This post originally appeared on The Software Sustainability Institute's blog.

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