Open Science in the Undergraduate Laboratory: Could this be the success story we’re looking for?
A whole series of things have converged in the last couple of days for me. First was Jean-Claude’s description of the work [1, 2] he and Brent Friesen of the Dominican University are doing putting the combi-Ugi project into an undergraduate laboratory setting. The students will make new compounds which will then be sent for testing as antimalarial agents by Phil Rosenthal at UCSF. This is a great story and a testament in particular to Brent’s work to make the laboratory practical more relevant and exciting for his students.
[…] I discussed the idea of blog-labbooks with my student/PDRAs on the way back and we were all keen to trial your stuff. I have also taken the liberty of talking to a couple of my colleagues over morning tea, and they were also very interested in the project and the idea of open science – I expect when a couple of my other colleagues are back next week they will also be keen.
We thought it might be particularly valuable as a teaching resource in the first instance – ie making the undergrads use it as [CN – my emphasis] 1. it is more like the technology they are used to and 2. transparancy might improve the quality of their record keeping. It may come in very handy for undergrad practicals even, because it will be obvious to anyone who has copied each other. So I’m sure we could provide you with more than enough trouble shooting and commentary on the practice of open science to support your thesis that it is better for all ;)
I think this is emerging as a theme. If we can get these systems into the undergraduate laboratory we can do two things. We can help to engage the students by providing tools that, to them, may seem more relevant to their everyday lives. We can improve the educational experience by using the social networking and commenting tools available to help the students learn from each other. Perhaps most exciting, if as Jean-Claude and Brent are doing this is embedded in a real science project, particularly one with clear social significance, the students will be directly involved with the science. We talk a lot about ‘research led teaching’ in the UK but I’ve seen little evidence of people really doing it. Here is a real chance to make that happen, and because it’s Open Notebook Science they will be able to track the results from their own computers, at home, perhaps even while uploading the results to their facebook page (all right maybe not…).
But let’s think bigger again. What if it were possible to spread this out globally, using a coherent information tracking system. Chemistry undergraduates all over the world could be making thousands of characterised drug like molecules. Perhaps the screening could be done in undergraduate biochemistry laboratories with well defined screening assays for a wide range of targets: malaria, cancer cell lines, S. aureus, HIV protease. You could expand this into physical chemistry/biophysics with undergraduates looking at docking of the new or proposed compounds against the available targets. A global programme could link all of this together generating a massive library of compounds screened against a wide range of targets.
And all of this would be open. Deepak asked the question the other day, ‘What if the result of every docking result was published online?‘ and I have previously imagined a ‘Genbank of SAR data‘. A programme like this could actually provide the impetus for such repositories, while simultaneously adding value with characterisation data for new compounds to existing initiatives like ChemSpider. Whether or not we actually found hits the SAR data would be immensely valuable for future data mining. Whether or not the SAR was useful to impetus towards building these databases would be immensely valuable.
So – what about the challenges. Converting research chemistry into undergraduate labs is not straightforward. Jean-Claude’s Ugi reactions are a particularly good example for this because you can just mix three compounds in methanol and in many cases the product precipitates. But even here it’s not trivial – one component is usually smelly; the compounds may not dissolve in methanol; the product may not precipitate. Getting the fundamentals of a particular reaction right will take person hours and quite a lot of them. In UK language this could be done with a final year undergraduate project student to get one type of reaction working in a three to six month project.
Screening can be just as hard. The reactions are not necessarily straightforward, the reagents (and positive and negative controls) can be expensive, and the equipment required to do it efficiently may not be available. But again many reasonably straightforward assays are available, and the rest just require time, expertise, and money. This could be tracked down from a range of sources.
So, resources are required which really means money. Which is where the third co-incidental strand comes in. Via Pawel Szczesny on FriendFeed I got a link to the following post about a call from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. The problem with this call is that it really needs a drug resistance angle to fly and while that is possible it complicates the whole idea significantly. But between the B&MG foundation, Google, and others all looking for projects that are both socially significant, make them look good, and co-incidentally generate lots of data in the health arena that they can process, this ought to be fundable. In particular this looks to me like a great fit for Google. For us, it’s great education, great publicity, great science, and it demonstrates the benefits of openness.
A small scale project funding a development round for 12 months to try and sort out appropriate reactions and assays, while trying to agree and implement a data framework that will work for us would probably cost around $200-300k total costs. This would be followed by a larger scale implementation phase, heading towards a few million probably, as it gets rolled out. As it embeds in the education system the costs would probably drop over time to eventually be absorbed in the programme costs.
What do people think?
Further Reading: Jean-Claude’s proposal on ‘Crowdsourcing Chemistry‘