One of the biggest challenges for lab managers is learning how to budget for the equipment and infrastructure needed to conduct experiments. Specialized equipment, such as confocal microscopes, are expensive to purchase and maintain. Researchers, in turn, need to be trained to use the machines properly and collect good quality data from them.
Basic university labs offer key benefits to help overcome these challenges. One of the biggest benefits of base labs is that they are constantly maintained and updated with the latest technology. Senior laboratory staff are also trained to troubleshoot anomalous data results and provide feedback to researchers, which helps maintain data quality and integrity. “The most vital aspects [of our lab] ask researchers and students to make full use of the equipment and inform them of other experiments they might otherwise overlook,” says Seth Ruffins, director of the University of Southern California’s Optical Imaging Facility. (USC). According to Ruffins, the main functions of this basic laboratory are to operate, maintain and train people in the use and troubleshooting of high-tech microscopes.
A collaborative effort
To advance life science research, scientists often need to design more ambitious experiments. The caveat is that they also need more resources from an already limited budget. Therefore, many labs depend on a central lab infrastructure to run their tests properly. “The main purpose of a primary lab is to help an individual lab get images and data quickly,” says Jeffrey Boyd, director of the USC Center for Flow Cytometry. “Collaboration is also available.”
“If they have a better understanding of how machines work, then researchers can make better decisions about equipment and future purchases.”
Although cooperation between individual laboratories and university nuclei can significantly improve experimental quality, there are also some potential issues that need to be addressed. Small laboratories often do not have expensive specialized instruments and therefore their staff may also not know how to operate this equipment properly. When inexperienced scientists use a central laboratory’s instruments, property damage can occur, leading to costly repairs that can strain a central laboratory’s budget and delay other experiments. “It forms a negative feedback loop,” says Boyd. To overcome this problem, the University of Chicago implemented a campus-wide funding system that allows labs to have their own revenue stream to use core facilities, as Boyd explains.
Another method to reduce this damage is to take the time to train students and new researchers before starting experiments. While working in a central lab, staff can effectively train researchers and help them understand the technology rather than just use it. “If they have a better understanding of how machines work, then researchers can make better decisions about equipment and future purchases,” Ruffins says. “It also gives a broader sense of what’s out there.”
With this better understanding of the equipment, researchers can acquire new types of datasets, some much more complex than what was previously available on older machines in their labs. Data interpretation can be a long and difficult process. The troubleshooting done by core staff on the data helps researchers interpret the data correctly and keeps them honest about their studies. “For example, if the instrument is not configured correctly, you can be misled by incorrect results,” says Ruffins. “A common mistake is seeing a signal appear where it shouldn’t. You need to help researchers critique what they see. It also allows people to be honest about their studies, as experts can critique the data (e.g. quality), keeping an unbiased eye on it. »
Core labs also provide benefits for students, which prove especially valuable later in their careers. “For students, a basic lab serves as a resource for a certain amount of training for various tests. They can improve their experimental setup,” says Boyd. “Additionally, the training in the core builds on their fundamental knowledge of a procedure.” Experience in the core teaches students not only how to use equipment correctly, but how to follow procedures correctly.
What challenges do core labs face?
Despite all the key benefits of basic labs, these facilities also present their own challenges. Central lab managers direct their own staff and handle user issues. They also face the same limited funding issues as traditional labs. “There are twice as many challenges when it comes to dealing with the user group and advocating with the leadership groups,” says Boyd. “You also have to be proactive. Don’t forget to initiate writing grants. Keep track of what needs to be added and removed and which labs and students need which instruments,” he says. In addition to staff leadership and budget management, core lab managers must also be technically competent in assisting staff with equipment issues. “Managers need to maintain and update equipment because instrumentation can change quickly,” says Ruffins.
“It’s double the range of challenges to address with the user group and advocate with the leadership groups.”
Apart from the usual maintenance and updates, those responsible for basic university laboratories must also find ways to promote their services. One of these methods is to receive recognition in publications, noting the indispensable role of basic laboratories in research. “It’s hard to get researchers to really recognize the nuclei in the publications, and the labs’ work might not have happened without the nuclei,” says Ruffins. The Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities recommends that nuclei be mentioned if they aid in data acquisition (beyond routine practices), analysis, and/or interpretation. Core laboratories should also be recognized if they assist in experimental design. Acknowledgment of a core in a publication should be done by adding a sentence to the acknowledgments section indicating the services provided by the core, along with its name and grant number. Staff are advised to have open communication with investigators to clarify expectations on both sides. Finally, base lab managers should post base authorship policies prominently on their website.
Basic university labs are crucial to advancing life science research, as they provide invaluable access to state-of-the-art equipment that many labs cannot afford on their own, training on such equipment, and better data analysis. thanks to the substantial comments of the staff. Data integrity is also enhanced by experienced personnel reviewing experimental results. Basic labs are a cost-effective way for scientists to use state-of-the-art technology without spending the entire lab budget. Training in these labs helps researchers become more familiar with different types of equipment, which opens up a wider variety of analyzes to perform and more ways to analyze data. An established central laboratory can help prepare many new generations of scientists for work inside and outside academia, not to mention lead to a plethora of new discoveries.