In Defense of Technology—A Modern Cell Culture Lab's Perspective
This article explores the technological mindset of a contemporary and digitally progressive scientific leader. The intention is to fuel the reader’s curiosity around and invite discussion about the way cell culture scientists are using technology. It is this writer’s belief that technology has historically underserved the biological sciences, in particular the complex world of cell-based science. To keep pace with the rapid advancement of science, digital technology solutions that support scientific integrity, efficiency and collaboration need to be developed, refined, and widely adopted. That starts with transparency and discussion.
We thank Dr. Rebekah Gundry, University of Nebraska Medical Center, for her thoughtful contribution to this topic.
About the Gundry Lab
Rebekah Gundry is professor and vice chair of the Department of Cellular and Integrative Physiology, director of the CardiOmics Program, and assistant chief of basic and translational research in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The Gundry laboratory is passionate about bringing new analytical technologies to the stem cell and cardiac fields. Their long-term goals include the development of new reagents, approaches, and knowledge that will benefit the understanding and treatment of heart disease.
We chose to work with Dr. Gundry’s lab on this article for two reasons. Dr. Gundry fiercely supports digital solutions for reasons we outline in this article and her science is cell based, which is notably complex, difficult to digitally support and is a rapidly growing discipline.
Six months from now, can your work be repeated?
When we asked Rebekah about her philosophy on technology she smiled. “It’s quite simple”, she said. “Information in a laboratory must not be ambiguous – on any level.” The Gundry lab talks about this on a regular basis. The expectation is to record what they are doing in such a way that anyone can understand what was done to generate the data and know where the data are located. The litmus test is to think six months down the road. If asked to provide the details of an experiment, result or a process they applied, could they faithfully reproduce the experiment based on the level of data recorded? This is how the Gundry Lab thinks about data. And they recruit digital technologies to support them.
Rebekah noted the first couple of years she had an independent lab, her team used paper lab notebooks and Excel documents to record their work. It quickly became obvious that they needed digital tools to avoid some of the pitfalls that happen in running a research lab. They were seeking technology that helps minimize human error, avoid duplicating efforts and wasting time and money.
Common pitfalls that technology addresses:
Implementing bulky processes
Experiencing protocol drift
Wasting time or money searching for results
Incomplete, ineffectively linked records.
Digital technology is a way to gain a competitive advantage.
For the Gundry Lab, the scale and scope of how experimental details and resulting data must be integrated is simply unmanageable in an analog or a paper format. Static forms of data and information can't keep up with needs. A good example that any lab would face is the exchange of information and skills as members leave and new members arrive. It is critical the information be transferred completely and seamlessly. A first step is to recognize that it takes time and money to question processes or deal with uncertainty regarding how data were generated by previous lab members. And there really is no reason for that. If the information is recorded unambiguously by the previous lab member, the new member can continue the work most efficiently.
"Adopting digital technology is a way to gain a competitive advantage." — Rebekah Gundry
The world is moving at a faster pace; information comes at a faster pace. Competition for the Gundry Lab is the labs at different institutions, in different states or countries. They are typically much bigger institutions, much bigger labs. Rebekah emphasizes, “Every time we're slowed down by something that's avoidable, it can translate to a major delay.”
We didn’t realize what technology we needed until we felt the pain of needing it.
There are many places to apply digital technology in a lab. The trick is to have a strategy of identifying those places and prioritizing them. Initially, Rebekah’s lab sought technology as a reaction to a pressing problem. The most pressing problem was the waste associated with finding old information and then realizing it isn’t comprehensive enough to reproduce without contacting former lab members for clarification. “We didn't know what technology we needed until we felt the pain of not having it. We don't ever want to be in that situation again,” says Dr. Gundry. Today, she is practiced at predicting future challenges and preventing them. When it became her job to run the lab, to fund it, hire for it, and train for it, she began to see the challenges created when processes aren’t streamlined, and data are not flowing freely. It was then that the problem of piecemeal solutions and inefficiency became obvious to her.
Today, the highest priority technology solutions are ones that streamline the daily activities of her lab. These are solutions that affect how they plan experiments, how they know what protocol to follow, and how they record, access, and interpret the data.
Secure web-based solutions are essential. For Gundry’s lab, access to information is a critical part of learning, including learning from earlier challenges and mistakes. They are actively “unfearing failure” by recognizing the role challenges and mistakes have in growth. Technology helps with this by making past work visible and accessible. It makes everybody's life easier.
Challenges that can be addressed with technology:
Preserve valuable tips, tricks, or specialized protocols
Onboard and train new lab members quickly
Troubleshoot failed experiments
Communicat expectations, plans, and to-do lists
Build team confidence
Increase lab transparency
Expand the walls of the lab, so tasks can be completed remotely
A modern and effective technology stack
The Gundry Lab uses four main tools for managing lab data and information. These are in addition to the secure servers for raw data and document storage. The Gundry Lab technology stack includes Airtable, Labguru, CultureTrax, and Slack.
Airtable is a dynamic spreadsheet-based collaboration solution. For the Gundry lab, Airtable functions as an administrative assistant. It is the central location for budgets, fund management, project planning, manuscript outlining, and team member to do lists and goals. In Airtable, they track the onboarding of lab members and offer professional development resources. The instructions, documents they need, and the links to other resources are centralized. A benefit to Airtable is that it's real time and multiple people can edit at once. The tracking capability eliminates sending documents back and forth.
Labguru is an electronic lab notebook the Gundry lab uses to describe standard operating protocols, record details and link images or examples of data for experiments that are not cell culture based. A big part of the value of Labguru is inventory management. Labguru contains an interface that will tell them the exact location of reagents, including the location of cells in their cell bank.
Labguru is interactive. Rebekah can look at the experiments as they are recorded and see examples of results, data interpretations and conclusions. She and other scientists can have a dialogue right there in the software and that conversation is preserved. “There are really good features in Labguru,” notes Rebekah, “but the limitation of Labguru is that it is not suitable to store all the information we need for a cell culture experiment.”
CultureTraxis the Gundry Lab’s electronic productivity solution for cell culture. It is the state-of-the-art platform for planning and recording all the information required to successfully execute a cell culture experiment and record the information, so there is no ambiguity with what was done. The platform records ordinary things like what cells were used and how many plates, as well as detailed actions like which wells were passaged and split into a new plate. If any of the Gundry Lab scientists ever have an issue, they have a complete history of the sample from the starting vial to the fate of cells from every well during passaging and changing plates. Everything is tracked.
Detailed recording is one activity on CultureTrax. But, importantly, CultureTrax houses the lab’s well-established protocols which can be used as templates for designing, executing, and documenting experiments. This is key. Scientists who are new to cell culture or culturing and differentiating stem cells can use these well-established protocols to walk them through the process. CultureTrax removes ambiguity by providing detailed instruction in an interactive format. “It is unlike any other interface we've worked with. CultureTrax is helping us to do better experiments. We have more control over making sure the protocol is followed, and when it comes to training folks, the way the information is presented to the new person is not subjective,” remarks Rebekah.
The Gundry Lab uses Slack for communications. It helps to eliminate the inbox influx, and it focuses conversations into channels dedicated to different topics. When a lab member posts a question and another lab member answers, everybody can see it. Everybody learns. Having conversations lab-wide helps communicate the right information efficiently to everyone. Innovative ideas get generated when struggles or challenges are shared.
Thinking of the future, do you see gaps where technology isn't serving you?
When asked what gaps technology can fill in the future, Rebekah responded that she doesn’t think there is ever going to be a one-size-fits-all solution for labs, because every lab has unique needs. But she hopes to have better ways for different platforms to integrate more seamlessly. She recognizes the challenge, because that would require massive coordination between different companies and different technology formats. Rebekah reflected on what a fun time it is to do science. She says, “Our lab members are commonly generating so much more data than I ever did as a graduate student or postdoc. And it's fun. A little daunting to analyze all the data, but really fun.”
In conclusion, Rebekah says, “I hope that technology companies keep improving their product, keep doing remarkable things and putting them out there. I think many people may not be aware these tools are out there and may not realize how to use them or if they need them.” It takes time to implement these technologies. That’s not insignificant. But you will see that the time you spend searching for something or trying to determine the true experimental condition that generated a data set costs so much more than the expense to purchase and set up the platforms.
Take the next step toward digital maturity in your lab
Please contact us if you would like to discuss your lab’s technology solutions, either to share your needs or highlight your solutions.