Science with Smartphones

Following my post on 12 Must-have iPhone Apps for Biomedical Research, I was interviewed by the Principal Investigators Association about smartphones in the lab. My comments were included in a recently published article in the Principal Investigators Association monthly newsletter, the Principal Investigator Advisor.

Since access requires a subscription, I’ve reposted the article “Smartphones in the Laboratory: Examining the Pros and Cons” from the October 2010 edition of the Principal investigator Advisor.

Smartphones in the Laboratory: Examining the Pros and Cons

Researchers Weigh In on Both Sides

The jury is still out on whether smartphones will revolutionize how principal investigators carry out their scientific research or have a lesser impact, but the ubiquitous mobile devices do have many science-related applications that some PIs are finding useful, while other PIs cite disadvantages and are reluctant to embrace them.

A smartphone is a wireless mobile phone with built-in applications (cameras, MP3 players, etc.), Internet access and other features that transform it into a “mobile computer.” It’s also a mobile platform for “apps,” or application software that can be accessed free in some cases or purchased from online app stores for literally hundreds of purposes — from merely playing games or checking the weather to referencing science journals or calculating chemical solutions.

Smartphones are viewed by some PIs, by smartphone manufacturers/distributors and by app developers as tools for gathering, storing, and accessing data and reference information and for an array of utilities in the lab and field research.

Because they are mobile, users can access, input, and, in some cases, analyze information and data anywhere, anytime — at the lab bench, in the field, or at home. That is, if your smartphone is charged, your battery is functioning, your phone has sufficient capability to access and store information, the “bugs” have been eliminated from the specific app you’re using, and if the app is from a credible source — making the entire experience user-friendly.

The number of PIs currently using smartphones for their work isn’t known. Whether PIs will follow the public’s obsession with them (23 percent of American mobile-phone consumers own a smartphone, one survey says) is still anyone’s guess.

Improved lab productivity?

Smartphones

Kelly Services Inc.’s 2009 Global Workforce Index found that 50 percent of 3,000 surveyed individuals working in the science industry worldwide believe that mobile technologies make their productivity “much better,” with 30 percent reporting “slightly better” productivity. And, 72 percent say that staying connected with the workplace is a positive development.

One possible downside: 29 percent said having mobile communication with work translates to longer working hours.

William Gunn, academic community liaison for Mendeley of London, developer of academic reference management software Mendeley (desktop/laptop) and Mendeley Lite (smartphone), believes PIs are “probably a little ahead of the population in terms of uptake” of smartphones and apps.

A positive he sees for PIs: “Smartphones provide access to your research library and lab instrumentation from anywhere and give field researchers ready access to communication networks and computing power.”

A ‘distraction’ for some

But, Denis English, PhD, professor of neurosurgery at University of South Florida’s College of Medicine in Tampa, says smartphones don’t have a place in his lab, where he supervises four student technicians.

“Smartphones are a distraction,” he says. “Technicians can pretend they’re using a phone calculator when they’re really texting.”

Another cautionary issue for English is the potential release of proprietary lab information from smartphones, particularly with so much competition in research.

Useful for bench tasks

Walter Jessen, PhD, computational biologist at Covance’s Biomarker Center of Excellence and founder/CEO of Highlight HEALTH of Indianapolis, says smartphones can be useful in the lab. He has significant lab experience and recently published “12 Must-Have iPhone Apps for Biomedical Research” on his Web site/blog, Expressing Scientific Insight (www.walterjessen.com).

“As more researchers use technology, we’ll start to see more apps targeted for specific lab or bench tasks,” says Jessen, who uses an iPhone 4.

“Smartphones provide a way for lab scientists to access the Web or perform tasks that used to require leaving the bench and finding a computer, so I see reference as the principal utility of the smartphone,” Jessen adds. “A close second would be productivity, since you can access e-mail, calendar, to-do lists, or productivity apps.”

Security issue

Regarding security, PIs need to view smartphones as smaller versions of laptops.

“Think twice about hitting, ‘Send,’” Jessen says. “Watch which Web sites you visit, don’t leave your phone laying around, and always use a pass-code with auto-lock.”

Jessen doesn’t envision smartphones replacing computers and paper in the lab. Mobile readers, such as iPad, he predicts, will likely become more ubiquitous. That’s because these e-readers have larger screens and onscreen or external keyboards, “instead of typing with your thumbs” on a smartphone, he says.

Given the recent explosion of available apps, PIs can search for reference, productivity, or utility apps online simply by searching under the term for what they want. For example, utility and productivity apps include lab calculators, timers, enzyme finders, gene indexes, and video/visual educational apps, to name a few. A simple search for any of those will yield many.

Journals offer free or, more typically, subscriber-only access to content via apps. Government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) offer, usually free, information and tools on their sites via apps.

Not all apps are created equal. Locating a useful one can be frustrating or fun, depending on how tech-savvy you are and how much time you have. Or, you can choose to use an online app locator. To find one, just search for “(name of your smartphone) app locator.”

Unless you’ve gotten a recommendation, tried out an app, or read a glowing review of one, you’ll be surfing through a mountain of information at app stores.

App selection depends on the type of smartphone you have, the discipline you’re working in, and other variables.

You can find many app lists and reviews created by bloggers, developers, and publications online. Some apps are available at multiple app stores, including Apple App Store (iTunes), BlackBerry App World, Microsoft Windows Mobile Phone Market and Android Apps Market, directly from app developers, and from open-source sites. Some apps are developed exclusively for specific smartphones, like the Blackberry or iPhone; others are universal. Some apps work only on specific versions of smartphones — the iPhone4 for example.

Smartphone science apps

“Smartphones in the Laboratory: Examining the Pros and Cons” was reprinted with permission from the October 2010 edition of the Principal investigator Advisor.

Walter Jessen is a digital strategist, writer, web developer and data scientist. You can typically find him behind the screen something with an internet connection.