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Challenges of a Shared Instrument Lab

Dr. Emily Seo is the director of the Shared Instrument Facility in the Department of Chemistry at the University of British Columbia.

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Dr. Emily Seo is the director of the Shared Instrument Facility in the Department of Chemistry at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Seo received her PhD in organic chemistry at UBC and then carried out a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Edinburgh. She also worked as an associate editor for Wiley-VCH in Germany before becoming director of the Shared Instrument Facility.

Q: What does the Shared Instrument Facility do?

A: The Shared Instrument Facility (SIF) is used for both teaching and research in the department, as well as for usage by external clients. The SIF is a great platform for different areas within chemistry—analytical, physical, organic, and inorganic—to integrate. For example, a materials lab for teaching was created to integrate inorganic chemistry with physical chemistry. Before the SIF was created, the branches of chemistry were much more segregated. Outside departments such as engineering, forestry, medicine, and dentistry have also used the facility, as have many industrial companies.

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Q: How many projects are going on in the SIF at any one time?

A: There are many projects going on at the same time in the facility, but it is mainly a place to acquire data. Much of the sample preparation and synthesis is done in the independent research labs. For example, initial testing of the starting materials or sample characterization may be carried out in the SIF once a product is synthesized and isolated. Often the facility is used only in part of a whole research project. I do supervise a few students who work solely in the SIF, but the purpose is more for teaching them how to create and perform their own projects.

Q: How many people use the facility?

A: We currently have about 195 grad students and about 45 postdocs, with those numbers differing slightly every year. About 80 to 85 percent of them use the facility in some manner. Once our departmental users have been trained, they are allowed to come and use the facility for research as long as it is outside the restricted teaching hours. We have an online booking system to coordinate the scheduling of the instruments. Some months are quieter than others, but for the most part we have a consistent flow of users. We also have about 10-15 external clients at any given time.

Q: What are the main instrument- related challenges you face?

A: Our biggest challenge is probably keeping all the instruments up and running all of the time. We currently have 18 instruments, so if we have an issue with one, it can take away time from other equipment that still needs maintenance and testing. Troubleshooting can be time-consuming, and with so many people waiting for the instruments, we are under pressure to get them repaired. I often write emails to the users to let them know the status of the instrument so they are aware of how long the repairs will take. Users understand that equipment does fail every once in a while.

Q: What about people-related challenges?

A: The SIF is used mainly for teaching during the fall/winter and winter/ spring terms—from September to April—therefore we have reserved teaching lab hours. We have courses going through, so we have to block time off for the researchers, especially when there are hundreds of them. Sometimes researchers find it very difficult to wait, especially if they are dealing with an unstable sample or are under the gun to finish a project. There are some complaints from those who do not want to wait until the teaching hours are over because they want to acquire their data immediately. However, for the most part, complaints have been minimal. People are understanding and they realize the priorities of the facility. Similarly, the departmental researchers get priority over the external users. Unlike our departmental users, external users have to use the facility during the workday, so their time is much more limited.

Q: How do you deal with those challenges?

A: In terms of the instrument issues, the key is maintaining clear communication with the users so they are aware of the waiting time and status of the equipment. For dealing with people, we outline all the SIF policies during the training before users get access to the lab so they are cognizant of the lab rules and priorities. For example, if they are told of the safety hazards and what to watch for, many issues can be prevented. Furthermore, if they understand that teaching gets priority, complaints can be minimized. If they are told that items have to be signed out or log books for each individual piece of equipment have to be filled out, etc., they are held accountable. It is just a matter of making everything apparent from the beginning and having clear policies that the users can follow.

Q: What are the main changes the SIF has gone through over the past few years?

A: The facility opened in 2011, and for a couple of years there was only one person working in the facility. There were no technicians and no instruments. Going from an empty lab space to installing all these instruments with only one person working in the facility, as well as having to train hundreds of researchers, was a huge challenge. We now have a technician, which has helped improve the daily operations of the facility. The lab director can focus on helping users with technical difficulties or to provide advice on techniques and analyses of data, whereas the technician can help with maintaining the daily functions of the lab such as replacing gas cylinders and consumables or disposing of chemicals and wastes. We work together to maximize the efficiency of how the facility runs, which has made it better for all of the researchers and students using the lab. We have also been performing lab demonstrations for certain lecture courses and giving tours of the facility to make the equipment visible to potential users.

Over the years, we have also established strong relationships with the instrument manufacturers. This liaison has been important as we have been able to contact the company or field engineers when we run into problems and often get immediate assistance, which has helped with the maintenance of the equipment.

Q: What are the future plans for the facility?

A: A grant application to purchase a new thermogravimetric analyzer (TGA) combined with a differential scanning calorimeter (DSC) has been submitted. Because this instrument is required by so many researchers, the application was supported by many professors in our department. If we are granted the funding, a new TGA/DSC will be purchased. The grant has been written for a TGA/DSC hyphenated with a Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectrometer so that evolved gas measurements can also be made.

Q: What key advice would you have for those lab professionals who haven’t used a shared instrument facility before, but are looking into it?

A: The nice thing about a shared facility is that users have access to many instruments in the same room. If they want to carry out multiple analyses on a sample, they can do many measurements using different instruments within the same lab, often during the same time period if there is no one else waiting. For anyone who is looking into using a shared instrument facility, it is definitely worth talking to the lab director to see what services they provide. In addition, if a user does not have access to a specific instrument in their department, they can check to see if it is available in the shared instrument facility. In that sense, the SIF is a very useful lab space.

Q: Is there anything else you want to add?

A: The Shared Instrument Facility is a great place for sharing ideas because there are opportunities to talk to researchers who are outside your own discipline or whom you may not otherwise cross paths with. For example, our chemistry building consists of five distinct blocks with different branches of chemistry, so students from an analytical lab may not often have the chance to discuss research ideas with a student from an organic lab. The SIF is central and used by scientists in all disciplines of chemistry as well as outside departments, and therefore the opportunity for researchers to broaden their connections is possible. Collaborations have even started from sharing ideas.