Sunday, 9 February 2014

Work Flow Diagrams as an aid to planning

If you set out to bake a loaf of bread, go on a holiday, get ready to run a marathon or revise for an examination, there is always an element of planning and organisation involved. The better prepared you are the more likely the outcome will be under your control. So if you are travelling to the USA for the first time, you will need to organise tickets, a passport, a visa, dollars or some form of credit card, accommodation, onward travel and possibly arrange tickets for the opera etc. If you want to travel to the USA at short notice, then there are a number of consequences. Without a passport, you will be unable to travel at all, unless you organise a 1 day passport, but for normal passport applications, this may take between 2-8 weeks. You will need a visa, but if you have internet access and online credit you can organise this the day before. As you can see, some things require planning and organisation. 

Last week, we decided to repeat the bio-prospecting experiment using your plant extracts, since the top agar plates were, in many cases, less than perfect, which made it very difficult to interpret your results. So, by repeating the experiment, hopefully this week we shall see an improved outcome. It was while we were starting the day in the lab, (the time I ask you all to discuss the day's lab work with your colleagues and come up with a plan), that I realised a Work Flow Diagram (WFD) might be the way to ensure you organise your experiment and in addition, provide you with a framework for noting down any observations as you go through the day's protocols. I was surprised to find that you all rushed into the experiment without any serious planning: this is a recipe for disaster!

I went through the general principles with a number of groups and realised that a Work Flow Diagram should form the first activity in the morning. As you know by now, I don't run the innovation labs like a structured class practical, in which all reagents and solutions are provided, rather you have to plan your experiment and obtain the materials. To help you with this we shall make use of the WFD in every lab session and it must be approved before you get started.

What should a good WFD look like? The diagram should include a brief title, the overall aim of the experiment(s), the sequence of steps which should include any key pre-incubations (e.g. pre-heating agar plates, thawing frozen samples, preparing fresh reagents, ensuring you have tubes ready for aliquoting samples etc.) You might construct a Table to help you organise the composition of multi-component assay mixtures (where appropriate), and you might work out the dilutions of samples in order to ensure the data that emerge cover the appropriate numerical range. 

I am keen for you to develop a style of your own, but as you will appreciate, a typical WFD will have some common features and some specific features that relate to the experiment and the materials. There should also be space on the WFD for noting observations, which may include suggestions for improvements, or steps that can be eliminated etc. It should be a live document! I will be asking you to produce a WFD in all classes, so start thinking about the way you will approach this. We will then try and migrate the best ideas to an iPAD format, in collaboration with the Studio.

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