Super Automatic: computer-based tools for research

Since I have now written several posts on this. I thought I would summarise the computer-based tools that we are using in the lab to automate our work and organise ourselves.

Electronic lab notebook – there are previous posts from me on picking an ELN platform and how to set up a WordPress ELN as well as Dave Mason’s guide and CAMDU’s guide to help you to get this set up.

Slack – it took us ages to set up our lab slack. I wanted to try it out a few years ago but some people in the lab were reluctant (see below for some notes on getting people on board with new tech). I was also sceptical since we are a wet lab and I wondered whether slack would work as well for us as it does for bioinformaticians, for example. We just went for it one day and have not regretted it as it has improved lab communication in so many ways. There is a good guide available on the site to set up something that works for a lab.

Trello – organising projects and assigning to-do items (see this post). Since we switched our communication to Slack, we use Trello a lot less. It is still very good for checking progress on defined tasks, for brainstorming during a meeting, and to make sure stuff doesn’t get forgotten about. Besides our lab boards, I own other boards for work outside of my lab and these also work well, in some cases better than our lab boards.

Databases – infrastructure in the lab is centred on databases for key reagents and these can be cross-referenced in electronic lab notebooks. Keeping them updated is essential. We use FileMaker Pro to maintain them. Setup took some time, but very much worth it.

OMERO – The lab is lucky to have excellent computing support from CAMDU who set up our OMERO database and server. Images from microscopes are piped direct to the database on a per user basis. I’m a big fan.

Dropbox – an account is essential in academia. I have a shared folder with each person in the lab and a folder that all members share. File exchange is best done via our lab server, but Dropbox is still incredibly useful.

Overleaf – writing a paper collaboratively in LaTeX with Overleaf is a joy (see this post). There are Google-based tools for doing this but I am not keen on using them. Dropbox now has a collaborative writing function that my colleagues are using and enjoying.

Zotero – when writing collaboratively in Overleaf, a shared reference management system is essential. Zotero is a healthy alternative to Mendeley and it is now supported in Overleaf v2. I don’t store my PDFs in Zotero and I found no solution for an iTunes-for-PDF-files.

Calendars – while I’m not a fan of Google-based tools, we use the calendar functions for our lab. We inherited this from the Centre where we work, where these calendars are used for booking equipment. We have lab calendars for microscopes, equipment, workstations and for general lab stuff so we know when people are away. I set up a dummy account that belongs to all the lab calendars and this is linked to our lab Slack so that we get a digest of the days bookings every morning, and notifications if new events are added. The University has an outlook-based calendar system, the use of which is patchy amongst academics. However, the admin people use it and so I have blocked out times in here when I’m busy to reduce diary conflicts.

Filter, filter, filter – I set up many filters on my email, twitter… wherever I can… to keep out spam and irrelevant stuff.

Automating the little stuff – a previous post on being organised as a PI mentioned that I advocate writing scripts and macros to automate little things that you do often. Of course there is an xkcd cartoon for this. I have scripts set up to do things like assembling PDFs or converting or compressing file formats. We’ve also been automating the big stuff too. Figures are a good example. We write scripts to produce (and reproduce) figure panels. 

Sharing code – A while back I set up an update site to distribute our ImageJ macros among the lab, but also people from outside can subscribe and get the latest updates easily. Our Igor code is shared within the lab via a cloud-based updater which allows code to compiled on-demand. Lab code is maintained via git at GitHub and our centre forks repos from published projects to its own account.

Onboarding. None of these tools work unless everyone is on board. It is worth having a strategy to make this happen. Simple steps such as introducing on system at a time, providing initial training and some support for people who are slow to uptake. There’s a group effect to onboarding but getting to the tipping point can be hard.

The title for this post “Super Automatic” comes from the album of that name by Myracle Brah (the name of this band is not endorsed by quantixed).

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