You never know who might be asking the same questions that you are. Nine months ago I started a conversation with a few instructors in the Biology department about their undergraduate researchers and how they collect data. One of the most dreaded tasks for their student researchers is counting fluorescing cells in a fixed sample. There can be over 400 fluorescing cells in any given slide, and there are dozens of slides to count. Undergraduates were starring into the unblinking eye of the computer clicking on single green dots for hours at a time. There had to be a better solution.
In fact there is. ImageJ is a lovely Java based piece of software that’s free and allows for several different kinds of measurement and analysis in digital photo files. The catch is that learning to use ImageJ can be a bit dodgy. I offered to take a quick look at the software, to see if I could make heads or tails of it. With a little bit of clicking and googling, I had a simple way to count fluorescing cells in a slide. Not elegant, but not awful.
I guessed that the easiest way to share what I had learned with the Biology crew was to make a short screen-cast coving the basics and post it on YouTube. I thought that Keene State’s Biology department might watch the video a handfull of times, and they might share it with a few other people. These kinds of How-To instructional videos are all over the web, and I figured that I’d be lucky if it was ever viewed more than twenty or so times. To date, it’s now been watched nearly 4000 times (it’s very likely that by the time someone is reading this post, that number will be over 4000).
What gives?! Why all of the attention for such a mundane technical task? As it turns out, our Biology department wasn’t alone in its search for a free way to reduce the time it took to complete this arduous counting task. Lots of people were looking (and still are) for ways to solve this problem, or at least an entry point into thinking about this particular problem. The video that I posted hasn’t meant that I’ve needed to do any additional work, or cost me any more time. In fact it’s saved me the time of needing to describe this process more than once – the time it took me to make the original video.
You’d be surprised by how many people are fighting with the same questions that you are, I know I was.