The advent of smartphones has led to dramatic cultural changes across the globe, from Manhattan's lofts to New Delhi's suburbs. The mobile phone is a sophisticated mini-computer connecting individuals to their community, nation and out to ever expanding cyberspace. Research in the 21st century is being revolutionized by these electronic devices, enabling scientists to improve efficiency and increase output. Potential benefits of mobile technologies to researchers exist both at the bench and on-the-road:
@ The Lab
"My iPhone is endlessly important to my work – I use it to photograph whiteboards. They’re an essential part of my workflow, but not unless I can remember what I wrote. Copying by hand is a waste of time. With the iPhone I can work on a problem, make progress, snap a photo, and go on to something else. Later I can pull up past whiteboards on my MacBook. This is also great if you want to quickly share an idea for an algorithm or something with a collaborator at a distance, just draw it on the board, snap a photo, and email right from the phone." - Chris Beitel
Many conservative scientists believe that paper will always be the best and simplest solution for scientific documentation. Even so, nowadays the scientific lab is transforming - a process which will be expedited as the prices of tablets and mobile phones continually drop. The original iPhone, for example, costs today a mere $49 and is more capable than the common PC two decades ago. While the adoption by scientists of digital mobile technologies might arguably include several pitfalls (security, insubstantiality, device vulnerability), the other side of the coin promises advantages that should not be ignored:
- Data Back-up – Unless routinely scanned or photocopied, the lab notebook is unique, has no backup and is vulnerable to loss, tearing, fire and water damage. Conversely, digital documentation can be kept on multiple servers, downloaded as a local copy or printed.
- Collaboration – Any comment, data, conclusion or figure can be easily shared with any person. This powerful data accessibility can be secured by the same strong encryption protocols used by emails and online banking.
- Mobility – Paper-based lab notebooks must be kept in the lab at all times. Web-based digital documentation, on the other hand, can be accessed from anywhere with internet access. (Over 80% of countries have internet access).
- Readability – Lab notebook are written by humans, with different writing and documentation styles and thus have the potential to limit the accessibility of the documented information to those who can decipher the writing.
- Search capability – Finding a certain experiment without a-priori knowledge as to the date of the experiment can be a time consuming task. If there are several lab notebooks to flip through, this task will quickly turn into a needle-in-a-haystack search.
To solve the vulnerability issue, tablets and cellular phones can be placed within ziplock bags so that researcher can take it to the bench or the hood (such as practiced in William Shih's lab at Harvard Medical School).
The wet lab transformation has just begun but will inevitably take full force in the coming decade.
Scientists, whatever their ranking, go to conferences to (1) promote their science, (2) promote their professional status, (3) connect and network with colleagues and ultimately (4) enjoy a break from the scientific routine. For many scientists, their only scientific evidence is their poster or oral presentation. The 'digital scientist' on the other hand has all their lab knowledge tucked neatly within their iPad, laptop and soon, also in his small cellular phone. So if she detects a potential collaboration, it is easy to show a figure or table to press a point. The digital scientist can, upon completing a successful meeting, place a reminder and a link to that certain table so she can followup and brief the students back at the lab.
The mobile web-enabled Principal Investigator can also be available, even while on the road, to troubleshoot a dilemma a student has with results, or comment on the need to add more controls to the experiment another student has just planned and shared.
@ The Airport
Passionate scientists can often be found working around the clock, even when they are commuting to the lab on public transportation or flying to a conference. But what a disappointment it is when their images or dataset, saved to the lab's server, was not yet synced to their laptop. Conversely, the digital scientist, sitting three rows ahead, happily and simply downloads their newly generated dataset to their laptop and starts working.
In case of an equipment malfunction detected early in the morning, scientists can receive status notifications via email - though the digital scientist will also see which alternative devices are available and adapt their day's plan accordingly.
Even at their homes scientists often find themselves working hard to finish a grant application, or to complete revisions on a recently submitted article.
With mobile internet connectivity, knowledge is no longer restricted to the prism of television, newspapers, periodicals and journals subject to the whims and interests of editors and owners. Knowledge access is now direct, immediate, and personalized, whether the individual is at home on their couch or waiting for a bus.
Precious vacation time is ideally not interrupted by events and queries from lab members. The digital scientist can rest assured that all their data and knowledge is available to their lab members, easily searched for through keywords, dates and projects. Meaning the digital scientist knows that only a true emergency will break the tranquility of vacation.
While still the minority, many digital scientists carry all their lab and research knowledge with them in a convenient, secure, and mobile manner. They joined the digital research revolution. You should join too!
Please share with us your digital research revolution – how and when did you make the transition?