Oligo melting temperatures—there’s an app for that? Yes, there really is. Smartphones and tablets have quickly entered the lab environment, and for most routine lab tasks, there probably really is an app for that. If you use a smartphone or tablet, you should check out the expanding list of options. From very specific apps dedicated to managing lab instruments to far-reaching reference or lab-organization apps, these tools are becoming hard to turn down. They are also increasingly easy to use, and many are free or carry a nominal price tag. Here are examples of what apps can do in the lab, with reference to some popular apps in use today.
Grad students, post-docs and technicians find particularly useful the apps that help them with everyday tasks. Managing lab instruments with apps from the manufacturers can save you time. For example, apps can notify you when your chromatography or flow cytometry run is complete so you can do something else while you’re waiting. Or a simple, all-purpose, four-timer app such as Lab Timer may come in handy. There are also a plethora of apps geared toward molecular biologists, including iCut DNA, EnzymeX, NEB Tools, Promega and Qiagen Apps. These can give you molecular biology tools such as a DNA sequence editor, information on hundreds of restriction enzymes, buffers for double digests, oligo melting temperatures, and DNA and protein conversions (not all apps do all functions, of course). For working with solutions, apps such as Lab Solver, Solutions, Invitrogen DailyCalcs and Dilution can help with making serial dilutions, solubility and other calculations.
Electronic lab notebooks
Digital lab notebooks are becoming more common, especially among younger researchers used to wielding personal electronic devices. Examples include Notebooks, Lab Assistant, My Lab, Sparklix, LabArchives, eCAT and Wingu. The advantages of a digital platform include easier storage and access plus protection against spills, fires, theft or just being misplaced. It is also easier to enter observations or protocols and more convenient and understandable for another scientist to go back and review. Another benefit is history: If you need to repeat an experiment you performed two years ago but don’t remember exactly how you did it, there is no need to dig through file cabinets or dusty stacks of notebooks. For day-to-day tasks, apps like Quartzy can help manage lab inventory, track lab spending, organize shared protocols and manage sign-ups and time slots for shared equipment.
Seeing the bigger picture: project management apps
Research management software, and associated apps, are gaining in popularity as scientists see the organizational benefits. Examples include Labguru, by BioData, and Colwiz (short for “collective wisdom”), developed by researchers at Oxford University. These are tools for seeing the whole picture of a project in one place. They track past and present experiments and future plans. They hold comments from multiple projects members; locations of important samples and materials; all results; and files, documents and references related to the project, among many other elements. The ability to view quickly the entire project helps the principal investigator (PI), who may not be involved in the day-to-day activities, assess the state of the project and advise about priorities for new project directions. Having an overview also helps all project members make connections or associations between different elements of data that could lead to new insights. For example, Labguru lets you group data in different ways to see connections or patterns in the results that might not be clear otherwise.
All lab members benefit from apps that manage projects. Students are less likely to flounder for too long if their PI or post-doc mentor is able to check on their project easily. When it comes time to write up results in a paper, students and post-docs will already have all the materials at their fingertips. PIs can easily check on their lab members’ progress, even when traveling, and having the materials for a project centrally located makes it easier to write and renew grant applications. There are apps for that, too, by the way, including Papers and Mendeley, which let you organize your entire library of PDF files (no more stacks of papers on your desk or poorly organized file cabinets), download new papers and facilitate reference citations.
The lab management software and apps described above, as well as the electronic lab notebooks, help to keep everyone in the loop. This is especially timely as labs become more specialized and often need to collaborate to complete a project—sometimes with researchers on another continent. With apps that let collaborators see the project details, living in a different time zone isn’t a big issue. Software such as OpenWetWare is designed to promote sharing of scientific wisdom between research groups. In addition to providing a place for individual labs to organize their research projects, it aids collaboration with other labs around the world.
In the end, it’s all about the science
New apps for scientists are coming out all the time, so check frequently for new ones. After all, managing your lab time better will leave you with more time to think about science—and isn’t that why you got into research in the first place?
The image at the top of this page is BioKM from Labguru.