February 15, 2022

Cell Culture Reproducibility: A Conversation with WenXian Zhou

Rachel Bolger
Rachel Bolger


WenXian (Wen) Zhou, University of Nebraska Medical College

WenXian (Wen) Zhou is an MDPhD track scientist who recently joined Dr. Rebekah Gundry’s lab at the University of Nebraska Medical Center as a research technician, where he “brings a heartbeat to stem cells!” Part of his role is to derive cardiomyocyte cultures from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and then perform molecular biology experiments such as flow cytometry and immunocytochemistry imaging to characterize the iPSCs and cardiomyocytes. The goal of his project is to discover novel surface glycoprotein biomarkers in iPSC-derived cardiomyocytes and identify their role in classifying the diagnosis and prognosis of cardiovascular disease. A project he finds extremely interesting.

The first time he turned a stem cell into a cardiomyocyte and witnessed it beating under the microscope was thrilling.  But the work was stressful too. Differentiating a stem cell into a cardiomyocyte is complex, and this was his first experience. He knew he needed to lean on the experience of the lab members that came before him to get up to speed. His lab is busy, and he wanted to become a valuable contributor as quickly and efficiently as possible. He relied on technology to gain knowledge, reproduce other scientists’ work with little guidance and keep him organized as his workload grew.

The following is an excerpt from a conversation with Wenxian Zhou.

Wen, what is your primary goal in your experiments right now?  

I am looking for parameters that give me the highest purification of cardiomyocytes. Our methods are evolving, and confluency and other factors need to be optimized to get the best results. I am trouble shooting to see what works best.  

This is a relatively new position for you. How has technology supported you?

We have a combined technology stack using a more generic scientific ELN, which we use to record activities in the lab not related to cell culture, and CultureTrax software. We use CultureTrax specifically for recording the cell culture data. CultureTrax has made it very easy to reproduce work done previously in the lab with little guidance. The platform keeps me organized. This is especially true now that my workload is growing. I can see it being valuable when it comes time to publish, because the records are all right there. It is notable that the adoption rate for CultureTrax was low. It’s easy and intuitive, and I like that I can upload images at specific points of the cell culture. Very helpful.

Call out: Technology makes is easy to reproduce cell culture.

Do you feel like CultureTrax helped you become successful at cell culture more quickly?

Yes definitely. Rebekah has a high standard for the experimental details she wants recorded. When I first joined the lab, I could easily follow the experiments of previous scientists in our lab. Protocols are recorded on CultureTrax and can be used as templates for planning other experiments. The amount of detail, including the method preparation for materials is all there. Including day-by-day instruction and overviews. I can find experiments done by previous members and I already know what they did. I don’t need to reach to ask for more details.

Can you share what it was like to transition on to CultureTrax?

The transition to CultureTrax felt smooth to me because CultureTrax is user friendly. The learning curve is low. When I first started, I only had one plate of cells and recording workflow data was simple. To be honest, when I was just working with one plate of cells, I didn’t appreciate how helpful it is. But after I started doing cardiomyocyte differentiation and I had 10 to 20 plates of cells at different stages, I became dependent on CultureTrax to help me keep track of each one of my cell lines.

What digital features have helped you be successful?

My favorite feature is the Navigator view where I can see all my cell lines, each of my plates and what stages they are at. I have many plates of cardiomyocytes at different stages, and I am working on other cell lines too. When you have a bird’s eye view of what you are doing in the lab, it makes organization much easier.  

The CultureTrax Navigator helps you plan your work

How do does technology impact planning your day?

CultureTrax kind of follows me around during the day. When I start an experiment, I select a protocol template from the library and use that as the structure for recording my new work. Then CultureTrax suggests what we should do each day to each of the cells. So, every morning after I feed my cells, I record everything in CultureTrax. At the same time, I consult the navigator view to plan the feeding for the next day. I use five different feeding media and I feed the cells differently depending on their stage. CultureTrax has been incredibly helpful managing feeding, passaging, and harvesting my cells. I track daily parameters like freshness of the media and the confluency of the cells. If I need to see what I did to the cells, I can just look it up.

Does CultureTrax change the way your lab communicates?

We keep all cell culture details in CultureTrax. Dr Gundry can see every experiment at any time.  So, when it comes to our biweekly cell culture meetings, I give her an overview right from CultureTrax and we don’t need to go through a lot of detail. So, that’s one way it facilitates communication.

Call out: “We spend less time trying to communicate complex information.”

How comfortable would you be if other people in your lab needed to take over responsibilities on your cell lines?

I would be very comfortable. Currently in our lab there are times when I come in late because of some unforeseen events, and other lab members can just look at CultureTrax to see what needs to be done. This is so helpful.  

How do you use technology for material management?

We use our ELN for inventory management, and we use the material section in CultureTrax to keep track of our cell culture reagents and keep recipes for how we make reagents.  

Do you feel like CultureTrax specifically saves you time?

It saves me a lot of time. Especially after I do the differentiation, when I want to look back into what I did, I can easily find what I did on a certain day, and I can keep track of one plate of my cells and see what I did every day. It also keeps our team members aligned. We know that everyone has access to the most current versions of our protocols.  

How would you like to see CultureTrax software grow or improve?

It would be helpful if CultureTrax had more ability to perform analyses. I have been recording different parameters and I have been changing the cell density that I use to see what gives the best result. And to do the comparison of which one gave the best result. Ultimately, if I could compare all the parameters, that it would be cool.

Our answer: Currently all of the data entered in to CultureTrax can be exported into a Json file. Our programmers can work with your team to identify different ways that you might want to query the data.

If you were to talk to a younger scientist or a colleague about the way your lab uses technology, what advice would you give them about technology?

The younger generation can learn technology very quickly. And they have high expectations for what technology can do.  I think eventually digital systems will be very common for research because it helps us be organized and facilitates communication between scientists and labs. It is worth the learning curve to explore software solutions. I strongly recommend labs get CultureTrax to keep track of cell culture experiments. We also use Airtable for administrative tasks and a generic ELN for areas outside our cell culture workflows. Using these tools makes us more productive.  

Call out: Digital solutions are becoming more and more common.  Identifying technology today will help plan for that future.

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