Beyond Gutenberg

Bringing the lab notebook into the 21st century

Technology has propelled biomedical research in recent years. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, supercomputers and other tools have allowed scientists to count genes, parse molecules and unfold proteins. But most investigators still keep track of their work with pre-Gutenberg technology—by writing in a paper notebook.

"It's not very efficient," says Hung-Sen (Jack) Lai, research assistant professor of biochemistry. "You have to count too much on memory, and good ideas can be lost."

So over the last three years, working after-hours, Lai created CalenTrack, a highly interactive, web-based program. He uses it to track the 300 to 400 compounds under investigation by Triad, a drug development company started by William Bachovchin, professor of biochemistry. Lai, a chemist, serves as Triad's director of chemistry.

'Like a lab meeting'
Triad, Bachovchin says, is "designing and characterizing new classes of low molecular weight, orally active inhibitors for proteases." (Proteases are a large family of enzymes that break down proteins.) Triad and contracts from other pharmaceutical firms fund some of the research under way in Bachovchin's laboratories.

"CalenTrack is not a substitute for notebooks," says Lai. "Instead, it's an upload of data and a very brief summary, including the lab notebook page number. It's like a lab meeting."

In fact, lab meetings—once held daily or weekly for the seven researchers and chemists in the Bachovchin lab—now are only called occasionally.

Even without regular lab meetings, Bachovchin believes CalenTrack has helped increase communication. "Lab meetings now can serve a different function—more a time to brainstorm than to update each other."

And it certainly has helped in preparation of papers and grant proposals. "What mostly slips through the cracks is what we've actually learned from previous experiments," says Bachovchin. "If I had to go back and dig it out of notebooks, it would take an hour or two or more—time I could be using thinking."

Lai agrees. "Academic labs often lack efficiency. I can give out an idea and, without tracking, we forget about it. A lot of projects can just fade away."

Potential beyond the lab?
CalenTrack is not the first system Lai has developed to enhance laboratory work. While at Harvard, he helped create Scansite, a bioinformatics program that identifies and predicts protein phosphorylation sites. CalenTrack is also not the first computerized lab organization system, according to Bachovchin, but it is the most comprehensive he's seen.

It's exceptional, Lai says, because it compresses so many activities into one, flexible system. Besides tracking the daily progress of an investigation, CalenTrack also stores all computerized data, keeps account of hours spent on a project, codifies and simplifies laboratory inventory control, provides e-mail, calendars and notices, including occasional invitations to laboratory parties or, as happened on January 6, the birth of Lai's twin sons.

CalenTrack has potential for any business that handles complex projects requiring clear definition of completion, says Lai, including law, manufacturing or the construction business. On a pilot basis, for instance, Lai has loaned the program to a Cambridge-based pharmaceutical company that is using it to manage long distance a large outsourcing manufacturing project in India.

Electronic pat on the back
Lai has had only a little resistance to introducing CalenTrack in the laboratory. "Some academics feel offended," he says. "They say, 'We don't bill by the hour.' But keeping track of hours is good for the industrial side of our work." It's also good for a manager, such as Lai, who can easily account for the progress, expense and findings of every investigation; know who can take on the next investigation; and who is behind schedule.

But it also serves to "recognize people's hard work," notes Lai. "All completed projects are well documented and easy to retrieve with due credits to people." The program uses an award icon to note the number of completed projects each month, helping build individual as well as group pride.

He designed CalenTrack to be easy to access and use, and, through the use of colorful icons, a bit of fun, as well. Bachovchin says he is considering introducing it to the rest of his laboratory investigators, and the lab manager, Jo Zhou, has shown it to the department administrator.

Meanwhile, Lai continues to fine-tune the system, although he no longer puts in the four hours a night he was spending on it during its developmental days. Instead he's more likely to be feeding a baby in the evening than sitting at the computer.

Any Tufts investigator interested in trying out CalenTrack, may contact Jack Lai at (617) 636-2443 or e-mail