Tag Archives: laboratory

How one lab greatly reduced its environmental footprint

In general, scientists are very aware of the environmental footprint of their research. It’s a noble cause, but many labs use consume vast amounts of plastics, generate waste, and emit greenhouse gases. Many such labs are trying to find ways to go green. In a new study, researchers in Ireland showed how this could be done — while also saving money.

Image credit: Pixabay.

Jane Kilcoyne and her colleagues at the Marine Institute in Ireland run a monitoring program for the detection of biotoxins in shellfish. Aware of labs being “resource-hungry workplaces” contributing to climate change, Kilcoyne told ZME Science they wanted to limit the impacts of their work on the environment while raising awareness overall.

The world’s scientific laboratory sector is massive. There are about 20,500 labs around the world that carry out medical, biological, or agricultural research. Most of them are big consumers of plastics. While the average person in the US consumes 106 kilograms of plastics per year, the average scientist uses 1,000 kilograms per year.

Labs also use large amounts of solvents for sample extraction and analysis, which could be treated and recycled to reduce costs and emissions. Paper consumption for printing is also high. This can translate into deforestation and pollution. Labs consume a lot of energy as well – between five to ten times more energy per square meter than office buildings.

That’s why is critical for labs to adopt good environmental practices. Many are acknowledging the need to operate in more sustainable ways and have already implemented changes to working practices to reduce their waste and energy consumption, such as University College London, set to be carbon neutral in 2030.

Tackling carbon footprint

With a team of seven staff members, the Marine Institute’s national monitoring program for the detection of biotoxins in shellfish implemented a set of sustainable practices in their laboratory, hoping to reduce the overall environmental footprint. As it turns out, it was a success, making the lab a much greener place than before.

They were able to reduce their consumption of single-use plastics by 69% thanks to a transition to more sustainable consumables. Recycling polystyrene (used in the construction industry as insulation) and composting of shellfish waste also led to over 95% of non-chemical waste generated by our laboratory being diverted from landfills.

The researchers could reduce their hazardous chemical waste by about 23% by extending expiry dates and only preparing what’s strictly needed for experiments. They also addressed their fume hood (which uses 3.5 times the energy of an average home) and reduced cold storage equipment energy consumption by 30% through improved management.

The actions implemented led to annual cost savings of about $17.000. But this isn’t the end of the road as further sustainability efforts are still required, they argued. The team will continue working to meet the ultimate goal of achieving a green lab certification known as My Green Lab – an NGO that seeks sustainability in science.

“The strategies adopted could be implemented in any laboratory. In fact, going green in any workplace setting is a win-win. Introducing more sustainable work practices into our monitoring program led to reduced environmental and financial costs, enhanced efficiencies, and boosted staff engagement,” Kilcoyne told ZME.

The study was published in the journal PLOS.

Seasonal temperatures influence the results of blood work

Blood tests don’t just record what’s going on inside your body — they’re also influenced by outside conditions.

Image credits Tatiana Belova.

New research comes with a surprising finding: ambient temperatures have a small, but measurable, effect on the results of medical lab work. While the findings don’t raise cause for concern, they do represent an interesting tidbit for medical personnel to consider when interpreting lab results.

Furthermore, labs could adjust to account for ambient temperatures on the day the samples were harvested using statistical methods, which would eliminate this effect from the results, according to the authors.

Outside influences

“Temperature fluctuations from one day to the next affected the results of some of the most commonly-used laboratory tests in medicine: red and white blood cells, lipids, and many others. It’s important to note that these changes were small: less than one percent differences in most tests under normal temperature conditions,” said study co-author Ziad Obermeyer of the University of California, Berkeley, in an email for ZME Science.

“Nonetheless,  we did detect effects of these changes on doctors’ medical decisions, for example, patients who had their cholesterol checked on colder days appeared to be lower-risk in terms of cardiovascular disease, and this led to a lower likelihood of being prescribed a statin.”

Together with Devin Pope of the University of Chicago, Obermeyer analyzed a dataset of lab results performed between 2009 and 2015 over several climate zones. The dataset included over four million different patients. The authors measured how changes in day-to-day temperatures affected the results, over and above the patients’ average values, and seasonal variation.

More than 90% of individual tests and 51 of 75 used in the study had been influenced by ambient temperatures, they report; these included measures of kidney function, cellular blood components, and lipids such as cholesterol and triglycerides. These day-to-day fluctuations very likely do not align with the patients’ long-term physiological trends, the team believes. For example, patients who received lipid panel checks on colder days were 10% less likely to be prescribed statins, a class of cholesterol-lowering drugs, compared to those who received the test on warm days.

“The textbook way of thinking about medical research is ‘bench to bedside’: first we come up with a hypothesis, based on theory, then we test it with data. As more and more big data comes online — like the massive dataset of lab tests we used – we can flip that process on its head: discover fascinating new patterns, and then use bench science to get to the bottom of it,” Obermeyer added for ZME Science.

“I think this ‘bedside to bench’ model is just as important as its better known cousin, because it can open up totally new questions in human physiology we haven’t dreamed of before.”

Since the study didn’t involve any experimental steps, the team could not identify the exact mechanism through which ambient temperatures influence the results of lab work. They’re looking at several possible explanations such as blood volume, specific assay performance, specimen transport, or changes in lab equipment, but they can’t yet say for sure.

“One practical implication of this study is that laboratories could statistically adjust the results they report for the ambient temperature on the test day. This could actually reduce variability by quite a bit – in fact, comparable to getting new laboratory assay technology – but at far lower cost,” Obermeyer added for ZME Science.

“There is some precedent for this: labs often use ‘middleware’ to adjust raw results (e.g., rounding low results to ‘negative’ based on reference ranges). This idea, of improving the ‘software’ rather than the ‘hardware’ of laboratory instruments, is a bit like how Tesla improved braking performance: via a software upgrade to cars’ onboard computers, as opposed to physical changes to the brakes – though of course, anything we do with patient care needs to be done with extreme care, as recent problems with Tesla’s braking software have shown.”

The paper “Variation in common laboratory test results due to ambient temperature” has been published in the journal Med.

‘Dish Life’ lets you play as a stem cell researcher on Android, iPhone, or PC

A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge want to make laboratories and the scientific process more familiar to the public in the best way possible: with video games.

Image credits University of Cambridge.

The game is named “Dish Life” and puts the player in the role of a burgeoning stem cell researcher as they navigate the tough (and sometimes hilarious) journey from undergraduate to cutting-edge expert. Dish Life is available for free on the Apple and Android App Stores, as well as on Steam for PC.

But it’s not all empty fun. The game was designed with the help of Cambridge sociologists and stem cell scientists from the University’s Stem Cell Institute to provide a realistic taste of life inside a biotechnology laboratory.

The game of science

“The route to scientific discovery can feel like a mystery to many of us,” said Dr Karen Jent from the ReproSoc group in Cambridge’s Department of Sociology, who led the game’s development. “A lot of people only encounter the process of science through hyperbolic headlines or cinematic tales of the lone genius.”

“We want to use gaming to have a different kind of conversation about science. Science involves teamwork and care as much as reason and logic. We aimed to create an interactive experience reflecting the nurturing of experiments and building of social relationships at the heart of good science.”

Jent explains that her work allowed her to see the interpersonal dynamics that form in stem labs, but also the bond that forms between researchers and the cells they grow. These require near-constant attention and care, she explains, likening them to microscopic kids. These relationships form the foundation of the game: it’s “part Sims, part Tamagotchi,” she explains, with strategy and dilemma thrown in to spice things up.

In Dish Life, players must manage to strike a balance between caring for their (every-hungrier) cells while helping improve their lab’s wellbeing, reputation, and nurturing their own careers through publications and securing promotions. Players need to feed and monitor cell cultures, eventually splitting cultures up when they outgrow their Petri dishes and start converting them into specific cell types. Each success rewards experience points that players can use to unlock new abilities, colleagues, and equipment. However, players also have to keep tabs on the wellbeing of their avatar (the in-game researcher they play) and colleagues by engaging in social life in the lab, and complete quests that include job interviews and to produce new drugs.

The game draws inspiration from a 2016 short film Jent produced with stem cell researchers Dr. Loriana Vitillo and movie director Chloe Thomas (which was also named Dish Life). The film cast children for the role of stem cells and used a paddling pool in lieu of a petri dish. It also featured a number of researchers explaining the quasi-relationship they developed with the cell cultures they cared for through constant monitoring, feeding, even talking aloud to them for months on end.

“It was an ordinary day in the lab, feeding cells, when it occurred to me that we often talk about what we discover but not how we discover, about our real lives,” said Vitillo, game and film co-producer, and Cambridge Stem Cell Institute alumni. “I wanted to tell a different story.”

“With stem cells set to change healthcare, we want to make biotechnology more accessible by showing how this science is really done.”

The game is surprisingly complex and covers a wide range of commentaries on the life of researchers and broader society. Workplace issues such as bullying and maternity cover make an appearance, as do media controversies, government committees, and ethical choices around animal testing and CRISPR. There’s also great depth to the game, with avatars being given access to new issues as they progress in academia.

“Once you run a successful lab, the game opens up questions of medical ethics, environmental impact, the bioeconomy and equality in science,” said Jent explains. “Although those cells will always need feeding.”

The game was designed by Pocket Sized Hands, a Dundee-based games studio. The Cambridge team plans to continue testing the game with groups of stem cell scientists and update gameplay accordingly after release, so you can be sure to always get a realistic taste of life in the lab.

Don’t forget to feed those cells, though

New simulation lab will help researchers better understand hurricanes

A lab from the University of Miami will be able to reproduce hurricane conditions on demand, empowering researchers to study hurricanes in a novel way.

Hurricane Isabel, as seen from the International Space Station in September 2003. Image via Wikipedia.

A tropical cyclone (popularly referred to as a hurricane) is a rapidly rotating storm system characterized by a low-pressure center, strong winds, and a spiral arrangement of thunderstorms that produce heavy rain. At sea, tropical cyclones can cause large waves, heavy rain, flood and high winds, disrupting international shipping and potentially causing shipwrecks; on land, they can take an enormous toll in lives and personal property but they may also be important factors in the local climate, bringing much-needed precipitation to otherwise dry regions. All in all, they’re important players for global climate, and understanding them is key for not only for forecasting, but also for climate models.

For this purpose, the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science developed the Surge-Structure-Atmosphere Interaction, or SUSTAIN. The lab features a clear acrylic tank about 75 feet (23 meters) long and 6.5 feet (2 meters) high. Inside, all hell can break loose: 38,000 gallons of seawater can be whipped into waves using a 1,700-horsepower fan that can create Category 5 conditions, with winds topping 157 mph. Satellite sensors were mounted on the lab’s ceilings to fine-tune existing satellites watching real storms. Lab director Brian Haus explains how this works:

“The satellites, even though they see a really big area, they tend to be sensitive to really small things on the surface. We don’t really know, when you get into extreme conditions, what the satellite is seeing — whether there’s a spot reflecting off sea spray or bubbles or short waves,” Haus said.

The SUSTAIN lab. AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Researchers are also testing tiny drones to fly down into those dark and stormy places, while a variety of other sensors and tools fit for stormy recon. Predictions of storm behaviors have improved dramatically over the last few years, but there is still a so-called “cone of uncertainty”. Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami believes the SUSTAIN lab will be crucial for further improvements:

“Intensity forecasting, especially rapid intensification and especially when that happens near the coastline — that remains our highest priority forecast improvement need,” Knabb said.

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6 Tips to Cut Costs in a Laboratory

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Image source: bizjournals.com

Sadly, science – as vastly important as it is – does not have unlimited funding, and the fact of the matter is that the majority of laboratories in operation today have to work with constricted budgets.

This may be to attempt to maximise profits, or they may simply have few resources to work with; either way, the outcome is the same. If you find yourself in the position where you are managing the budget of such a lab, here are some ways to go about cutting costs, meaning you can put that money to better use elsewhere.

1 – Monitor All the Costs

The first thing to do is get in to accountant mode. Grab a journal (or an Excel spreadsheet) and start making note of every single expense. This includes the overheads, any salaries paid, the necessary supplies and equipment, as well as any fees, fines or benefits.

Make sure you are meticulous and accurate – decent accounting of the lab’s various costs will help inspire strategies to cut costs. Aim these strategies at the bigger expenses first and foremost, as you will likely be able to make the greater savings there.

2 – Determine Which Costs Depend on Volume

What that means is fairly simple – costs which are volume dependent increase as the laboratory’s output does. This includes things such as supplies: the more work you do, the more supplies you’ll burn through, meaning you’ll have to buy more supplies.

This means that supply costs will go up in line with your revenue. Separate volume dependent costs from independent ones, such as the overheads.

3 – Calculate Money per Procedure

First of all, look at how much each procedure is costing you. You can do this by totalling its monthly costs, then dividing that figure by the number of times you’d perform it in a typical month. You want to lower this figure as much as you can.

Then make note of how much it’s bringing in, whether that’s via reimbursement or revenue. Obviously, this is the figure you want to maximise, but changing this is not always possible.

4 – Weed out the Less Productive Work

Now that you’ve compared all the jobs and how much money they bring in, you can start limiting the less financially viable ones. It should be fairly obvious which procedures simply aren’t working, and are instead draining those precious funds.

5 – Increase Efficiency

Look around at the workstations and equipment – are they outdated? If you think they could be causing some less than optimal work, perhaps they need replacing. Take a look at the BES website to see how you could benefit.

6 – Order in Bulk

One simple method of saving money, in any walk of life, is to order all of your supplies in bulk. Of course, this doesn’t apply to any supplies which are time-sensitive or have short lifespans, but for anything else you should be able to secure a lower price when ordering many at once.