Section 3 Lab Resources Overview

Here is a very general overview of lab-wide resources that everyone in both sides of the lab should be familiar with. (Some projects also use specific tools that should be separately documented.) As one broad principle to keep in mind: research coordinators in the lab typically stay 2-3 years, but many of our projects span a much longer period of time. We need everyone to perform protocols consistently, and to document their work carefully, so that the people who follow you can continue your work.

3.1 Slack

Slack is the primary method of communication within the lab. You can customize your notification preferences (particularly important on the mobile app) so you are notified of important messages but also are not overwhelmed. Use the ‘@’ feature to get my attention if I need to get involved in a conversation, and make sure that you’re subscribed to the right channels (#general and #random for everyone, and as of this writing #agingcog, #code, #decisionzbop [a place for music discussion], #diversity, #dma, #gbd, and #neurotech depending on role/interests, and a #social channel for more informal non-work gatherings and conversations that don’t involve me directly). As a matter of lab policy, we do not have private/locked Slack channels.

Two important caveats about Slack:

  1. Slack is not considered secure or HIPAA-compliant. No PHI (protected health information) belongs there, and in general any discussion involving individual research participants should be conducted via SECURE: e-mail rather than Slack.
  2. Slack is not an archive. Our free lab account only allows us to view the last 10,000 messages, and to store 5gb of files–everything older than that disappears. So we use Slack for rapid, concurrent conversation–but anything that we might want to refer to later needs to be documented, most likely in GitHub.

3.2 Lab website

Our lab website is where we communicate what we do and share our work with the outside world. This is hosted on our public GitHub repository, which you will need a GitHub account to edit. See the README at github.com/DecisionLabUCSF/decisionlabucsf.github.io to learn how to add your team profile. Because this is a public repository, anyone can read the code that we use to build the website, and it also has an open license inviting other investigators to use this code to design their own websites if they wish. (Kate Rankin’s lab is building a new website based on our website’s code…)

As I say in the README, you can think of GitHub as like a supercharged Google Docs for code, allowing multiple people to work on code together, keeping track of who made what changes and when, making it easy to reverse changes that have been made, and allowing different versions to be developed at the same time. Tools like this are commonly used by software companies to maintain quality and avoid/fix bugs. We won’t be using all of the sophisticated tools in GitHub that they use, but generally I think scientists have a lot to learn from software developers: Facebook and Google can’t survive with sloppy code and neither can we.

3.3 Private Github repo

In addition to our public repository, we also have a private repository that only lab members can view, which is where we document and edit our code, and maintain electronic lab notebooks. See the README at github.com/UCSFMemoryAndAging/decisionlab for details once your account is fully set up with permissions. A basic way of working with GitHub is just editing files on the GitHub website. However, to use GitHub for code that can be utilized by statistical/analytic packages like R and MATLAB, you will need to synchronize the lab repo to a folder on your computer (like a more technical version of Dropbox or Box). For more details on how to do this, see Section 9 of this lab handbook, RStudio Analysis Pathway.

Here are some key initial points:

  1. As with Slack, no protected data. PIDNs and other assigned identifiers can pop up infrequently, but we should avoid other participant-level data, and especially PHI and participant identifiers (names, dates of birth, addresses, demographics, etc.)
  2. GitHub works best with text-editable files: code, markdown files, HTML, notebooks and the like. GitHub is much less useful for big files like images, Word and Powerpoint files, and they tend to clog things up for everyone else who is syncing to the repo. Images should be reduced in size whenever possible, and Microsoft Office files (Word, Powerpoint) should stay out of GitHub and go on the R: drive somewhere.
  3. Please be consistent about naming and file organization, and be obsessive about documentation and comments! Again, other people will pick your work up after you, so please be kind to them in advance.
  4. Try to keep line length to about 80 characters, and commit-pull-push!

3.4 R: drive (R:\groups\chiong)

To recap some points from above: Slack can’t be used for protected data or discussion of individual research participants, and isn’t an archive. GitHub is an archive for code and documentation, but also shouldn’t be used for protected data or identifiers (and documentation about individual participants should be limited), and shouldn’t be used for large files such as Microsoft Office documents. So: we use the R: drive for large datasets, especially those including personal identifiers, and other useful resources that are too large to put in GitHub. (Quick personal note: I’m often working from my laptop and home computer, on which I only mount the R: drive intermittently–so if you need me to look at something, it will often be a lot faster if it lives in GitHub or is temporarily available in Slack.) For instructions on how to mount the R: drive on your computer, see the Technology section of MACipedia.

For using statistical packages, a model for how to utilize the R: drive with the GitHub repo is described in Section 9: RStudio Analysis Pathway). As a general overview, the pathway is:

  1. Clone the decisionlab GitHub repo to your computer.
  2. Save original dataset (e.g., a .csv or Excel file from Qualtrics or E-Prime) on the R: drive, and never write to this file again.
  3. Clean the data, using a script and a logging file that are saved in GitHub, creating a cleaned data file that is saved back on the R: drive.
  4. Analyze the data using other script and logging files that are saved in GitHub, generating new data files and graphics as necessary that are saved on the R: drive.

Since everyone is using the R: drive for a variety of projects (which will continue on after you leave), keeping our group folder organized is a challenge! Please refer to Guide.docx on the R: drive which explains how the subfolders are organized. The subfolder R:\groups\chiong\Resources includes a number of files that I hope you find useful, including the subfolder “Biostat_212” (lots of resources here on using Stata), the subfolders for “Papers” that include an archive of some classic papers and other ones that influence my thinking and our work together, and some other resources that I’ve posted (some not for sharing beyond the lab).

3.5 LAVA and LAVAquery

LAVA is the MAC’s primary database for all research-related patient and participant information, e.g. demographics, visits and scheduling, research diagnoses, specimens. It can only be accessed on a UCSF network, so if you need to access it remotely, you’ll need to sign in to the UCSF VPN through Pulse Secure (check out it.ucsf.edu/services/vpn for how to get the VPN set up).

For our current projects, we use LAVA for the following:

  • Getting participants’ contact information to call/email them about enrolling in one of our studies
  • Enrolling participants under the ‘Enrollment’ and ‘Scheduling’ tabs once we have seen them for a study
  • Looking up participants’ most recent (and past) diagnoses for tracking enrollment numbers or running data analysis

LAVAQuery is a (fairly) user-friendly querying tool that allows you to pull information from a selected subgroup of (or all) participants from the main LAVA dataset. There is both an older excel-based version and a newer web-based version. You can access these on the front page of the LAVA website.

If you will be running any kind of analysis, you’ll most likely use LAVAquery to pull relevant participant information, download it as a csv file, and merge with your study data files.

For training, visit the LAVA section of MACipedia and watch the training videos under the ‘My Lava’ tab on the website.

3.6 Deprecated/discouraged tools

Excel. In general, Microsoft Excel is not an appropriate tool for data analysis or manipulations that are intended for presentation or publication. It can be used to explore datasets, but usually this is best done within a proper statistical/analytic software package such as R, Stata or Matlab. Excel does not preserve a record of changes that are made to a data file, so if errors are accidentally introduced they can be impossible to diagnose. Excel also has very poor tools for automation and replication: if transformations are made to a dataset and the dataset is later expanded with more observations, the same transformations must usually be applied manually to the new entries. We do use Excel sometimes to create or input data (e.g., for tracking participants) that is then imported to stats packages, but here again the potential for introduced errors is high so please proceed carefully! (Tools like REDCap and Access may be better for this.) Finally, some of the data tools we use (Qualtrics, LAVAquery) export csv and xls files–our general practice is to save them somewhere on the R: drive and avoid ever touching or rewriting to them directly, only importing from saved files into a proper stats package.

Google Docs. In general, we have found that Google Docs is useful for sharing short-term projects, such as an abstract or IRB submission that needs to be edited by multiple people before submission. However, it has proven to be unwieldy for archiving/storage/documentation–we’ve noted problems with moving/deleting files, with governing permissions and file access, and in general with organization. So anything that we might want to refer back to in a matter of months or years should be appropriately organized in GitHub or the R: drive.

Box. We tend to use Box more in Neurotech than in our other projects, as it’s more convenient for our IHPS colleagues than the R: drive. We’ve explored using it more in other projects as it’s supported by UCSF, can handle secure data like PHI, and can sync local copies to people’s individual computers–so this should be one tool that can do most of what we use GitHub and the R: Drive for. Unfortunately, it hasn’t offered the same fine-grained control over file locations and syncing that we need in these projects, or we just haven’t figured out the best ways to use it for them…