University of Iowa graduate student Alok Shah spends many hours in the lab of Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine researcher Michael Welsh, M.D., studying human and mouse airway cilia to understand the genetic causes of developmental defects and cystic fibrosis.
In his free time, he gathers with fellow students and scientists to take part in what he calls a "wonderful nerd-fest."
Where, you might ask? Online at http://www.labspaces.net/.
It's one of a growing number of Web-based social-networking sites aimed at individuals with a specific interest or career focus – in Shah's case, biomedical research.
"It allows users like me to share protocols and ideas with other scientists, as well as upload my cool images," said Shah. "I log on constantly to read through the news-feed and keep up with the latest scientific breakthroughs."
Unlike many social-networking sites, LabSpaces is geared partly toward career development and professional networking. Currently in his fourth year in the UI's Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Molecular and Cellular Biology, Shah is looking to connect with principal investigators who are seeking postdoctoral students and fellows. LabSpaces allows him to make connections in an informal setting.
"The main reason I use LabSpaces is because it is a unique forum aimed at individuals working in the laboratory," Shah said. "One of the principle components for a successful career in the sciences is the ability to build contact and spread the word about your research to other scientists. LabSpaces provides me with such an opportunity."
LabSpaces is the brainchild of UI graduate student Brian Krueger, who is currently completing his Ph.D. in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program Molecular and Cellular Biology Program, under the direction of David Price, Ph.D., professor in the UI Carver College of Medicine's Department of Biochemistry.
Krueger noted that he originally developed the site specifically with the scientific community in mind.
"Back in 2004 when Facebook and MySpace were becoming popular, I thought something like this would be a great tool for scientists to come together and discuss recent news or their own work," Krueger said. "LabSpaces began as my desire to provide a productive social network for science by creating a Web site that attracts a diverse set of researchers for the sole purpose of increasing communication and collaboration in the sciences."
LabSpaces has all of the features of a social-networking site with the addition of a daily science news-feed, lab profiles, a science forum, blogs, and a science protocol database. The site provides space for researchers to create their own user profile, add their publication history, upload technical research protocols, blog about science and share research articles with the community.
A native of Schaumburg, Ill. Krueger has always considered Web design a hobby. As an undergraduate at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., he created two Web pages for the biology and chemistry departments. His previous experience with Web design and a basic book on PHP and MySQL programming provided him with enough background knowledge to successfully build LabSpaces.
"I had created pages using just basic html, but I always wanted to learn how to make a database-driven site like LabSpaces," he said.
Krueger believes the site has the potential for increasing collaboration, discussion and idea-generation among researchers. In the upcoming months, Krueger plans to add a basic video conferencing system to the site.
"The major addition I'm planning is a basic video-conferencing system so researchers can have live video for lab meetings, video conferencing or international journal club meetings," he said. The system will include a text-chat room, digital white board and a screen-sharing feature for PowerPoint presentations.
Also in development, Krueger plans to promote the site with a contest called "Pimp My LabSpace." The contest invites researchers to blog about the lab tools they lack in their scientific research for a chance to win upgraded supplies. User ratings of the blogs will determine the contest winner. He is currently in the process of acquiring sponsors from the biomedical industry.
Originally launched in August 2006, LabSpaces currently has 120 members and 3,000 to 4,000 people visiting the site daily. With the recent addition of the scientific news feature, Krueger has noticed a significant increase in activity.
And although the site was created for the scientific community, it is not an exclusive network and encourages the intermingling of scientists and the public, he noted.
"This Web site is not just for scientists, it's also for people who are interested in science," Krueger said. "These days, it seems like people distrust science a little bit, so it's good to have the general public interacting with scientists and getting information directly from the source."