Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why does push-button science push my buttons?

We just did some single cell RNA-seq using the Fluidigm C1 machine. Seems fancy, right? Sequencing from a single cell? Actually, it was remarkably simple. We just put some cells in a tube and squirted them into a chip, put the chip in a machine, and said go. Okay, maybe a little more than that, but not much. For a while, something about this really irked me about this, and I’ve been trying to get to the root of that feeling. Here’s what I realized about myself.

We, like many others in imaging, do artisanal experiments. Our experiments take patience and some degree of debugging and know-how, and getting a good data set still requires some amount of care and attention. Although we have automated much of our workflow, we most definitely do not have a platform. And the fact is that I like it that way. I take pride in high quality data, in experiments that not everyone can do, crafted by hand by highly skilled experimentalists. I love knowing the ins and outs of all the little details that go into interpreting an image, in figuring out what may have gone wrong and how best to fix it. And maybe I’m all wrong for feeling this way.

In the end, isn’t it a good thing if experimental methods are commoditized, made robust and broadly available? If it’s so easy to do something that anyone can do it? That we are freed to spend more time thinking about science and less time mindlessly pipetting clear liquids from one tube to the next?

I think a part of what bothers me is fear. It’s like I’m a scientific luddite, scared that there will not be a place for our type of work in the future. It’s a fear that’s probably largely misplaced (I hope). Of course, one issue with these push-button machines is that the big, fancy labs typically have access to them well before anyone else, and so they get their big, fancy papers out first. But those papers generally tend to be just about the least imaginative and most obvious thing you can do with this tech, as though at the end of the run, somebody pushed the next button over labeled “Write paper”. Our job is to think of something clever to do with these new capabilities and use it to enhance our existing strengths. In that way, the more things change, the more things remain the same.

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