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Managing an Analytical Core Facility at a Non-Profit Research Organization

Best practices for laboratory managers in a dynamic environment

Keith Levine, PhD

Keith Levine, PhD, is vice president of RTI International’s Analytical Sciences Division. He has held several technical and administrative roles over his 25-year professional career and has more than 80...

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Reshan Fernando, PhD

Reshan Fernando, PhD, is a senior research chemist in the Analytical Sciences Division at RTI International. In this capacity, he is responsible for personnel and fiscal management of more than...

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Lisa Greene, MS

Lisa Greene, MS, has more than 37 years of broad-based experience in management of accredited laboratories. She manages a team engaged in proficiency testing, analytical method development, and characterization of...

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Leading an analytical core laboratory function embedded within a multidisciplinary, mission-driven contract research organization presents a combination of challenges and opportunities unique to this environment. Best laboratory management practices stress operational agility and the ability to rapidly pivot in response to the sometimes-conflicting demands of the business model. Here are a few recommended best practices to help laboratory managers and their teams thrive in this environment.

Bifrucated business model

Funding and support for analytical core laboratories in this environment come from submitting competitive research proposals to governmental, nongovernmental, and commercial clients or sponsors. Funded projects can be investigator-initiated (e.g., grants, cooperative agreements) or in response to specific requests for proposals (e.g., research contracts or rate schedules for on-demand analytical services). This business model requires that laboratory managers remain in constant contact with both internal stakeholders, including proposal leaders from other technical disciplines requiring analytical support, and external stakeholders, including potential clients and sponsors for proposals submitted directly to clients by the analytical laboratory.

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The successful core laboratory function requires seamlessly pivoting between providing analytical support for early research and development efforts and mature life cycle projects depending on which proposals are ultimately funded. The day-to-day workload can vary substantively, ranging from specialized, non-routine measurements to commoditized, high-throughput measurements.

Quality management systems and requirements can also vary and range from work that is subject to regulatory compliance by statute or contractual drivers to projects intended for informational purposes only. Specific accreditations or certifications may be required by statute or contract.

Agile operational practices

The analytical core laboratory facility should be designed to accommodate work scopes and throughputs that can change significantly on short notice or on an expedited schedule. To thrive in this dynamic environment, laboratory managers should consider implementing a hybrid approach to spacing. This model consolidates specialized instrumentation into dedicated facilities to optimize use, maintenance, and workflows. For example, establishing dedicated microscopy, chromatography, inorganic analysis, thermal analysis, and mass spectrometry instrumentation laboratories that are designed specifically (e.g., temperature, humidity, vibration control) to optimize measurements on these platforms minimizes downtime.

To support these dedicated instrumentation spaces, lab managers should establish laboratory bench space for sample preparation and storage, logistics, and other activities that are modular in design. For example, using mobile benches on castors in place of fixed casework and using flexible, ceiling-mounted mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems provide greater flexibility. Blending dedicated instrumentation laboratories with modular support facilities allows for the rapid reconfiguration of support space as short and longer-term projects flow through the laboratory while also supporting collection of robust, scientifically defensible data across multiple instrument platforms.

Analytical core laboratory managers also benefit from a flexible approach to capital equipment planning that can be scaled up or down on short notice depending on available and anticipated funding. It is recommended that laboratories maintain a three-year capital equipment planning wish list for instrumentation that could be utilized during this timeframe, revisiting this list often and updating as necessary. This list should include both instrumentation intended to replace existing equipment as it ages out and new instrumentation intended to support expansion into new research areas. Line items can slide up, back, on, or off the list depending on the work scopes of anticipated or funded projects. Ideally, requests for new capital equipment can be ready to submit “on demand” with support from key internal stakeholders when the opportunity for project support becomes tangible. Depending on the volume and duration of projected work, laboratory management may wish to lease or purchase instrumentation or engage in a strategic partnership to offset costs (e.g., serving as a beta-test facility for instrument vendors or teaming with university partners).

The analytical core laboratory function should be flexible with respect to engagement models with clients and project sponsors if the work scope is in alignment with the broader non-profit’s mission. For example, collaborative, internally-funded research projects, investigator-initiated grants, cooperative agreements, cost plus fixed fee contracts, time and materials contracts, and fixed-price fee-for-service models can all be appropriate depending on the business cycle, as can service as a prime or subcontractor depending on where a project falls on the research and development life cycle. An ability and willingness to work under different engagement models and rapidly pivot between them can prevent an interruption in laboratory workflow and support. Ideally, the laboratory’s project portfolio will include a mix of client sectors and engagement models to provide business stability as external forces (e.g., regulatory drivers, commercial research priorities, priority focus on emerging contaminants) change over time.

Staffing and culture

The variety and complexity of work flowing through the analytical core function can differ substantively from month-to-month, so lab managers should seek to develop a broad bench of skilled staff with respect to technical discipline (e.g., mass spectrometrists, microscopists, generalists, etc.) and background (e.g., technicians with high-school credentials, scientists with bachelor’s degrees, and research staff with advanced degrees) at all levels of experience. Given the unpredictability of funding cycles, a blend of interns, contractors, term-hires, and permanent employees is optimal to provide laboratory managers with the flexibility needed to staff a variety of projects. In many instances, staff should be first onboarded as contractors to determine potential mutual interest, fit within the organization, and the availability of project work.

Regardless of technical specialization, education, or experience level, the most important predictors of success and long-term staff retention (> 10 years) in this environment are:

  • Technical agility and the ability and willingness to pivot between projects on short notice
  • A commitment to continuous learning and cross-training as specialized skills come in and out of demand
  • The ability to seamlessly work with others from diverse technical and social backgrounds
  • Adherence to common quality systems, where applicable, to facilitate staff working in different areas
  • A commitment to the mission of the broader non-profit research organization.

Laboratory managers should identify the generalists—staff who have a diverse skillset and gravitate toward tasks that require a mix of knowledge from multiple disciplines. These may be the individuals most willing to cross-train across program areas and most comfortable sharing best practices across program areas and quality systems.

These “soft skills” are at a premium and are evaluated thoroughly during the interview process, a staff member’s time as a contractor or term employee (if applicable), and during performance evaluations. Staff members who possess these traits can develop into laboratory managers who lead a dedicated facility (e.g., microscopy laboratory), project managers who are accountable for completing projects with discrete work scopes on time and within budget, administrative leaders who supervise staff and secure funding for the core, and scientific thought leaders who seek to ensure that the laboratory is prepared for future funding cycles and research priorities. The generalists within each area may grow into critical liaison roles that support large interdisciplinary projects. When staff members start to show an interest in following one of these paths, additional specialized training is proactively provided to support retention and potential growth opportunities.

Measuring impact

When serving as a core laboratory function for a non-profit organization, it is critically important to remain in constant contact with both internal and external stakeholders before, during, and after projects to ensure satisfaction and the opportunity for repeat engagements. Stakeholders include clients, sponsors, collaborators, and data end users. Wherever possible, testimonials and illustrative case studies should be captured that speak to the laboratory’s role and impact in supporting the broader organization’s mission.

Laboratory managers must always be prepared to speak to the value added to the broader organization. Success measures that demonstrate a positive impact to the broader organization can include:

  • The size and scope of collaborative research proposals submitted
  • The size and scope of funded proposals
  • Demonstration of thought leadership in the form of peer-reviewed publications or other high-stature and visibility activities
  • Promotion of high-visibility case studies and stakeholder testimonials

 Success measures must be tracked for opportunities in which the core laboratory and associated subject matter expertise are deciding factors in awarding work to the organization, regardless of whether samples are received by the laboratory. Clearly linking the core analytical laboratory function with the broader non-profit organization’s mission and success determines the organization’s ongoing support for the laboratory. This includes capital equipment requests and purchases, support for strategic hires, and other investments that are required for the long-term sustainability of the core function.