Today’s world makes it tricky to use some old ways of running biological laboratories. With social distancing orders now omnipresent, crowded labs and devices that need human attention to generate results are increasingly difficult to sustain. Making this new normal work takes some adaptability. Here are seven things to consider when figuring out how to maintain a research program when crowded laboratories are no longer an option.
1. Identify the products you need
Scientific equipment and other tools are in a constant state of improvement. Scientists learn about these innovations in a variety of ways, some of which the current situation has made less tenable. Traveling to conferences and speaking to visiting sales representatives are less common experiences now than they once were, limiting the reach of news from the outside.
However, there are other methods. This year has seen an explosion in virtual conferences and other ways to bring people together for real-time conversation and demonstration without them having to be in the same room, providing many of the benefits of physical conferences and in-person meetings. These events often remain recorded for later use and can be both more frequent and less costly than physical conferences, making them less of an investment for labs. As virtual events, they can be attended from any suitable real-world locale, removing the need to be in the lab or office. These conversations serve the same pivotal role they always have in keeping scientists up to date with the latest goings-on of their fields, both in terms of knowledge gained and tools created.
2. Choose products virtually
It takes more than a catalog listing to know whether a new instrument is the right fit for a laboratory. Scientific instruments are sizable investments, especially for smaller labs that often solicit grants specifically to cover the costs of new devices. Conversations with knowledgeable sales representatives and live demonstrations to show how a device works provide invaluable information that can help the people running labs make their purchasing decisions.
These in-person experiences might not be as easily found anymore, but distance-friendly alternatives are increasingly accessible. Sales representatives are available over the phone to help keep scientists aware of the latest innovations and promotions, and even more excitingly, virtual instrument demonstrations can provide the same insight as their in-person forebears. For example, the QuantStudio line of quantitative PCR devices is available for virtual tours guided by sales representatives. Laboratory managers can choose which versions of the QuantStudio they wish to see demonstrated and speak with the sales representative throughout the process to get their specific questions answered. Virtual tours enable a researcher to see how a device works without the lead time needed to order, ship, receive and unpack it, vastly reducing the effort and time required to make a decision. They also make it much easier to demonstrate multiple devices in succession. Virtual tours may be less concrete than an in-person visit, but they are just as informative.
3. Place orders digitally
This is one area that has changed little in the new normal. Placing orders was already a mostly digital and distance-oriented process for most buyers, and that has not changed.
4. Install your device
Laboratory equipment has been shipped around the world for as long as many investigators have been at work. Installing it, however, has changed over the years. For more complex equipment, it has been routine to arrange for a service representative to help unbox and set up a new device to make sure all parts are present and installed correctly, and to help optimize a space to suit its use. Advances in device design have made installation service representatives a less vital part of the process, with many devices being easier than ever for end users to set up and get started on right away.
For other devices, installation assistance can now be delivered remotely. This is also important for laboratories that are resuming activity after a long lockdown or other absence. Devices often require special care to restart if they have been left unattended or shut down for long periods, and Thermo Fisher Scientific offers remote assistance to make sure this process goes as smoothly as possible. These assistants are also able to troubleshoot devices and reduce the need for dedicated repair personnel to perform in-person diagnostics and repairs.
5. Host a training day
Learning how to use a new device can be difficult. Many laboratory devices have a variety of use cases and modes of operation, and realizing the full power of one’s acquisition can mean long periods spent studying manuals and investigating settings. Exploration can be a difficult thing to justify when the penalty for getting a setting wrong is hours of lost time, the destruction of irreplaceable samples, or damage to the device itself, so training is a worthwhile investment.
The QuantStudio 3 and 5 both feature digital SmartStart orientation courses to get researchers started as quickly as possible, and offer some additional digital classes as well. Thermo Fisher Scientific additionally offers augmented reality training for some of its devices, providing as hands-on an experience as possible without being physically present alongside the laboratory personnel being trained. It is more possible than ever for teachers to reach faraway students, and Thermo Fisher Scientific aims to make use of these innovations to help scientists make the most of their equipment.
6. Accommodate day-to-day distance
The most important part of the device cycle to make distance-compatible is day-to-day use. If a device requires constant attention to run or must have each successive run set up manually, its user must remain on site throughout its use period. This reduces the ability of a laboratory to maintain distance with other lab users. Cloud-enabled platforms support experiment design, real-time monitoring, analyzing data and sharing data from afar, taking these tasks out of the lab. Just as importantly, automating data collection using autosamplers and high-throughput devices means that a large number of runs can be set up in advance and then monitored from afar, handled by the automation instrument and with data processed from the safety of a researcher’s home or office.
The Thermo Scientific™ OrbitorTM RS2 Microplate Mover provides a way for even small, single-plate devices to process up to 40 plates in succession without a human on hand to switch plates in and out, and it has options for various throughput levels. This allows a researcher to set up dozens of plates in advance and then remain offsite for a day or more at a time, reducing the need to have personnel in the lab and allowing more research to continue even while distance is maintained. With an included barcode reader, data collected using an Orbitor mover can be connected to its associated project, measurement standards or labels easily, allowing multiple users to keep their plates in the same queue. With the QuantStudio 6 and 7 Pro systems, remote scheduling further reduces the need for personnel near the device itself. QuantStudio 1, 3, 5, 6, and 7 Pro devices can all be monitored remotely using Thermo Fisher Connect.
7. Get help from afar
Thermo Fisher Scientific is more prepared than ever to help users who need assistance in the age of social distancing. Digital tools like our AR remote support tool and Smart Help button were being used before lab social distancing, but have now become more powerful than ever as they enable laboratory personnel to connect with assistance from afar and get back to work as quickly and smoothly as their malfunctions allow. And for the times when an on-site visit in necessary, you can still count on our manufacturer-certified field service engineers to help however they can as they follow all local and customer travel guidelines.
It is difficult to be a scientist when safety requires that laboratories not be as busy as they used to be, but with the right tools and assistance, even a small lab with little room for social distancing can remain a bustling hive of activity and continue generating new knowledge.
Learn more about how Thermo Fisher Scientific tools and services can help you maintain productivity through social distancing.