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Train of Thought...
October 2002 - Keeping the Science in Scientist

A number of you will have heard my cries for help emanating from the wilderness over the last month. I was experiencing difficulty with drift at low expiratory flows when using a heated pneumotach for flow measurement. Being of little experience with these beasts, I thought it prudent to seek assistance. I made certain deductions relating to how the system worked and came up with what I believed to be a credible explanation. Before embarking on rebuilding the tube files (look up tables for linearising the pneumotach output), about which I had heard so many horror stories in the past, however, I wanted confirmation that I was on the right track.

I got a wide range of answers to my pleas including "very interesting problem", through "you are on the right track", a subtle change of topic and finally "If I had had a problem I would have come to you!" Of real concern was the manufacturer who responded to the effect that the expertise and knowledge left with a person who departed the Company more years ago than I have been in the game!

It was a case of back to basics. The snippets of information I had gleaned from my network across Australia, New Zealand, USA and the UK, convinced me I was indeed on the right track. No one individual provided all the answers, but the sum of the contributions supported my deductions and helped secure the base from which I was able to proceed. To all who responded, my heartfelt thanks.

I learned a great deal about tube files and about the software we are using - the root of the problem in fact. Fortunately my network enabled me to tap into the "unpublished appendices" to the manuals for the equipment - thanks Kevin.

Some interesting lessons were learned along the way and, I think, some important issues were thrown up by the exercise.

Lesson 1. Above all else we need to be scientists able to apply scientific method to our problems. I went right back to basics and tried to design a system from the ground up using referenced material to provide the theory of the tube files. Having done that I was able to model what I thought was happening by deliberately perturbing the system. I experimented! I was then able to create the new files simply because I understood what I was doing. The horror stories I had heard in the past regarding tube file creation were, I suspect, founded purely and simply on people trying to build them without understanding what was happening. There really is nothing difficult or mystical about the process so long as you understand the science and mathematics behind what you are doing and, more importantly, what your software is doing.

Lesson 2. Networks and networking are both very important facets of our profession. Seize any opportunity to utilize and to expand your network. Without my network built over 15 years I would have learned but a fraction of what I learned from solving our problem. No matter how familiar you may be with an issue there is always another way to look at it, an additional piece to the puzzle.. An alternative opinion will make you reevaluate your position and at the end of the day a better decision will be made. There will be people I did not contact who probably could have saved me a lot effort but I didn't have the good fortune to have them on my network - this time round!

Lesson 3. There is a fundamental danger in having knowledge resident in one person's head. This poses a huge risk to your ability to deliver a quality service. None of us know when someone will move on through choice or accident. I have been in a position where I went home from work one day to end up in hospital that night and out of commission for 6 weeks. A company producing equipment where a production engineer appears not to understand his equipment works, and nobody else appears to know anything either, is a liability in terms of buying new equipment for a laboratory. I have taken great pains to ensure that others in my laboratory know as much about what I have done as I do through having them work on the problem with me. I have also documented the theory and the practice so it is available into the future. No matter how good the documentation though, first hand experience is always better.

The responses to my canvassing for ideas led me to realize that we are becoming increasingly dependent on instruments that are automated. Driven by the pursuit of the mighty dollar, more and more often, inexperienced users can get answers simply by pushing buttons. I would suggest we are at risk of losing touch with the principles and practices - yes, the Science - behind our tools and our profession. This applies, I believe, to the scientists using these tools and to the engineers supporting the equipment. As competition heats up and prices are pushed down, then something has to give and that something is going to be support. The increasing number of players competing is also an issue and the market share will dictate the level of knowledge and experience a local engineer will have.

  • Is it reasonable to expect a supplier to provide in depth engineering support for their equipment? Yes it is. I am sure they will have promised it when you purchased their equipment. Down the track support is something that must be spelled out to your satisfaction before a purchasing decision is made.
  • Is it realistic to demand the supplier support the equipment when it is obsolete and the rest of world has moved on? Probably not. This is hard economic reality and is a significant risk that we face in not having the ability to replace equipment when it becomes obsolete.

At the end of the day, the scientist leading the laboratory must assume responsibility for his/her own equipment. He/she must understand the science behind the measurement and the physics behind the analyzers. He/she must listen to the noises the instrument makes, the way a switch feels as it is operated, sense the silky glide of the rolling seal as it records someone's breathing. You should understand and sense your equipment the same way you understand a partner if you are going to draw the best from it. Treat the equipment as a black box and you will be getting spurious results well before it packs a sad.

Not very long ago most of our equipment was not available off the shelf but had to be cobbled together from analyzers, transducers, amplifiers and chart recorders. You had no choice in the matter. Performing tests required continuous analysis of instrument performance and data quality. We face the risk that technological progress will remove the science from our work. Maybe I am simply being nostalgic. I don't think so, rather I suspect that the constraints we are all facing in health are ensuring the "old days" are not that distant and advancing technology is lulling us into a false sense of security.

Those of us who have had problems that have been successfully resolved also have a responsibility to share that information and experience. We are a community of scientists. Branch meetings are a good way to do this or perhaps a letter to the Web-site or Mouthpiece. By distributing this knowledge and experience you will achieve two things. Firstly you will help others make better decisions when it comes to purchasing equipment. They will better know what to look for and ask about. This will have the added benefit of upping the ante on the supplier, as any deficiencies here will quickly become apparent.

Secondly, and even more importantly, by sharing your experience you will be helping build a very powerful resource that will ensure that the science is put back into Scientist.

Kevin, October, 2002

kevin.gain@health.wa.gov.au

 

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