When I was younger, I remember visiting a friend whose parents were talking about how their work environment was changing. Their office had only just started using a new form of inter-departmental messages, called e-mail, instead of sending handwritten notes through the intra-office mail. The consequence of this transition was that everyone was required to learn how to use a computer. It’s safe to say that the trend has since caught on.
Technology in the chemistry laboratory has transformed in its own ways. One example is the BC Integrated Laboratory Network (BC-ILN) project housed at Thompson Rivers University. The brainchild of Dr. Sharon Brewer and Dr. Bruno Cinel, BC-ILN is an analytical instrumentation laboratory connected to the Internet for real-time chemical analysis by remote scientists-in-training.
“We are providing access to high school, middle school, university, college, and distance-education students,” says Brewer. “The student user is not beside the instrument; they are at some other geographic location distant from it. Most often students are analyzing samples that they have prepared and shipped to us. Our role then becomes simply to place their samples in an autosampler at the designated time, turn over the instrument to the remote students, and facilitate their access.”
In addition to increasing the time-in-use of instrumentation, the design provides access to instrumentation that would normally be unheard of for a high school setting.
“Our goal when we began the BC-ILN was to provide access to analytical instrumentation where none exists,” Brewer explains.
The impact has been tangible. More than 5,000 chemical analyses have been conducted by remote learners. According to Cinel, the learning experience is spread across time and space. “Students acquire their lab skills in sample and standard preparation at their home institution, and then gain experience in instrument operation, chemical analysis, and data interpretation from the remote experience.”
Working in a lab I find I get to know my instrumentation. Seeing and controlling an instrument myself provides me with a connection to the data that does not happen when I am simply handed a spectrum or data file. Understanding the importance of this personal connection to the equipment, Cinel describes the extra measures they take to ensure students do not see data collection as a ‘black box’.
“We allow the student user to view the lab and the instrument by controlling a network camera in the lab room, as well as having an instructor present and communicating via Skype if requested.”
In the United States, the National Science Foundation has likewise supported research on remote laboratory experiences, such as Radioactivity iLab. This experiment permits American students to remotely control a Geiger counter. They measure the dependence of radioactive decay count on distance between source and counter using a Strontium-90 sample located in Australia.
Remote operation of instrumentation also has many applications outside of academia. Perhaps one of the best-known examples is NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. Brewer emphasizes that while remote laboratories may be uncommon in higher education, they already have a place in industry.
“Pharmaceutical companies in particular have been using remote operation for chemical analysis for many years to share instruments across locations.”
Cinel underscores the relationship between industry and instrumentation training.
“When you think about training opportunities on new instruments, using the actual software that is used industry-wide, and the efficiencies offered by sharing costly instruments, there are many opportunities for remote analysis that are transferrable outside our academic setting directly to industry.”
Collaborations between industry and universities could yield valuable efficiencies, with senior students remotely accessing the instruments and software they may use in a job after graduation.
E-mail began changing communication in business some 30 years ago, when people like my friends parents were on the front lines of change. I suspect that remote instrumentation will similarly play a larger role in the chemical sciences in the years to come. If a remote lab experience sounds interesting to you, Brewer and Cinel invite you to reach out and design a learning experience for your students using BC-ILN.