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One of the biggest benefits of core labs is that they are constantly being maintained and updated with the most current technology.
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The Role of Academic Core Labs in Life Science Research

Academic core labs provide an economical way to access specialized equipment, training, and impartial data analysis

Kaitlyn Grayson

One of the biggest challenges for lab managers is learning how to budget for the equipment and infrastructure needed to run experiments. Specialized equipment, such as confocal microscopes, are expensive to purchase and maintain. Researchers, in turn, must receive training to properly use the machines and collect good quality data from them.  

Academic core labs offer key advantages to help overcome these challenges. One of the biggest benefits of core labs is that they are constantly being maintained and updated with the most current technology. The core lab staff are also trained to troubleshoot abnormal data results and provide feedback to researchers, which helps maintain data quality and integrity. “The most vital aspects [of our lab] are having researchers and students utilize the equipment to its fullest and make them aware of other experiments that they might otherwise overlook,” says Seth Ruffins, facility director of the Optical Imaging Facility at the University of Southern California (USC). This core lab’s primary functions are to utilize, maintain, and train people to use and troubleshoot high-tech microscopes, according to Ruffins.

A collaborative effort

To advance life sciences research, scientists often need to design more ambitious experiments.  The caveat is that they also need more resources from an already constrained budget. Therefore, many labs depend on the infrastructure from a core lab to properly run their assays. “The main purpose of a core lab is aiding in the speed that an individual lab can obtain images and data,” explains Jeffrey Boyd, director of USC’s Flow Cytometry Core. “Collaboration is available, too.” 

“If they have a better understanding of how the machines work, then researchers can make better decisions on equipment and future purchasing.”

While cooperation between individual labs and academic cores can vastly improve experimental quality, there are some potential problems that need to be addressed, too. Smaller labs often do not have expensive, specialized instruments, and therefore, their staff also may not have the knowledge of how to properly run this equipment. When inexperienced scientists use a core lab’s instruments, equipment damages can occur, leading to expensive repairs that can put a strain on a core’s budget and delay other experiments. “It forms a negative feedback loop,” says Boyd. To overcome this issue, the University of Chicago implemented a campus-wide funding system that enables labs to have their own stream of income to use the core facilities, as Boyd explains. 

Another method to reduce these damages is to take the time to train students and incoming researchers prior to initiating experiments. While working in a core laboratory, staff can effectively train researchers and help them understand the technology rather than just use it. “If they have a better understanding of how the machines work, then researchers can make better decisions on equipment and future purchasing,” says Ruffins. “It also provides a broader sense of what’s out there.”  

With this enhanced understanding of the equipment, researchers can acquire new types of data sets, some being far more complex than what was previously available from older machines in their labs. Data interpretation can be a time-consuming and difficult process. The troubleshooting that core staff do on data helps researchers interpret data correctly and keeps them honest about their studies. “For instance, if the instrument is not set up correctly, you can be fooled by incorrect results,” explains Ruffins. “A common mistake is seeing one signal showing up where it shouldn’t appear. You need to help researchers be critical of what they’re seeing. It also keeps people honest about their studies because the experts can critique the data (e.g., quality), keeping an unbiased eye on it.”  

Core labs provide benefits for students too, which prove especially valuable later in their careers. “For students, a core lab serves as a resource for a certain amount of training for various assays. They can improve their experimental setup,” explains Boyd. “In addition, training in the core builds upon their fundamental knowledge of a procedure.” Experience in the core teaches students not only how to properly use equipment but how to follow procedures correctly.  

What challenges do core labs face?

Despite all the key advantages of core labs, these facilities also come with their own set of challenges. Core lab managers lead their own staff, as well as handle any issues from users. They also face similar issues of limited funding as traditional labs. “It’s two-fold the array of challenges dealing with the user group and advocating to leadership groups,” says Boyd. “You also have to be proactive. Be mindful of initiating 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 people leadership and budget management, core lab managers must also be technically proficient to support staff with equipment troubleshooting. “Managers need to keep equipment maintained and updated because instrumentation can change rapidly,” says Ruffins.  

“It’s two-fold the array of challenges dealing with the user group and advocating to leadership groups.”

Other than the usual maintenance and updates, managers of academic core labs also need to find ways to promote their services. One such method is by receiving acknowledgment in publications, noting the core labs’ indispensable role in research. “There’s a challenge in just getting researchers to really recognize the cores in publications and that the labs’ work may not have been able to happen without cores,” says Ruffins. The Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities recommends that cores should be mentioned if they aid in data acquisition (beyond routine practices), analysis, and/or interpretation. Core labs should also be acknowledged if they help with experimental design. Recognizing a core within a publication should be done by adding a sentence to the acknowledgements section stating what services the core provided and its name and grant number. Staff are advised to have open communication with investigators to keep expectations on both sides clear. Lastly, core lab managers should post core authorship policies prominently on their website. 

Academic core labs are crucial to advancing life science research because they provide invaluable access to advanced equipment that many labs cannot afford by themselves, training on said equipment, and improved data analysis thanks to substantial feedback from the staff. Data integrity is also improved by experienced staff reviewing experimental results. Core labs are an economical way for scientists to use cutting-edge technology without spending the lab’s entire budget. Training in these labs helps researchers become more knowledgeable of different kinds of equipment, which opens up a larger variety of assays to perform and more ways to analyze data. An established core lab can help prepare many new generations of scientists for work inside and outside of academia, not to mention lead to a plethora of new discoveries.