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Solving the Problem of Disappearing Science Lab Technicians

One of the hardest issues university researchers face today is the lack of funding for lab technicians. Although it’s frustrating that universities are no longer able to support this type of personnel, can technology close the gap? This is a question we’ve tried to answer in our Desert FMP project in collaboration with BYU.

lab technicians

Source: Job listings for Science Lab Technicians have decreased 38% from March 2013-March 2014

I was talking to my colleague, Rick Gill, several weeks ago, and he had this to say about the disappearance of the previously indispensable lab technician: “We have fewer people in the lab, and the people we have are more expensive. We need to be deliberate in how we use their time. If we can make the entire system more efficient using technology, we’ll use the people we have in a way that is meaningful. In ecology right now, one of the things that we’re beginning to recognize is that the typical process where the lab tech would go out and take ten samples and average them is not what’s interesting. What’s interesting is when it’s been dry for four weeks, and you get a big rain event. This is because the average for four weeks is really low for almost all processes, but the data three days after it rains swamps the previous four weeks. So the average condition means almost nothing in terms of the processes we’re studying for global change. We need technology to take the place of the technician who would be monitoring the weather and trying to guess when the big events will occur.”

To capture these pulses in the Desert FMP project, we’re using a continuous monitoring system that communicates feedback directly to us as the principal investigators. Using advanced analysis techniques, we can painlessly assure that data are being collected properly and important events are never missed. Although we don’t have a technician, the goals of the project are still being met.

What do you think? How have you dealt with the disappearance of the lab tech?

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