Continuous advances in mobile technology have been changing the way the modern world works. Make last-minute changes to a presentation on your way to a meeting, send reports back to the office while you’re at a conference or trade show, or even input data from an experiment into the LIMS directly at the bench.
Millions of people carry a mobile phone with them nearly all the time. And it’s no wonder, since the newer “smartphones” facilitate Internet access and the ability to send e-mails, making it easier for people to collaborate on projects and business development, whether they are in the office or standing in line at a coffee shop.
More recently, mobile gadgets have been making their way into research labs as their capabilities have moved beyond e-mailing and web browsing. Various calculators, converters and databases, to name a few, are among the numerous features some researchers are using in their everyday work to facilitate speedier processes. When Apple released its iPad tablet, various online discussions started about whether the device was a practical replacement for the standard laboratory notebook. In addition, various application software programs, or “apps,” available for Apple’s iOS platform and Google’s Android platform (and likely others such as Windows Mobile and BlackBerry in the future), let users do just about anything, such as keep track of their daily caloric intake, edit photos or even select the most suitable liquid chromatography column for their application.
Some organizations have embraced the technology enthusiastically, citing improved accuracy and efficiency, while many others cannot get approval from management for such devices to be integrated into routine work, or are worried about issues such as security or possible distractions.
A recent survey about the use of mobile technology in lab settings conducted by Lab Manager Magazine brought in responses from managers and researchers around the world. Out of 483 respondents, 38 percent indicated they use mobile devices in the lab, and 39 percent indicated they did not and had no plans to. The other 23 percent are not currently using mobile technology but are planning to, indicating that benefits of using the technology have been recognized.
Increase in efficiency, decrease in errors
Layton Smith, principal investigator for the Sanford- Burnham Medical Research Institute (Orlando, FL), was reluctant at first to provide iPad tablets to his research staff. “They were asking me to approve an iPad or iPhone, and I thought of them as entertainment devices,” he said. “They had to convince me of the utility of these devices in the lab. They’ve [become] a useful work tool that I’m certain is becoming less and less dispensable as every day goes by.”
Smith runs a lab that specializes in small molecule discovery, assay development, high-throughput screening and drug discovery. “One thing we couldn’t do with pen and paper is the movies,” he said. “We can share Power- Point presentations with clients and show high-definition images and videos of HTS high-content imaging assays. It changes the dynamic of our ability to have a conversation about the data.”
In addition to the portability of tablets, several managers are seeing a benefit to using tablets at the bench level for data input. Sandra Gunselman, lab director for Kailos Genetics (Huntsville, AL), a clinical lab services company currently focused on next-generation sequencing, says using mobile devices at the bench significantly cuts down on time spent doing paperwork. Every lab technician uses a wireless scanner and iPad tablet, which helps track the progress of various processes.
“All our reagents, consumables, equipment and analytical instruments are bar-coded. As a technician moves throughout the lab, she can scan a workstation, and the related equipment and consumables that belong with that workstation are available,” she said. “It helps us track our inventory and processes for our clinical lab so that paperwork is automatically done.”
Gunselman’s lab uses a web-hosted LIMS. She adds that having the ability to track an entire workflow and have access to the LIMS in a mobile format has helped the lab cut down on errors and downtime. “If you moved a piece of equipment out of the lab and forgot to put it back, the system wouldn’t let you move forward, helping to prevent cross contamination,” she said. “Also, there is no loss of computing time during [power] outages since we can still access our data from the iPads.”
Incompatibilities, validation, and security fears
Though several organizations have found real benefits to integrating mobile devices into their lab work, others have been hesitant to jump on the bandwagon. A majority of the survey respondents not using mobile technology expressed concern that the devices would be incompatible with their existing equipment and software.
Some researchers and managers have cited security as an additional concern, suggesting that using wireless connections makes their data available to anyone outside the facility. Others have simply stated that they just don’t see a need.
Ginger Clark, scientific research manager at the University of Florida, says mobile devices aren’t needed in her lab, and she imagines the mobile format can’t handle large amounts of data. “At this point in time I am not seeing a need,” she said. “There aren’t mobile instruments that can handle the amount of data we generate. A typical sequencing project for us … can generate a couple terabytes in a run. The volume of data does not lend itself well to mobile devices.”
Validation is an important issue in areas such as the pharmaceutical industry. Fred Molenaar, lab director at Bell Pharmaceuticals (Belle Plaine, MN), says that working in a GMP-compliant environment means being able to prove everything is done properly, and he is uncertain whether software developed for mobile devices can provide this proof. “Source code and software have to be developed according to regulations,” he said. “You have to have evidence that it’s working as it’s supposed to.”
Is there an app for that?
Despite some of these concerns, many organizations are embracing the technology and using it to the fullest extent. Apps have made their way into the hands of many laboratory researchers. Of the survey respondents using a smartphone or tablet in the lab, 65 percent are either using or planning to use apps to help them perform various tasks.
Apps are available for just about anything, and a large number of laboratory apps for Apple’s iOS platform and Google’s Android platform are already available for free and for purchase.
Agilent Technologies (Santa Clara, CA) offers several apps for iPhone and iPod touch, including the LC Calculator and GC Calculator, which help chromatographers determine the correct LC or GC parameters for a given configuration. “These apps were designed to help [researchers] develop ‘what if ’ scenarios,” said Naseema Sami, LC Calculator project leader at Agilent. “Normally, they would have to run all kinds of scenarios on the instrument. The calculator [saves] time by letting you calculate conditions without having to actually run the experiment.”
Thermo Scientific offers an app for a similar purpose. The TraceGOLD Column Selector app for iPhone lets users select the ideal GC column based on their current configuration. “Labs have always been looking for ways to reduce time actively testing,” said Shelby Kuenzi, Technical Inside Sales Specialist at Thermo Fisher Scientific (Madison, WI). “And this is one of the tools to help reduce that time efficiently.”
Users simply search by part number or by brand, and then select the phase, length, internal diameter and film thickness, and the app brings up the best Thermo Scientific GC column that matches those criteria.
To add to the pile of selector apps, the Millex Filter Finder app from EMD Millipore lets users choose the right syringe filter for their sample, enabling them to obtain the best quality data without wasting precious sample.
In addition to the apps available from instrument manufacturers, numerous apps from third parties are available for download. PubChem Mobile, available through Google’s Android market, lets users search PubChem databases using chemical names, synonyms and keywords.
Mobile Reagents, developed by Eidogen-Sertanty, gives users access to more than 5 million molecules and 11 million product variations offered by more than 50 suppliers. It also features the ability to convert a picture of a chemical structure taken with the device’s camera into a structurally searchable molecule.
“I’m pleasantly surprised with the availability of free apps for very basic laboratory techniques,” Smith added. “There are tremendous numbers of tools like this that the lab uses to improve efficiency.”
For researchers working in life science, the MIQE qPCR app for iPhone and iPad, sponsored by Bio-Rad, provides resources and checklists needed to ensure MIQE (Minimum Information for Publication of Quantitative Real-Time qPCR Experiments) compliance for qPCR experiments. “In this day and age, everybody has his phone with him at all times,” said Rachel Scott, senior product manager for Gene Expression at Bio-Rad (Hercules, CA). “The immediacy helps with capturing the information as it occurs, on the fly.”
Monitoring experiments remotely
That ability to capture and access information instantly is what many users like most about having these resources in a mobile format.
Smith added that one of the biggest advantages to using mobile technology is being able to easily implement automation and monitor experiments while he’s out of the lab.
“There are some scenarios that you wish you could fire [up] and walk away, but you can’t. This [technology] allows you a greater opportunity to do that,” he said. “Set up a script, set the deck up and go to a meeting. If something goes wrong, you can get an alert sent to your phone.”
Wireless monitoring is the specialty of SensoScientific (Simi Valley, CA). The company manufactures universal modules that monitor various laboratory instruments and send notifications to mobile phones in the event of any malfunctions or discrepancies.
“Robotic processes are [typically] unattended. Should a fault happen, the universal module will notify the people running the test via e-mail, SMS, voicemail, etc.,” said Mark Langley of SensoScientific. “They can view the process or condition from their smartphone without installing an app.”
“If there’s an error, a reagent runs dry or something goes wrong, we get a notification,” Smith added. “There’s a lot less babysitting of the automation.”
Making things easier
Though the trend is still somewhat in its infancy in the laboratory world, current users are positive that it will only continue as better technology and additional resources become available.
Apple currently leads the way in total number of apps available, but the number of apps available for other platforms is projected to climb steadily as technology advances.
“We’re still investigating this to see what kind of software is out there,” said Pat Walker, Quality Assurance supervisor at PB Leiner (Davenport, IA). “I think [the technology] is worth looking into … it’ll make things easier.”
“The utility is constantly evolving,” Smith added. “We will find that in a short period of time, we will wonder how we ever got along without these products.”
Katia Caporiccio, former assistant editor for Lab Manager Magazine, holds a Bachelor of Journalism and is based in Toronto, ON. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.