Back to the Future

Our next post for British Science Week 2021 is from Dr. Alex Ball of the Natural History Museum. His post focuses on the challenges and opportunities presented by a move to provide remote access to laboratory equipment during lockdown.

In the (almost) 30 years since I joined the NHM as a PhD student, the one constant has been that the electron microscope labs were a resource that you had to book in advance and physically turn up to use your session on the microscopes. SEM sessions were typically a half day at a time before you had to give up the microscope to the next user, or perhaps you’d get lucky and were able to work on until the end of the day. The rules were simple, you could have two sessions booked in advance and you could book another session once the first session had started.

We worked like this to prevent users from block booking a microscope for days on end as everyone deserved an equal chance on the instruments.

As the equipment got more and more sophisticated and could be programmed, it was not unusual for users to set up programmed imaging or analysis sessions to run overnight, or even over the whole weekend if enough samples could be loaded and programmed in advance.

A very few, experienced users were authorised to work late and even to come in at weekends, under the proviso that if anything went wrong, they had to follow their training, switch the instrument to a safe mode, let the staff know what had happened and then go home.

Then in March everything changed.

With just a few days’ notice, the Imaging and Analysis Core Research Laboratory (IAC) staff had to place the whole laboratories into some sort of safe mode, shut down instruments where possible and arrange to leave the labs, for weeks, months, who knew? Instruments that had never been shut down for more than two days were suddenly idle. Would they restart? Could they be reanimated? No-one knew.

A few staff came in one or two days a week to check for problems and to ensure that all was well, but apart from that, the corridors were dark and silent. The scene more like a science fiction horror movie set than the bright and lively place we were used to.

©  Trustees of the Natural History Museum

When we finally returned, a few at a time, we had the mammoth task of restarting all the instruments, testing and recalibrating, booking in missed service visits, fixing stuff that had failed and then figuring out how to make all of this kit accessible again.

Throughout lock-down we’d been attending remote conferences and the question everyone was asking was “How do we get back to work safely?” The community spirit in those meetings was really encouraging. The first meeting I attended included participants from all over the world, including the USA, Portugal, France, Germany and Australia to name a few. Solutions came thick and fast, so we weren’t having to go it alone, we could ask each other for advice and for help.

For the Electron Microscopy unit, this gave us the confidence to try something we had never allowed in the past and in fact had not even really contemplated: remote access to the instruments. Starting from what we’d learned and discussed with other labs and with the NHM’s IT team, we set up the instruments to allow remote desktop access and then set to work testing and practising.  First from one computer to another in the same room, then from an office to the SEM (scanning electron microscope) within the lab and then finally with one staff member at home and another providing support in the lab.

At each stage we documented our findings, worked out safe ways to work and moved on. As soon as the financial accounts reopened we ordered new sample holders, so that instead of loading six or eight samples, we could load 25 or 50. We were no longer planning to confine users to half a day, but contemplating sessions lasting 2 days or more.

Finally, after about two weeks, when we felt that we’d completed enough testing, we started to reach out to the users. We had our priority user list provided by Science Group and so we set about contacting them, scheduling training, acquiring samples, or planning for samples to be prepared. We trained a few of them to safely use an instrument from their home office, how to control a microscope which was normally controlled with two joysticks and a complex control panel with just the mouse and keyboard they had. We simplified the user interfaces so that instead of two screens, they only needed one.

Samples get dropped off in the IAC corridor, or are collected from offices and are quarantined for a few days, photographed and then put aside until needed, or sent across to the newly reopened mineral prep labs for preparation.

Every case seemed to be different. What was the minimum network speed required to control the microscope, move the sample and focus the image? How did we control two different computers from a single laptop so that we could operate both the SEM and the EDX system? How did we accommodate Apple users? Could we allow external users remote access to the instruments?

For the past few weeks, we’ve been reinventing the labs. It’s clear that the relationship between the users and the staff has changed. Remote training has proven to be surprisingly easy, provided the network connection is good and Teams or Windows Remote Assistance is playing nicely. On the flipside, when things go wrong, it can take days for us to find the solution.

We are finding users can fit their instrument sessions in around their lives in lockdown, so being able to load one to two days’ worth or samples is a huge advantage. Not everything works and patience is required, but we’ve found that it’s just about possible for us to supervise two or three users.

Our users are also processing their data remotely. Not only have they been accessing the instruments, but they’ve been accessing the workstations remotely as well. The micro-CT lab led the way in this by opening up their workstations right from the beginning of the lock down. We also have to give the instrument suppliers credit for being so willing to work with us and advise us on how best to manage this and also for making some pretty expensive pieces of software available to home users right through to the end of September.

We have so few active users at present, but we feel just as busy. Meeting someone you haven’t seen for months in person is a shock, but also a welcome distraction. There are still people I am working with that I’ve never met, other than from the other side of a webcam and screen.

There’s a lot of work still to complete and I have a lot of concerns over how we are going to teach the next generation of microscope users. Some people I’ve worked with over these past two months haven’t even seen the instrument that they’ve now spent days using.

This new way of working is making me wonder what the future will be like. Will some of our visitors be able to access instruments remotely, so removing the need for them to come to the Museum at all? Could this usher in a new era of accessibility for those who would normally not have the money or opportunity to travel to the UK and to access these lab facilities?

What are the security implications for our instruments and network?

How do we get data to users, remember the files can be really large and how will they process them? What additional hardware do home users need to work effectively? At work I use two screens. At home I have the luxury of a decent sized screen, but many are working just from a laptop screen. Remote support for us has heavily relied on mobile phones, headsets and webcams. Teams, Whatsapp and even plain phone calls have all played a role in getting connected and supported.

There is a new initiative, “The Future Ways of Working” which will be looking into this for the future, but it’s clear that a lot of these solutions need to come sooner rather than later. For now, if users need access, we do our best to make it happen.

Restarting equipment left idle for months produced remarkably few problems. ©  Trustees of the Natural History Museum
Testing control interfaces and remote assistance options ©  Trustees of the Natural History Museum
The novelty value of being able to connect to any of the microscopes from my computer at home, at any time of day or night cannot be overestimated ©  Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Written by Dr Alex Ball of the Natural History Museum.

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