Laboratory (Wo)Men of LaMancha?

Jun 04, 2013

It’s hard to count the number of people who have told The Lab Man about the need for data standards in the domain of cellular imaging analysis.  The call for standards is a lot like someone saying “there ought to be a law…” – easy to say, much harder to make happen.  And often with laws, if one digs a bit, one finds that a relevant law may already be on the books.  It may need some tweaking to apply to the current situation, but starting with something that exists is so much easier.  Still, one must be prepared for years of detailed work, committee meetings and politicking to adapt an existing law, much less start from scratch.  One must channel an inner Don Quixote to follow the quest “no matter how hopeless, no matter how far.”  

The same is true of laboratory standards.  Many standards come about because they are derived from the work of an industry heavyweight.  The USB (Universal Serial Bus) standard most of you take advantage of every day (PC keyboard, printer, mouse, mobile device, etc.) was originally championed by Intel and a team led by Intel engineer Ajay Bhatt.  So it was largely “adopted” from the get-go.  In the laboratory technology world, we don’t have massive market share heavyweights like Intel or Microsoft who can essentially “declare” a standard and watch everyone fall into line.  In cases where laboratory vendors have proposed their work to become a standard, (e.g. Beckman SILAS Integration Software) that suggestion usually does not gather support from the rest of the vendor community.  Nor – very importantly – does it generally gather a groundswell of support from the laboratory technology-using community.  So basically everyone continues on their own path.  A standard is not a standard if organizations don’t adopt it. 

Occasionally an intrepid and dedicated group of technology users build support for a standard from the grassroots upward.  This is how the ANSI/SLAS Microplate Standards came about – noting that the effort took eight years and exhausted many volunteers.  A similar grassroots effort has been underway for 10+ years focused on the storing and sharing of experimental laboratory data which bears notice among those beating the drum for cellular imaging data standards.  This is AnIML – The Analytical Information Markup Language. 

While the AnIML effort has been focused on analytical chemistry data (spectroscopy and separations), the core concept of a generic data container can apply (at least in theory) to many different types of experimental data – including potentially cellular assay data.  The AnIML working group has been collaborating with ASTM International (formerly American Society for Testing and Materials) Committee E13.15, which is charged with development and implementation of standards relevant to analytical instrument data.  What that means is that the AnIML group has been working from within an accepted and recognized framework for developing international standards.  It’s slow and tedious but it’s the way to get these things done. 

I should also mention, in fairness, the SiLA group which is focused on laboratory integration standards, including one branch which is focused on Data Capture.  

So, you many ask, why doesn’t SLAS get involved in pushing specific standards with these groups.  The answer is that the push must come from you – individual laboratory scientists/technologists.  Note that the AnIML working group is made up of ordinary people like you – specifically individuals who work at NIST, GSK, BSSN Software, Waters, and the University of North Florida.  SLAS can and does get such standards-minded people together each year at the Standards Initiatives Special Interest Group meeting at our Annual Conference.  SLAS also hosts a Standards Initiatives SIG LinkedIn Group.  If you are passionate about the need for cellular assay data standards, then attend this SIG meeting or speak up on the LinkedIn discussion group.  Meet the people who are already working on standards.  Learn from their experience and explore the adaptability of what they’re doing to fit your needs.  Champion your cause.  Get involved (for the long haul)!  That’s the only way standards happen.  And if you decide to serve on a standards committee, remember the lyrics from Man of La Mancha – “That one man, scorned and covered with scars, Still strove, with his last ounce of courage, To reach ... the unreachable star ..”

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Until Next Time,

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto!


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