Tuesday, March 27, 2012

7 Habits of a Highly Successful Core Facility

I know, I know, another spin on the "7 Habits..." meme, but hey, reserve your judgement until you've read through them.  This post is definitely geared towards core facilities, but I think you'll find this transcends to multiple service oriented businesses.  Let me know if your facility is currently implementing any of these strategies, or ones that I've missed.  And so, without further ado, I present the 7 Habits of Highly Successful Core Facilities, which was compiled after an exhaustive study of core facilities at the University of Chicago with an n of exactly 1 (i.e. us).

1.  Interact with OEMs - I cannot stress enough the importance of having regular conversations with those companies who are making the products you are using.  Many times labs will wait for a company to contact them with the latest and greatest products that have recently launched, however we've tried to take a proactive approach when it comes to new products and services.  This invariably leads to demonstrations or evaluations, or even early access to new tech as a beta tester.  In addition, you might just be able to voice your opinions so that future iterations of a product better suit your needs.

2.  Engage with your users regarding their scientific questions - I've said multiple times before, people love to talk about their projects, so why not give them another opportunity to fine tune their story.  I mean, you don't have anything better to do while sitting at the sorter, do you?  The flip side of this is you may actually pick up on something and be able to suggest a technical improvement of the assay.  There have been numerous times when someone is explaining to me what they're trying to do, and I've suggested using a different technology or approach, and it has worked out really well for them.  For example, a user who I was training on a bench-top analyzer was complaining that it's impossible to differentiate between necrotic cells and late apoptotic cells definitely by flow cytometry.  I simply suggested using our ImageStreamX instead (which also measures morphological parameters such as area of cytoplasm and darkfield scatter - a characteristic of necrotic cells) and the data supporting the hypothesis is now very convincing.

3.  Respond promptly to all inquiries - Have you ever contacted a company only to have them ignore your attempts, or get back to you weeks later?  How did that make you feel?  Were you eager to do business with them again?  Exactly!  Whether it be by phone, email, IM, Facebook message/comment, or blog comment, it's imperative to follow up with people.  Even if you don't have time to dig up an answer to someones question, at least be courteous enough to let them know you're working on the solution to their problem and that you'll get back to them is a day or two.

4.  Interact with people in many different networks (outside of your user base) - It's easy to get into the habit of sending out an email blast to your user group.  However, when you only do that, how will you increase your exposure and find new users?  There are tons of opportunities to interact with both your current user base and potential user base, and the key is to pursue multiple avenues in order to cast a large net.  Things like Facebook pages (e..g UCFlow's FB page, or Google+ pages (UCFlow's G+ page) are great places to interact with people.  It's also important to be both a contributor and consumer of information.  Interact, comment, like, or plus things that other people are contributing to the social network, and promote groups that are doing things right.  For example, I really enjoy the things that the Life Technologies group is doing on their Facebook page.  I regularly read and interact with their content (LifeTechnologies Flow Cytometry Facebook page)

5.  Value quality over quantity - At every point in your operations, it's imperative to emphasize the highest quality service.  It's really about dotting the "i's" and crossing the "t's" ensuring each project is completed fully and to the user's satisfaction before moving on to the next project.  With constant pressures to "do more with less" this is a difficult thing to follow through on, but I think it's important to give each project it's due diligence.  Instead of sloppily or hastily completely as many tasks as possible, it'll pay off in the long run if you're focused on the task at hand and execute perfectly.

6.  Empower users (and faculty) to take ownership of the core facility equipment and services - When you're users care just as much about the performance and health of the equipment and services as you do, you'll be in a very good place.  One way of empowering them is by educating them on the implications of poor stewardship of the technology.  "If you're running PI stained cells for cell cycle and you don't rinse properly, the next person who comes in with their PE, PerCP double stained fixed cells is going to end up with a ruined experiment."  And, you wouldn't want that to happen to you, would you?  Or, stressing the importance of filling up the sheath tank so that the pressure remains constant throughout your two hour run and you don't have fluctuations in the delay of laser #4.  Also, when a user does have a problem on the instrument, don't simply walk over, fiddle with a few things and walk away.  It would serve you much better to explain to the user exactly what you're doing, and how you came to the conclusions you did.  Next time, they'll be able to do a bit of troubleshooting themselves.

7.  Be ready to pivot at a moments notice - We in core facilities certainly believe our technology is the best, and will be around forever.  But, that's rarely the case.  Being able to assess the technology trends and stay in front of emerging/complimentary technology will allow you to stay relevant and grow.  If there's no need for antiquated technology, you need to develop a plan to phase that instrument or service out and look to the next technology that will replace it.  Holding on to the past, will leave you in the past.

So, there you have it.  Why not make a quick assessment of your facility's habits and see how they stack up?  Feel free to leave your thought below.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Cytometrist's Mobile Toolbox

It's no secret technology continues to poke its nosy body into every part of our lives.  But it's also surprising that we who work in the labs don't utilize it to its fullest potential.  For example, up until recently, I would time my incubations by writing down on a scrap piece of paper what time (of day) the incubation was to end.  I'd invariably lose the piece of paper and end up guessing how long it's been.  This scenario plays itself over and over in various forms, which lead me to exclaim, there's got to be a better way.

So, whenever we're faced with a problem/question these days, where do we turn?  Well, an app store, of course.  Here, we'll outline a group of tools found on our phones/tablets/computers that can help working in a lab, especially in regards to flow cytometry applications, easier.  Quick Disclaimer:  I use an Android phone, so most of my hands on experience comes from those apps.  iOS apps were found by searching the app store for apps with similar features.

We call this our Cytometrist's Mobile Toolbox

1.  Timer.  Running experiments always requires a good timer.  Fortunately there are some really good apps for timing your incubations.  My favorite one from the Android Market is called StopWatch&Timer+ (sportstracklive.com).  You can have many timers going at the same time with different alarms, and you can label them so you can easily go back to them for repeat incubations.  You can also set timers up to 99:59:59, so you can cover your multi-day incubations.  A comparable entry on the iOS App store is Timer+.  It has a similar feature set except it only times up to 24 hours on a single timer.

2.  Calculator.  Sure, the stock calculator can handle most of the math you're going to run into day-to-day. However, the thing we probably do most is making dilutions, so it doesn't hurt to have a handy tool to do some quick dilutions and save you from making a stupid mistake.  Most of the calculators you'll run into on the Android Market or the iOS App Store are built around chemistry applications, so you'll just have to train yourself to mentally substitute micrograms for micromolar as units.  But other than that, they work well.  There are some apps that have a group of tools (including some from BioLegend and LifeTechnologies, which I'll talk about below) which just makes it too crowded and requires lots of clicks (or touches, I should say), but on the Android platform, I use AgileSciTools with pretty good success.  It actually does cell concentrations as well as stock dilutions (again using the mole base unit).  A similar tool on iOS is DailyCalcs (Invitrogen).

Dilution Calculator
3.  Fluorescence Spectrum Resources.  Today, spectrum viewers are a dime/dozen, so it's no surprise that these are pretty easy to find.  However, most of them exist as computer resource intensive web applications that aren't well-suited for viewing on a phone/tablet.  In fact, there currently is no native android app that does a spectrum viewer like you'd expect from the various web site ones.  Closest I've found is the Cytometry app from Invitrogen.  This doesn't have a spectra viewer, but it does at least list the ex/em of the various fluors they refer to.  On the iOS platform, there is a full-fledged spectra viewer from Invitrogen.  So, if you're an Android user, you'll be better off using the various desktop apps.  For a complete list of available desktop spectra viewers, you can visit the Chromocyte web site.

LifeTechnologies Cytometry App
4.  Antibody resource.  Sometimes when you're in the thick of it, you may want to get some info on a related antibody or reagent.  Fortunately, this can be done with a few clicks on your favorite mobile device.  BioLegend has a nice resource for looking up CD markers on both the Android and iOS platforms.  Invitrogen's Cytometry app is also available on Android and iOS.

5.  Protocols.  Unsure of the protocol you're working on?  Would you like to cross-reference another protocol, or even see some of the steps performed on video?  Well, you're probably familiar with JoVE, the online Journal of Visualized Experiments; a growing resource online.  The only problem is that don't have an app yet (not sure why???).  An alternative that does have an app is Benchfly (Android only).  However, as of this writing, there's not much flow cytometry related material there, although there are other related and useful videos ready-to-go.  However, the place I start many times when specifically looking for video is YouTube.  There are hundreds of videos relating to many aspects of flow cytometry, and it is certainly available on any mobile device of choice.  Also, the aforementioned BioLegend and LifeTechnologies apps have protocols built-in, using their products.  Of special note is the LifeTechnologies app that actually has incubation timers inline with the protocol...pretty nice implementation.

Lastly, if you're looking for other tools, whether they be on the desktop of for your mobile device, you can consult the following links to some useful tools.
BioLegend Web Tools Page

BD tools,
LifeTechologies tools
BioLegend Tools
Sony i-Cyt tools
Chromocyte tools
eBioscience tools

So, there you have it.  Hopefully this will help you perform your experiments with greater accuracy (i.e. fewer mistakes) and efficiency.  Do you have a favorite app you use to help expedite your experiments?  Go ahead and leave your favs in the comments.