Last week, the Lab Manager team had the opportunity to visit the Westchester County Medical Examiner in New York and learn about how crimes get solved in the lab. The facility houses multiple laboratories, each with a different thrust. Our in- depth tour took us through the toxicology lab, the forensic chemistry lab, the trace evidence lab, and the DNA analysis lab. With samples and instruments galore, each lab manager provided insights into the considerations that go into their purchasing decisions, and some of the challenges they face in their busy labs.
For the time-sensitive analyses conducted in the toxicology lab, instrument downtime is a top concern. However, with the high cost of service contracts, their first line of defense against system failure is trouble-shooting, which their staff has become well versed in. Preventive maintenance is another strategy for keeping instruments running. A key priority for that lab in purchasing instruments is that replacement parts are easy to come by. With many aging instruments on the benches, the lab manager was all too familiar with the challenges that arise when parts become unavailable.
The forensic chemistry lab has benefited greatly from the addition of automated liquid handlers—in fact, there were few manual pipettes to be seen on our tour. The lab manager noted that the automation hasn’t made her dilutions much more accurate than they were before (as most of the error is introduced by the instruments rather than at the dilution step), but it has saved loads of time for her laboratory staff and reduced the amount of solvent they use. Following the automation trend, many of the instruments in the labs were also fitted with autosamplers.
DNA analysis has seen much advancement in instrumentation over the past few years, and continues to improve at a fast clip. But with that advancement comes certain challenges. For example, the lab manager of the DNA analysis laboratory noted that rapid DNA testing is now often done at crime scene, where a single sample may contain DNA from multiple sources—a situation the rapid analyzers are not equipped to deal with. However, the medical examiner is currently investing in an instrument that will be capable of separating out those types of messy samples. The lab manager also foresees massively parallel sequencing replacing the lab’s current method of short tandem repeat analysis in the near future.
As certain pieces of equipment in the labs age and need to be replaced, a common question is what to do with the old ones. In cases where the instrument was originally bought with a grant, the answer is simple—resell it either complete or for parts and use the money to buy something new for the lab. But for those pieces initially bought with government funding, the lab does not directly benefit from a resale and so there is little incentive to find the instrument a new home. Solutions are needed to prevent old instruments that still retain value from simply collecting dust.
These were just a few of the highlights of our tour. The excursion gave us invaluable insight into some of the challenges that our readers face in the lab and how we can continue to create content that addresses their specific needs.