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Lessons Learned from COVID, Remote Working, and the Future of Analytical Data Access

by Andrew Anderson, VP of Innovation & Informatics Strategy

I’m going on 14 months of working exclusively from home. I’ve been very fortunate that the 18 years preceding the pandemic prepared me for working from home for such a long stretch. Aside from my time at PepsiCo offices in New York, I’ve worked from my home office since 2002. While home office productivity is probably better for another blog entry (and probably another author!), I did think that sharing some of my non-work coping activities would be illustrative, as it leads to some relevant ideas, for Analytical Chemists now challenged with getting work done with less access to their laboratories. In summary, how do we remotely collaborate for all things related to “methods of analysis?”

COVID-Blog-D2

To combat the isolation fatigue, after years of collecting dust, I picked up my acoustic guitar. For the last 13 months, I’ve been re-learning how to play. If anything, my two dogs seem to appreciate the at-times off-key strumming and singing!

Since my return to the music world, I’ve also wanted to learn more about the musicians I admire. Ornette Coleman, in particular, has always piqued my interest in his approach to music. While appreciating some of Coleman’s catalogue is known to be an acquired skill, what I recently discovered was his Pulitzer prize award in 2007 for the album, Sound Grammar. I quote from the Album Notes:

"Talking is the universal method of words that form the language of people. It is also the creator of thoughts and ideas. Languages identify the position of said birthplace and its citizen. Sound stimulates the newborn baby and could cause the infant to cry. Sound itself is used in endless forms of communication. Sound is neither masculine nor feminine yet the worldwide use of it is based on the order of human culture. Sounds found in the expression of music, vocal and instrumental, are the global styles or forms such as jazz, opera, country, classical and other musical genres, all equal in the concept of ideas. Sound has a specific meaning when used in different dialects. The culture of civilization when expressed in different tongues identifies the differences. The conclusion is that the Grammar of Sound is universal."

So, while Coleman’s particular use of sound leads to communication, and ultimately to music, the quote itself got me thinking about scientific grammar, proximity, and communication. Yes, we can now communicate pretty well with other humans—colleagues, friends, and family. We can even broadcast our respective screens and show more complex symbols visually. In the analytical world, the ability to show complex visualizations that represent instrumental methods of analysis, is certainly possible—our Application Scientists use Zoom and Team’s “share screen” mode as their Lingua Franca for at least the past year.

But is that good enough? Are local systems, whose user interfaces can be shared on screen, enough to facilitate effective scientific collaboration? My short answer to those two questions is “no,” because the method of communication requires human operators to assemble the visual, describe the visual and listen for feedback from their audience. What we’ve been building here at ACD/Labs are interfaces that allow for the audience themselves to self-create their own views and intuitive displays of analytical knowledge straight from lightweight, browser based applications. Some examples:

Image001Spectrus JS is an application for handling NMR data. Users can process, interpret, and report 1D and 2D NMR through a thin client interface.

Image007Katalyst D2D offers a single interface for high throughput experimentation—automated planning, execution, and analysis in the user’s browser of choice.

In order for these interfaces to work, systems must automatically marshal and contextualize data from the original source. Our innovation and development teams are working in this space as well!

So, after 14 months of a pandemic, I think that more collaborative interfaces are necessary, even after we’re able to travel again. The future of work, in my opinion, will change as a result of finding efficient means to collaborate. I hope that no-one, ever again, will have to visit the analytical lab just to access data. At ACD/Labs, we want to build the tools that make that post-pandemic future a reality.

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