Monday, August 29, 2016

Waiting for data is the scariest part

Two years ago, in partnership with the iGEM foundation and some excellent colleagues, I ran the largest inter-laboratory study ever conducted in synthetic biology, in which forty-five teams participating to create an international baseline on fluorescent measurement, synthetic biology’s favorite debugging and reporting tool. Last year, we ran the world’s largest synthetic biology inter-laboratory study, in which eighty-five teams contributed to help figure out that the calls were coming from inside the house the most critical source of error in measuring fluorescence is problems using instruments and handling data.

DIY fluorimeter tested by Aix-Marseille 2015 interlab team

This year we’re once again running the world’s largest synthetic biology inter-laboratory study, this time with ninety-one teams, who are helping us test experimental protocols aimed at fixing the problem: we distributed calibration materials and calculation spreadsheets that should let everybody measure their systems in the same, directly comparable units.  This might not sound like a big deal, but imagine how confusing life would be if you measured with a ruler marked in centimeters while other people were using mils, rods, chains, furlongs, and leagues, but you didn’t know your markings were different.  The world of fluorescence is that bad and worse right now: last year, the numbers we received from different teams measuring the same genetic system varied by a factor of more than one trillion.  Given all that, it’s frankly remarkable how much precision the teams were able to achieve in the ratios between units.  If we can get everybody using centimeters (metaphorically), it should let things become much better still, since people will be able to compare experiments directly and figure out much earlier when something’s gone wrong in their experiment and needs to be debugged and redone.

Right now, though, the project is in the middle of its most scary and exciting phase.  The teams have got the protocol and the materials, and we’ve debugged as much as we could of problems in its design (next year: corrected spreadsheets, better tube stoppers, and a giant red warning sticker that says “Don’t freeze the LUDOX!”).  At this point, there is nothing much that I can do any more to positively affect the results of our experiment: just take the data from the teams as it arrives, process it, and stare in nervous excitement and concern at the evolving numbers.

Running the iGEM interlab is awesome and scary, a big responsibility: these folks are investing their time, resources, and trust in us as organizers of the study, and we have a responsibility not waste their time and to ensure that what we do is both good science and good education. So far it has gone well, and the preliminary results are looking good, but there’s a lot of data still out there being gathered and anything can happen.

I’m excited and scared, and I love these young people for making such a grand effort possible, for seizing the opportunity and understanding what an important thing this is and how much of a difference their work can make.  Some have run into obstacles and had to withdraw, or have turned in broken or patchy data, and I tell them how much their contribution matters too, because it tells us how things go wrong and what needs to be improved in order to get everybody good rulers for their work. Young men and women, in every corner of the world, all doing their part to contribute one more brick, small but significant, to the foundations of science and society.

I am honored to have the privilege to lead an effort like this, and I'll be on eggshells until we know how well it has succeeded.

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