USGS lab's system is good to the last drop

USGS lab's system is good to the last drop

The National Water Quality Laboratory's Ted Struzeski, left, Leslie Kanagy and Carl Harris study some recent test results.

A customized commercial laboratory application is keeping test results in order at a Geological Survey water quality lab in Denver. USGS officials hope it will bring in more fee revenue by increasing sample loads.

In the 1980s, the National Water Quality Laboratory tried unsuccessfully to make two off-the-shelf laboratory data management systems meet USGS requirements for tracking test results from thousands of freshwater samples, computer engineer Tom Bushly said.

In 1991, they turned to a custom-written application, but 'nothing really unified the entire lab,' said Michael P. Pantea, a geologist who serves as project leader for the most recent lab information system.

NWQL staff finally opted to customize off-the-shelf software, which makes technical support easier and helps keep them abreast of evolving computer hardware. They use a version of StarLIMS from LIMS USA Inc. of Hollywood, Fla. Bushly serves as chief architect for NWQL's implementation of StarLIMS.

The water samples come from all 50 states, Puerto Rico and U.S. territories that monitor contaminants in lakes, streams and groundwater.

'We take a bunch of water and turn it into data,' said Ted Struzeski, a chemist in the inorganic chemistry section.

Since StarLIMS went online in May, more than 28,000 analytical service forms have arrived for 830,000 chemical analyses. Lab workers are starting to scan data from the forms directly into StarLIMS, Pantea said.

StarLIMS has a three-tier architecture, Bushly said. The bottom tier is an Oracle8 Version 8.0.1 relational database running on a Sun Microsystems Enterprise 450 workgroup server with four 400-MHz Sparc processors, 1G of RAM and 200G of storage.

Through the tiers

The middle or dictionary tier is a Sybase Inc. application of customized table structures. The top tier is the StarLIMS executable. Bushly and his staff can upgrade a tier or change business rules without disturbing the other tiers. The dictionary and the executable program reside on individual desktop computers. A copy of the dictionary also resides on the server.

Many of the scientists use two computers in their daily work, organic chemist Leslie Kanagy said. One computer controls the water-testing instruments, and the second does the data analysis.

Researchers can assign pass or fail values, attach comments and request repeat tests, senior physical science technician Carl Harris said.

The data goes through two sets of quality-control tests. StarLIMS can make changes and corrections and keeps an audit trail, Harris said. Researchers can access a history of test results to find out why a particular sample failed.

The chemists perform a global quality-control check of each test result against other results before sending it to the customer. If it does not pass at that level, it undergoes individual review, Struzeski said. The lab also has a peer-review process in which chemists check each other's work.

About 100 analysts are using the new software with about 150 laboratory instruments and 300 computers running everything from Microsoft Windows 95 through Windows 2000.

The system also performs administrative tasks such as logging in samples when they arrive. It coordinates billing, contracts and data presentation and is 'a big unifying thing for the lab,' Pantea said.

The lab is always changing, Bushly said, and StarLIMS 'is better than we've ever had at dealing with changes.'

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