A Co-op for Scientists

JAMIE CHEN / AGGIE

Core facilities help faculty members, students share resources across campus

Scientists across UC Davis have become part of a co-op where they collectively share laboratory equipment. A relatively new program is helping researchers reduce the cost of experiments as well as employ experts on the technologies that people from any discipline can use.

“It’s called the Research Core Facilities Program, and it was created in 2015 […] it was developed to do a better job of coordinating the shared scientific resources that we have,” said Julie Auger, the executive director of the RCFP. “So those are laboratories that have very expensive technologies or highly expert personnel, that are generally too expensive or too hard to find for individual faculty members to get access to.”

Instead of creating a lab and buying equipment for every scientist wanting to do research, the core facilities house a few expensive technologies that nearly anyone can use for their projects. There is also a listserv for individuals to find specific tools.

“They [the facilities] often start out when somebody wants to buy a very expensive piece of equipment… these things cost 200, 300, $400,000,” Auger said.

After the initial purchase price, service contracts can be bought to insure the machines will be fixed if anything goes wrong. The contracts usually cost 10 percent of the purchase price every year.

“So after the first year of warranty is up, if you have a $400,000 electron microscope that you’ve purchased, you have to put out $40,000 that next year,” Auger said. “So if you have something where only one person has access to it, and they only use it 20 percent of the time, because it’s unlikely that all of their research is dedicated to that one piece of equipment, it sits idle 80% of the time, yet that one person is responsible for all of the cost of maintaining it.”

Core facilities have a recharge for using the resources. The price varies due to the type of equipment needed, how much the facility staff needs to be involved in running the experiment and other factors. A recharge is leveled on researchers to cover the costs of running the facilities, as the core program does not make a financial profit.

The RCFP just launched a program that offsets the cost of core facilities to scientists who are trying a type of technology they have not used before in their research. This Pilot and Feasibility Program may award money to researchers up to four times this year.

Instead of purchasing expensive lab equipment for new employees at UC Davis, the school offers them the opportunity to use core facilities for a negotiated period of time free of charge. According to Auger, it is more cost-effective for departments to cover the costs of using equipment at a core facility rather than buy new machines.

Garry Pearson is the Greenhouse Manager and oversees part of the 170 greenhouses and related facilities UC Davis has. As a core facility, Pearson and his team not only work with scientists to help set up their experiments, but they also design and create about 25% of the equipment used.

“We service about 100 faculty in their research projects, so I like to say that we grow everything from artichoke to zucchini and everything else the researchers can think of in between,” Pearson said. “We have approximately 170-180 projects, they are spread across all of the disciplines within the college.”

Even though most research is done by faculty and postdoctoral students, graduate or undergraduate students working with them can have access to the projects done in partnership  with core facilities.

“Initially, what a faculty researcher will do is they would either have a master’s student or a PhD student that they would develop project protocol,” Pearson said. “If it’s a greenhouse related activity then they would present us with a space request. So then we would provide them with our perspective on where this could fit into the game plan,”

For microscopic experiments, a core facility with a flow cytometer and related equipment are available elsewhere on campus. These machines examine cells and how they react to fluorescent dyes.

“I’d say predominately graduate students [are using the equipment],” said Bridget McLaughlin, co-director of UC Davis Flow Cytometry Shared Resource. “Sometimes, undergraduate students [use the equipment], and I think it’s a wonderful technique for an undergraduate to learn, to introduce to all aspects of cell biology and fluorescent detection.”

To examine elements at parts per billion or parts per trillion, the inductively coupled plasma mass spectroscopy technology can be used at the Interdisciplinary Center for Plasma Mass Spectrometry. This technique has been used to date artifacts, determine the life history of fish based off their ear stones, or otolithes and see if there is a correlation between toxic metals and autism.

“It’s a pretty diverse range of things, there’s never a dull moment, there’s always a new method to tackle. We seem to be going international, we’re getting clients from all over the world that specifically want to do the fish-otolithe method, because we’re kind of known for that now,” said Justin Glessner, a spectroscopist in the facility.  “We’re an all-inclusive facility, we feel like we are a public resource, we’re publicly funded, and we want to just have open access for this type of capability for whoever needs to use it.”

A common sentiment that is expressed about the core facilities is the idea of saving money, and that in the long run it will lead to further investment in new technology for UC Davis. However, the advantages of consolidating expensive equipment to a few spaces extend beyond financial reasons.

“I think the chief benefit to having equipment that is available to investigators centrally located in a core facility is that those investigators have the access to the expert staff who have years of experience with the pitfalls and also the successful strategies for obtaining good quality data,” McLaughlin said.

 

Written by: Rachel Paul — science@theaggie.org