Slack Inside the MacArthur Lab

When parents of children suffering from muscle diseases contact Dr. Daniel MacArthur’s lab, it’s often after they’ve exhausted their options. The…

When parents of children suffering from muscle diseases contact Dr. Daniel MacArthur’s lab, it’s often after they’ve exhausted their options. The MacArthur Lab specializes in identifying neuromuscular diseases by looking at long strands of genetic sequences using software they’ve written and open-sourced.

A few weeks ago, Dr. MacArthur tweeted this:

But what does that actually mean? We asked the good doctor to explain it to us. Slowly.

“On that evening, we had a fresh batch of data from about 50 families, and Dr. Monkol Lek [a member of the team] was analyzing samples individually, running a series of algorithms looking for rare DNA changes that might explain the disease in that family.

I was up late working on a paper and Monkol was quietly populating a Slack channel with screenshots of sequencing data showing DNA changes that likely caused the diseases in these patients… just another standard night on Slack!”

data results on slack channel

A bioinformatics group that’s as much big data startup as medical research team, the MacArthur Lab shares space at Massachusetts General Hospital as well as Harvard & MIT’s Broad Institute. For the roughly 15 people in the lab, split over those two locations, Slack has become an essential tool in their arsenal, helping them communicate while they diagnose the most difficult cases.

Their cutting-edge analysis techniques result in successful diagnoses in around half of all the cases they take on, often solving years-long mysteries for families affected by extremely rare diseases.

While much of the technology used in the Lab is specific to bioinformatics, the reporting, output, and code behind it all gets posted automatically to Slack channels. Results from analyses get posted directly into relevant channels which can be analyzed immediately by team members, and are searchable forever more.

“It makes life easier. Before new researchers arrive in the lab, I’ll give them a Slack account. Before they arrive, they can see how the lab works. By reading through a few channels, they can see all the things that people talk about–here are the personalities on display, here are the animated GIFs people like to share–it helps them feel like they’ve got a sense of the cultural fabric of the lab before they get started physically, which I think is very useful.”

Dr. MacArthur realized Slack was working when he noticed email usage went down precipitously. Additionally, instead of private one-on-one email communications, conversations moved into open project channels where the whole team could see them, making it easier to share new methods and code.

As the team’s 15 members are spread across multiple locations with coding and analysis happening around the clock, Slack acts as the heart of it all, stitching together the lab’s culture and communication.

Slack is the collaboration hub, where the right people are always in the loop and key information is always at their fingertips. Teamwork in Slack happens in channels — searchable conversations that keep work organized and teams better connected.