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Funding Cuts Fuel DIY Lab Movement

Thanks to cuts to research funding, the DIY movement continues to be a growing trend in laboratories across the U.S., according to a recent article in the Star Tribune.

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This image shows the first step in how researchers can make their own laminar flow device out of simple items like styrofoam, plastic wrap, corn syrup and food coloring.Photo courtesy of Tekla LabsThat means many researchers are getting creative in building affordable equipment.

Senior research associate Christopher Ellis at the University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, for example, is something of an expert on making cheap measurement systems for water mechanics.

According to the Star Tribune, in order to model rainwater runoff, Ellis recently used rice to stand in for the rain, along with metal and a plastic bin to catch it and a vacuum cleaner to suck the rice up. A motor created from other hardware store items simulated clouds, for a total cost of $1,500.

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Solutions like these appear like they will become more common in labs, but they are far from perfect, and the downfall is that although they are cheaper, they require more time and manpower to create.

“Taking older technology, cheaper technology, you’re not going to answer every little question,” Ellis said to the Star Tribune. “There’s still an infinite number of unanswered questions.”

Luckily, there are a growing number of resources that labs like Ellis’ can turn to for help. The University of California, Berkeley’s Tekla Labs, for example, gives researchers free instructions for building their own equipment from readily available items as well as guides for repairing equipment.

Those instrument repairs are another challenge in terms of a lab’s costs because, of the funding that is available, little is earmarked for fixing instruments that break down or buying new ones.

The Star Tribune article says one way labs are saving money is by repairing instruments themselves, rather than paying an outside company. Finding parts and figuring out how to fix breakdowns have been challenges, but labs are making do.

“Once you get over the fear of breaking something,” said University of Minnesota civil engineering professor Bill Arnold to the Star Tribune, “most people working in the lab have the ability to take things apart and tinker with them.”

Arnold added that although doing repairs themselves saves the lab around $20,000 in service contracts, the added time required to find parts and do the repairs is a problem.

“We’re certainly saving hard cash, but whether we’re saving time is another story,” he told the Star Tribune. “And it’s difficult because grad student time also costs money.”

-       With files from the Star Tribune