A Visit to the Laboratory of Biologist [B.CI.0]
who was conducting an experiment with caterpillars

3:30-5:30pm, November 17, 2004


The Experiment

I visited Gilbert Hall to observe an experiment that B.CI.0 (letís call her Sandy) and the lab technician (letís call him Jack) were conducting.  Sandy is looking at how caterpillars grew differently based on the controlled experiment she ran over the summer at RMBL (Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory). 


The Lab Notebook

As my research is headed toward an augmented laboratory notebook, I wanted to ask her some questions about how she used her notebook.  In the end, I didnít get to ask her as many questions as I had hoped (as she was quite busy w/ the experiment) but I learned much from observation and by interrupting and asking them questions.

               Sandy believes that her lab notebook is one of her best ways of learning her trade (the procedures, concepts, etc).  She learns by writing and copying notes into her notebook.  Sometimes, she will copy pages out of her advisorís (letís call him Prof. Winston) notebook and paste them into her own notebook.  Biologists are very careful about who they lend their notebooks too (and to be truthful, it seems very rare that a biologist will lend their notebook to anybody, as it contains such precious work).  In this case, Prof Winston copied the necessary pages and handed it to Sandy.

               While Jack read off the gels, Sandy would write them down onto a sheet of paper that would later be copied by hand (or pasted, alternatively) into her lab notebook.  This portable sheet of paper was a little crumpled, as it has gotten soggy by touching the water on the lab bench.  Sandyís ink is smudged at several places, but still readable by the human eye.  We later tested this interaction with Anoto paper, with surprisingly good results. 


Summary:  The notebook serves as a way to offload cognition, but also as a way to learn.  Writing into the notebook is a way to internalize the procedures and details needed for working in the lab.


The Lab Technician

Jack, the lab technician, graduated last year with his Stanford Masters in Biology, through the coterm program.  He pointed me to Bruno Latourís work (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruno_Latour), on how he studied science as a process, as a machine from which results were created.

Jackís role on the day I visited was to be there to give advice to Sandy while she completed her experiments.  This was Sandyís first time performing this procedure, so she felt it would be helpful to have the technician around.  Several times, she would have trouble recalling the prescribed amount of liquid to add, or which next step to take, so she would verify her intention by asking Jack.


Lab Notebook as a Reference Tool
Sandy refers to her notebook several times during the experiment.  She will look up specific numbers that pertain to the current step, as a check on her memory. 


Cooperative Reasoning
Later on in the experiment, when Sandy has to read off the gels (from electrophoresis, the process by which they analyze the compounds present in the caterpillars), she and Jack work cooperatively, feeding off each otherís expertise.  They explain to each other how they would read the gel, why they would make a decision over another.  For example, one gel band looked like it was expressing genotype 3/5 (to Sandy), but Jack thought it was a 2/4 genotype.  This ambiguity resulted from where you considered the baseline.  To resolve this problem, they invited a professor who happened to be in the lab at the time.  The professor came by, explained her reasoning, and the two agreed to follow her lead.


An Environment Unfit for Fragile Technology?

At one point, the professor who was walking in and out dropped a handful of test tubes.  They didnít break because she was taking them out from a drawer pretty close to the ground.  At another time, Jack broke a glass plate that was used to cut the gel.  He disposed of it in the trash.  Does this mean that this laboratory environment is too ďharshĒ for technology?  Probably not, as technology gets cheaper, and Tablet PCs become ubiquitous (in Weiserís sense), then biologists would not worry about technology in the lab, and could throw away a Tablet PC as easily as the glass plate.


Summary:  But for now, we should stick with paper, as it is much more robust than a Tablet computer.



Audio Transcript