Back in 2010, Bitesize Bio’s senior editor, Jode Plank wondered whether the release of the iPad would eventually see us ditch the paper lab notebook in favor of more searchable, organized and legible electronic lab books.
Electronic lab books have been around for a while, but the disconnect between the desktop computer – and to a lesser extent the laptop –and the bench has so far been a barrier to their uptake. But since the iPad is almost as bench-friendly as a paper notebook it seemed it might be in a position to help bridge that gap.
Well, almost two years later, we have the opportunity to test this out as Biodata have just released the much-anticipated iPad app for their revamped (and free for individual users) online electronic lab notebook and research management tool LabGuru.
A quick overview of LabGuru
At first glance, it is easy to see that LabGuru is a pretty comprehensive tool for recording your lab activities and assets. It has sections for recording everything from your projects and experiments, to cell lines/specimens, nucleic acid stocks and reagents and protocols. The question is: is it user friendly?
Recording your research
The “Research” section, the part where you record all of your projects and experiments, is most important part of LabGuru, since this is the part that users will use and rely upon most. So user-friendliness and flexibility are super-important here.
Pleasingly, the folks at Biodata have done an excellent job. If you are used to recording all of your results on paper, then it will likely take a little mental adjustment to get used to the structured approach to entering experiments and data, but it will be well worth. A more organized and useable record of your work will be your reward, and the learning curve is very short.
With LabGuru, you start by entering your top-level projects, then the milestones within each of your project into the online application:
Project 1: Create and verify cell line expressing protein X
Milestone 1: Isolate the gene for protein X
Milestone 2: Construct the plasmid
Milestone 3: Transform and select
…and so on.
Then within each milestone you can record individual experiments:
Milestone 1: Isolate the gene for protein X
Experiment 1: 1st attempt to isolate the gene for protein X.
Experiment 2: 2nd attempt to isolate the gene for protein X (if you’re anything like me at the bench!)
Experiment 3: Cloning the gene into the plasmid
There are a few things I really like about this setup:
1) If you run multiple concurrent projects it is very easy to keep track of where you are in each since your projects are arranged in threads.
2) Each experiment is self-contained, has a defined structure and offers the capability to append any relevant data files like photos, numerical data, manuscripts etc.
3) It is very easy to pull up past experiments and retrieve and pool data. This is a superb timesaver for writing progress reports and papers.
Organising experiments in advance
A key requirement of good organization is to separate the planning and the action stages. By enforcing the project/milestone/experiment structure, LabGuru provides a template to encourage you separate planning and action. But it also allows you to take that one step further and set out each step of your experiment before you go anywhere near the bench.
This may seem like a bind, but again it is a minor mental and procedural adjustment that, if you make it, will help make your work less cluttered, more ordered… and maybe even more relaxed.
Using a very simple interface within each experiment you can note down each step, along with any notes and the times for any incubations etc. When you come to run the experiment your steps/notes, note-taking space and timers are set out for you. The best place to set out the experiment is within the online application, so while you sip your first coffee of the day you can sit down and plan the day’s experiment in advance… or if you’re super-organised you could even do it the night before.
This is particularly powerful when you’ll be running a complicated experiment, or a number of different experiments in parallel. By laying out your experiment(s) in LabGuru, you are effectively “programming” the steps you are going to take to complete the experiment(s) so that you are well organized in advance.
The iPad App
While the online application is the best place to plan projects and experiments ahead, the iPad app comes into it’s own when you are at the bench performing the experiment. It really bridges the gap between the computer and the bench, and puts the note-taking right at your fingertips.
A very simple interface lets you log into your account and choose which of your pre-entered experiments you want to perform next. Selecting one or more experiments brings up the experiment interface with your pre-defined protocol steps, notes and timers and you can then perform the experiment taking notes as you go.
When you are finished syncing the app with your online account will enter the experiment, along with your notes, into the database within your project and milestone structure. For more information on entering experiments into LabGuru and using the iPad app, check out this YouTube video.
Individual Use is Free, Whole Lab Use is Very Powerful
The individual user versions of LabGuru’s online application and iPad app are free to use, so you couldn’t ask for better value than that! But the power of LabGuru is amplified massively when it is used as the central data repository for a whole lab. Imagine a centralized, searchable record of all stocks, reagents, protocols, projects and experiment records and it is easy to see why. There is a small charge per user for a lab-based system – please contact LabGuru if you are interested in learning more.
I have been very impressed by the usability and utility of LabGuru’s online application, and the versatility that the iPad app adds. I’d encourage you to give it a try (the iPad app is available in the app store)… and if you do, please be sure to leave a comment and let me know what you think of it.