As I reminisce about tales of real-world laboratory informatics, it reminds me of how small and connected a community this truly is. When I started in informatics, I worked for a Chromatography Data System (CDS) vendor. Along with their product, they shipped an example data set of 14 or so chromatograms called “RUMENVFA”. At the time it was a meaningless word to me, one that I memorized strictly for work purposes.
Then a trip to an animal food manufacturer gave me a very different perspective. In St. Louis, Missouri, I visited the research department of a major animal feed manufacturer, which was literally a barn in the middle of a field. I set up my system and broke out the example dataset. To my surprise the prospect was instantly familiar with the dataset and the peak names. “How do you know this data so well?” I asked. He replied by saying: “It is what we work with all day long: Rumen Volatile Fatty Acids.” Then it started to ring some bells: rumen…cow and sheep stomachs.
At this point, I noticed a disturbance through a large set of windows at the end of the lab. The windows did not look outside but directly into a cattle shed, into which a worker was leading a few cows. However, these were no ordinary cows. Each cow had a “portal” like window on their side, as if to resemble a front-loading washing machine. This was where the scientists collected their rumen samples in order to analyze fatty acid contents.
This was another interesting, and very revealing, visit to the behind-the-scenes side of laboratory informatics. The word Rumen has a new meaning to me now, one that I’d rather not recall while eating. Nonetheless, this experience helped me to make an important connection between a shared language and its specific role in this industry.