The Lab Bench

The laboratory bench is a researcher’s sacred space. The place where experimentation comes to life and fruitful learning emerges (hopefully). The bench is the essence of research itself.

As physicist and Nobel laureate, Leon Lederman, once said…..

“During an intense period of lab (bench) work the outside world vanishes and the obsession is total.”

Leon Lederman “Explorer (and Explainer) of the Subatomic World”

A researcher’s bench set up, methodology and workflows are often scrupulously meticulous, becoming all but reflexes after years of refinement. As if choreographed, the researcher dances around the lab, the bench the center of their universe.

It comes as no surprise that many researchers are hesitant when it comes to switching things up or introducing new tools that might re-write the steps of a jig they know so well.

Technology is making its way to lab benches that have long been dominated by highly fallible paper lab notebooks. And many researchers aren’t so sure about this digital trend. Regardless of what side you’re on, tools used at the bench have a direct relationship to success and learning over time.

Here we have a case study of someone who has embraced technology at the bench with smashing success (and with student researchers at that). He’s got tips and tricks, habits and advice on how to up your research game through technology without upsetting the balance of the all important bench.

Fabio Agnelli – giving technology at the bench a go

Meet Fabio Agnelli, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of San Diego. When he got his first chemistry set as a Christmas gift at the age of six, he was hooked.

University of San Diego

Since then Agnelli has assembled an impressive career in both research and academia. He currently teaches organic chemistry and in an effort to keep his students up to date with best research practices, and to increase his own efficiency as an instructor, Agnelli decided to introduce tablets to his students’ bench stations.

Did you have any concerns when introducing tablets to the student bench stations?
I was originally concerned about how student researchers would feel about the process of entering data directly on a tablet, typing on glass while wearing gloves, but my students are quite comfortable with it. I thought students might be too concerned with formatting everything perfectly on the first draft rather than focussing on the experiment during lab, but that also turned out not to be an issue.  

What is the main advantage of using technology like a tablet at the bench vs. a paper notebook?
We use LabArchives digital lab notebook on our tablets, and this has led to a huge improvement in the quality of the reports students generate.  In the past, students had to physically turn in carbon copies of their work, stapling gas-chromatograms and NMR spectra to them. Often, the papers were stained with chemicals and illegible. This digital, cloud-based, easy and intuitive interface helps us quickly generate professional, cohesive and permanent records of lab work.  From an instructor’s point of view, lab reports are infinitely easier to read and grade when submitted this way.

Agnelli’s students working in the lab with tablets.

Any challenges when switching to ELN (electronic lab notebook) tablet work?
When I was test driving all the ELN options currently available, the desktop version of LabArchives stood out as the simplest and most intuitive product.  However, I knew that we wanted to use tablets around the lab, and for that we needed a solid app. At that time the LabArchives mobile app was clunky compared to the desktop app. The latest version of the mobile app (released a year ago) made substantial improvement to the initial issues and has made the tablet work we do at the bench easier.

Students working together in the lab and recording data on their tablet.

What measures do you take to keep tablets from getting damaged and to keep experiments from getting contaminated when working in the lab?
Anyone who has taken an Organic Chemistry lab knows that it’s a messy business; corrosive chemicals and volatile solvents are ubiquitous in the lab. We work in a fume hood at all times, and the tablets get taken all around the lab (to the balance, for example) and sometimes are even used as trays to transport chemicals from scale to bench. The tablets belong to the University, and I am financially responsible for them which was terrifying at the start. The Otterbox Defender cases have turned out to be exceptionally protective and rock solid. After three years of use at a rate of about 200 students per semester, the iPads are still in very good condition (and admittedly, students learn to be appropriately careful with them fairly quickly).

Are there any other benefits you’ve found working with tablets vs. traditional paper notebooks? No data ever gets lost.  Once I had an extremely diligent student come to my office in tears, minutes before the lab started, obsessively mumbling, “Gone!  My report is gone!”  After messaging with LabArchives tech support, they found and rectified the system issue. The report was no further than the student’s “Deleted items” folder. If we had been working on paper, the report truly would have been well… gone.

A student enters data into her LabArchives notebook at the bench.

Any advice for people looking to use technology at the bench?
My suggestion is definitely, “Try it.”  The learning curve is not as steep as it looks, and there is a large, ever-growing community of people using technology at the bench who are willing to collaborate, interact, and help. I believe the advantages are worth the investment of resources and time – for students, institutions and faculty.

Thanks Fabio for all of your insights!