SLAM Theory and Design

SLAM (SQL-based Laboratory Asset Management) is a web-based application for digitally storing information on various research laboratory elements. By storing this data in a single, searchable location, lab members can keep track not only their own samples, but ensure continuity of documentation for those in the future.

Who SLAM was designed for

SLAM was designed to assist small to medium-sized research groups keep track of samples (“assets”) like glycerol stocks of cell strains, plasmid minipreps, primers, NMR samples, etc. All too often, members of such groups will run across sample tubes in their freezers or cold rooms that have unclear or nonspecific markings with little documentation on what they are or even what project they belong to. This problem is especially troublesome when a student graduates, often resulting in significant duplication of effort as students attempt to pick up where their predecessor left off.

Experience has shown that if entering data for an asset is difficult or time-consuming, the researchers in a group will likely avoid it, rendering the solution useless. SLAM, however, makes entering information on assets almost effortless. By assigning a unique and instantly recognizable “identifier” to every asset, important attributes and details about that sample can be immediately recovered, even if the original researcher’s notebooks are missing or illegible.

SLAM is easily customizable in recognition of the unique needs of each lab. It utilizes the industry-standard MySQL database system, used by thousands of applications and companies such as Facebook, Google, and Wikipedia. As SLAM relies upon the database for not only information storage but structure, it can be seamlessly complemented with existing database design and management tools. Finally, because SLAM is web based, it can be accessed from any computer with a fairly modern browser. It does not require any plugins, java applets, or specialized software.

What SLAM does not do

SLAM was not designed to be a complete replacement for lab books or good organizational practices. Many laboratory information management systems (“LIMS”) seek to replace the lab notebooks by offering a complicated scheme of data storage and contextualization. Unfortunately, many researchers run afoul of these inflexible project templates, leading to underutilization and, ironically, poor record keeping.

SLAM does one thing, and strives to do it well: store information about the physical components of research, such as where it is stored, who made it, when it was last used, etc. To do this effectively, SLAM relies on a very simple set of organizational rules.

The “Identifier”

When an asset is entered into SLAM, it is assigned a unique identifier. This identifier is of the form AABB_n, where AA is a two-letter sequence indicating which laboratory the asset is from, and BB are two letters that indicate the type (category) of asset. This letter portion is immediately followed by an underscore and a number. As this identifier is unique, it can be used as a label on microcentrifuge tubes, 96-well plates, freezer racks, etc., allowing for immediate lookup of asset information. Categories can also be made for essentially nonphysical entities like protocols, NMR assignments, and protein mutants.

For example, the identifier “MFPL_202” indicates “MF”, i.e. the “Mark Foster” lab, “PL” for plasmid prep, and the unique number 202. The lab and category type letter codes may be customized. There is essentially no limit on the number of identifiers, as MySQL can support thousands of categories and millions of records per category.

Additional Resources

  1. MySQL Free, enterprise-class database system. The MySQL Workbench admin tool simplifies many duties like modifying and backing up databases, adding/deleting connections, etc.
  1. phpMyAdmin Free, web-based database design and administrative tool for administrative functions like adding/deleting categories, adding/deleting asset attributes
  1. Adminer Similar to phpMyAdmin, also free and web-based, but with a simpler interface and installation.