In this post, Dr. Roger Rowlett convinces undergraduate research PIs to devote some time and energy to information management in the laboratory. Good training an information management practices can make your research laboratory more efficient and productive, and can empower your students to become increasingly self-sufficient.
Training and information management are often afterthoughts in the day-to-day administration of an undergraduate research laboratory, and can consume a significant amount of time. Federal mandates for information management have also upped the ante in this arena. This article summarizes ways to streamline and enhance the training and information management environment in the undergraduate research environment.
Good training an information management practices can make your research laboratory more efficient and productive, and can empower your students to become increasingly self-sufficient.
Why you need to think about training and information management
The turnover rate of undergraduate research students is quite rapid. As a result, you will be training students continuously, and you cannot be everywhere at once. Providing training resources to students can help them become more self-reliant, and enhance the research productivity of your laboratory. In addition, a typical publishable research project may involve several students over several years. In order to maintain an orderly transition of a project from student to student, and to maintain an accurate, easily retrievable record of data, substances, or other products of the research across multiple academic semesters/years/summers, it is essential to have an organized process of student training and curation of research results. An additional consideration is that federally funded projects may require you to have a written information management plan to store, share, and safeguard research data.
“This is like déjà vu all over again”
Some training and information management ideas
A powerful way to engage students and enhance their learning in the research laboratory is to employ peer training. Recruit students early in their careers, and keep them coming back each year or summer. Ask your more experienced students to mentor new arrivals in the laboratory. An alternative approach is to train specific students to responsible for certain central experimental infrastructure in your laboratory. These students can be the lab “gurus” that other students consult when using these laboratory methods or equipment. For summer research, consider “pre-training” students at the end of the spring semester. A prospective summer student can assist a graduating senior in his/her research during the last month or two of the semester, learning the ropes so that they are ready to be immediately productive when summer research begins.
Ask your more experienced students to mentor new arrivals in the laboratory.
Printed laboratory resources
For routine laboratory procedures and protocols, or for laboratory instrumentation operation, consider printing instruction sheets. Even snazzier, printed laboratory handbooks or protocol books with colorful, artful covers that contain nearly all of the routine methods used in your research laboratory can be given to each student. This kind of “swag” not only provides your students with the ability to answer many of their own routine questions (“How do I set up a PCR reaction again?”), but also identifies your laboratory students as members of a special group, and can be a recruiting tool. The main disadvantage of printed resources is that they can be cumbersome to correct and update as practices change.
Electronic laboratory resources
Unlike printed laboratory resources, electronic resources can be updated and corrected quickly. What they lack in swag they gain in nimbleness. There are myriad options for maintaining electronic resources, depending on your level of technical sophistication and time you wish to devote to setting up a system. Whatever system is chosen, you must arrange and/or understand how your data will be backed up.
Google Sites/Google Docs/Google Drive
Many institutions subscribe to Google for email and apps for education. In that case, a very simple solution is to keep your laboratory protocols and procedures in a series of documents stored in a location that only properly authenticated individuals can access, e., your research students and collaborators. Although not fancy, it is very easy to set up and maintain.
Commercial document managers
Your institution may already have a license to a commercial document manager, g. Xythos. Much like Google Docs or Google Drive, you can store and organize a wide variety of documents easily, yet provide an authentication firewall that allows only designated individuals to access the information stored there.
A feature-rich wiki site can provide a public, web-accessible place to keep laboratory procedures and protocols. In addition, wikis provide an easy way for you or your students to add, edit, or update laboratory information easily using only a web browser running on any platform, even tablets or phones. An additional feature of wikis is that mistakes, even apparently catastrophic ones, like deleting an entire wiki page, can be rolled back. Some wikis provide fine-grained permissions structures that allow some information to be visible to the public, while other information requires user authentication. This allows you to maintain public and private sections of a wiki site. I use TikiWiki, a multi-feature, open-source all-in-one wiki package, for this purpose. Wiki storage systems can provide for easy incorporation of collaborative writing and accountability. In particular, TikiWiki has a feature that issues an email alert whenever a student edits a page that is under watch. This allows for real-time remote monitoring and supervision of undergraduate research students, and is especially useful when away from the lab.
Electronic laboratory notebooks
One additional option for electronic laboratory resources is to use them as laboratory notebooks. Electronic notebooks, whether on a shared Google Doc, commercial document manager, or on a wiki, have significant advantages over traditional, written, paper notebooks:
- Data can be stored and embedded in an immediately usable digital format, e.g. an Excel File, Origin project, Protein Data Bank file,
- Data is stored in a way that can be easily backed up and restored
- Information can be organized by project, and not by student. Multiple students over time can contribute information to a particular project notebook. This kind of organization makes it much easier to write research papers later. (Unless, of course, you really enjoy digging through the scribblings of 4-5 different student paper notebooks to find the data from that critical experiment you need to include in the manuscript.)
Good training an information management practices can make your research laboratory more efficient and productive, and can empower your students to become increasingly self-sufficient. In the undergraduate research environment, where student turnover rates are high, and time is at a premium, a small investment in this area can have great return.
~Roger S. Rowlett is a GORDON & DOROTHY KLINE PROFESSOR OF CHEMISTRY at Colgate University (firstname.lastname@example.org). Research in Rowlett’s laboratory is focused on the elucidation of the structure and catalytic mechanism of enzymes.
Roger S. Rowlett, (2013) “Training and Information Management in the Undergraduate Research Laboratory,” in How to Get Started in STEM Research with Undergraduates, Merle Schuh, ed., Council on Undergraduate Research, Washington DC. ISBN 0-941933-28-8
Colgate University Biochemistry Research Laboratory Wiki, http://capsicum.colgate.edu/chwiki/tiki-index.php
TikiWIki CMS Groupware, https://info.tiki.org/