The laboratory is considered one of the most important locations for the education of early-career analytical scientists. It stimulates their scientific interests, trains them in observation, and provides them with the knowledge needed to conduct scientific research (1). It’s also a place of discovery, where scientists work to address some of the world’s most pressing problems.
In many ways, the laboratory is an intricately woven square in the patchwork quilt of scientific innovation. Without that square, an integral piece is missing, and the quilt produced is misshapen.
Analytical science is a growing field–there are more than 80,000 analytical chemists working in the United States and a projected growth rate of 6% through 2028 (2). As the field grows, laboratory work is only slated to become more important.
Spectroscopy and LCGC International recently launched a series called “Inside the Laboratory,” which profiles research groups at universities around the world. In these laboratories, the next generation of analytical scientists learn and develop the skills necessary to advance medicine, environmental analysis, and more. But while these stories provide a profile of the laboratory of today, it’s also important to take a step back and appreciate how the laboratory got to be what it is now, and where it is going.
The laboratory has been around since the late sixteenth century when alchemy, the medieval predecessor to modern chemistry, was a popular discipline (3). As the field evolved, so did the laboratory–becoming a place for distilling liquids and speeding up chemical reactions (3). Alchemy was a contentious brand of science, and the transition from alchemy to chemistry gave the laboratory more credibility for the type of work being conducted (3).
Initially, an alchemical workshop was comprised of several types of equipment. On a general level, alchemical workshops contained a furnace, an apparatus for distillation, and a form of heating (3). However, there was no standard setup for a chemical laboratory. Until the mid-twentieth century, chemical experiments were carried out wherever there was space, such as a garden shed or a kitchen (3).
As knowledge in this space grew, it became more apparent that these settings were not designed to handle scientific experimentation, especially as the nature of the experiments grew in complexity (3). Workers in the German metal industry were the first to begin development of the setup of a rudimentary laboratory (3). Adjustments to the laboratory setup were made as new gases and equipment were discovered and created.
The birthplace of the modern chemical laboratory emerged in the 1800s. In the 1860s, German universities resigned their chemical laboratories to affix them with wooden benches with bottle racks above them and cabinets underneath them for storage (3). Ventilation was made a priority in this new design, as well as a drainage system for the liquid waste to be transported to the main sewage (3). Because the university system adopted this setup for a chemical laboratory, it slowly transitioned into a place where more people became key components to the functioning of the laboratory, and a social hierarchical system was established (3). This hierarchy is close to what we see today as laboratories pursue their scientific interests.
Apart from pursuing interests of scientific inquiry, the laboratory provides several other vital functions for human development. Shulman and Tamir, in the Second Handbook of Research on Teaching, talk about five objectives that the laboratory accomplishes, which are as follows: skills; concepts; cognitive abilities; understanding the nature of science; and attitudes (4). Modern laboratories are often focused on a specific function, whether it is an industrial or a school laboratory (3).
The laboratory is, in many cases, the place where knowledge gets passed to the next generation of scientists. The laboratory plays an important role in knowledge exchange for analytical chemists, starting in high school chemistry class, all the way to doctorate candidates and beyond.
Kevin Schug, professor at the University of Texas, Arlington, wrote in a LCGC Blog about his experience as a Fulbright–Palacky Distinguished Scholar, and how he feels it’s his responsibility, and the responsibility of scientists everywhere, to “pay it forward” to the next generation (5).
“I am pleased, personally and professionally, to have this experience and honor, but I am most excited to be able to pay forward some of what I have learned over the years,” he wrote (5).
Scientific collaborations are where the abovementioned five objectives of the laboratory are applied and nurtured (1). We see important skills such as interpersonal communication and an investigative mindset being developed (4). We also see how researchers use and develop their cognitive abilities to think through complex, scientific problems and implement solutions to simplify them for other researchers (4).
Modern analytical scientists are more connected with one another than ever before. Thanks mostly to social media and the Internet. For example, social media helps Laura-Isobel McCall, an associate professor of chemistry at San Diego State University, stay up to date on the latest trends in her research, which is focused on analyzing the microbiome and improving human health.
“Social media is also good to hear what other colleagues find most exciting,” McCall said (6). “In metabolomics, data handling and data processing are some of the biggest challenges, so I’m always excited to read about new data analysis techniques.”
Current laboratory managers discuss the importance of staying up to date on the latest studies in the field. Zhibo Yang, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma, spoke about how staying up to date not only means reading about recent studies, but also keeping an eye on the news, particularly when it comes to manufacturers releasing the latest instrumentation.
“We try to learn most recent studies by reading relevant articles in journals and attending conferences,” Yang said (7). “We also pay particular attention to news from manufactures, who develop and release the most recent instruments and advanced techniques.”
McCall added that there are several tools that exist for researchers to help make the process Yang describes easier.
“I have PubMed and Google Scholar alerts for all the different topics I work on, and citation alerts for key papers in the field,” McCall said (6).
Interacting with other colleagues will remain integral for the advancement of analytical techniques and instrumentation. John Cottle, PhD, a professor of geology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, emphasized this point.
“We are lucky to have a large number of researchers visit our facility to collect data, so we are continually exposed to a wide variety of new ideas,” Cottle said (8). “Our visitors often challenge us to further improve our instrumentation and techniques to make ever more complex and difficult measurements.”
The laboratory will remain important to scientific advancement for years to come. The value the laboratory brings not only in terms of scientific advancement, but in regard to human development, is significant. The goal of the “Inside the Laboratory” series is to extrapolate the value that laboratory work brings to society.
But more change to the laboratory is forthcoming. The artificial intelligence (AI) evolution we are witnessing will lead to some significant changes to laboratory operations, especially when it comes to data collection. AI applications are currently being utilized to ease the workload of personnel by automating manual tasks like data collection, providing accurate data for the scientists to extrapolate (9). AI also has capabilities in image analysis, enabling scientists to acquire information from slide images that traditional equipment cannot accomplish (9).
Despite the several benefits AI offers, there are concerns and challenges that it brings to the laboratory. One of these challenges is that any AI-based algorithms used in the laboratory are trained using unbiased data (9). There is also concern that AI will result in job displacement for some analytical chemists (9). To remain ahead of the curve, analytical scientists are going to have to view AI applications as tools rather than as a competitor to enhance their skills and capabilities (9). This, in turn, should increase operation efficiency and improved resource management (9). As a result, it is important that analytical scientists find a way to use AI in their work that is mutually beneficial for them and for their group.