Published: Nov. 21, 2017

Who needs to buy their own centrifuges, drying ovens, incubators or plate readers when there are researchers within shouting distance who have the equipment? Well, even as the sharing economy increasingly permeates our culture, it turns out the answer isn’t always what you might expect when it comes to university research settings.

Kathy Ramirez-Aguilar

CU Green Labs Program Manager and team lead Kathryn Ramirez-Aguilar

That’s where an interdisciplinary CU Boulder team from the Environmental Center, Facilities Management and three science programs comes in, with a newly funded proposal the group hopes will spur a wave of culture change across campus laboratories. CU Green Labs Program Manager Kathryn Ramirez-Aguilar led the team, which won the most recent round of Senior Vice Chancellor and CFO Kelly Fox’s Short Experiment Competition. The contest aims to give life to innovative solutions to identified problems or unmet opportunities on the CU Boulder campus.
The winning team’s plan includes creation of shared laboratory spaces where common equipment can benefit many researchers in the departments of Integrative Physiology (IPHY), Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EBIO), and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology (MCDB). And the kicker: They’ll be hiring a facility manager to oversee the effort so that researchers aren’t spending their time and research dollars on maintenance and administrative tasks related to the lab tools.
One member of the team, EBIO Associate Professor Stacey Smith, said researchers are actually quite open to the idea of sharing lab equipment in theory. Reluctance, however, often wins out when researchers worry whether shared equipment might not be functioning properly or be clean when they need to use it.
"Kathy sees that the key part to making this work is having a staff member to manage the shared equipment and make sure it is in working order for all the users,” Smith said.
Fox’s Short Experiment Competition provides seed funding to get winning projects off the ground, as well as an additional $25,000 to winning departments and $1,500 to $2,500 to individual team members.
The shared lab group’s proposal included a request for $70,000 in seed money. That cash, along with the $25,000 department award, will be used to hire a facility manager for one year, as well as to assess and repair what Ramirez-Aguilar calls a “gold mine” of underutilized equipment resources in the Ramaley, Gold and Porter buildings to see what’s worth keeping for the shared spaces. The facility manager will be tasked not only with setting up the shared spaces and maintaining equipment but also training users and serving as a resource to scientists.
With nine team members from five different departments, the team’s makeup and goals fit perfectly into the theme for this round of the Short Experiment Competition, which was “Demonstration of Culture Change: Breaking Down Silos.”
“I’m continually amazed by the innovative thinking that flows from our staff and faculty,” Fox said. “Kathy and team have put together a small experiment that has great potential to shift campus culture and connect individual departments in a way that is scalable across the university.”
Shared laboratory equipment in common spaces with a manager is not a new idea. But it is not the typical norm in higher education for general use laboratory equipment. Usually managed equipment sharing occurs for those items that are too cost prohibitive not to share, Ramirez-Aguilar said. Her team’s idea was actually based in part on a couple of successful efforts on the CU Boulder campus where general use laboratory equipment is being shared and overseen by a manager: the Biochemistry Shared Instruments Pool and a shared Biochemistry Cell Culture Facility that started 25 years ago and now accommodates 16 principal investigators in the Jenny Smoly Caruthers Biotechnology Building on East Campus.
“It’s an amazing example of managed, shared equipment and shared spaces in both of those endeavors,” Ramirez-Aguilar said. “I think it’s a great model to share with other departments on campus.”
CU Green Labs, a program funded jointly by the Environmental Center and Facilities Management, has been working on a case study of the Biochemistry Cell Culture Facility. That report, which is in near final form, estimates that the BCCF has provided participating researchers with a total of $195,000 per year in cost savings, while Facilities Management has seen $71,000 per year in cost avoidance for building maintenance. The case study also notes that the facility has resulted in a 30 percent space savings, helping to reduce the environmental footprint of the research done there.
Those types of results are what Ramirez-Aguilar, Smith and team are hoping to realize with their own managed, shared lab equipment initiative. While the three academic programs involved already have great examples of informal sharing occurring between laboratories for general use laboratory equipment, it can be difficult for researchers, particularly those new to the departments, to know what equipment is available and where. The cost savings to researchers, meanwhile, could prove a useful recruiting tool if prospective new faculty members know that they’ll need to spend less of their research grants and awards on equipment and can instead direct those funds toward their research or hiring students.
“These departments have people who are very much engaged with Green Labs in trying to minimize the environmental impact of research,” Ramirez-Aguilar said. “Managed, common spaces with shared general use laboratory equipment hasn’t been the norm nationally, but there’s migration in this direction.”
The Short Experiment Competition seed money will fund the new facility manager for one year, with the hope that the three academic departments involved will reap enough reward from the initiative to justify jointly funding the position going forward. Success of the effort will be measured by several data points, including the number of uses of each piece of shared equipment, the number of individual labs utilizing the shared facilities, examples of researchers not having to purchase equipment individually, and examples of underutilized equipment and space that became useful again.
Smith anticipates that benefits to researchers will arise not only from cost-savings and convenience but also through increased community as researchers from various departments who wouldn’t normally interact suddenly find themselves collaborating in the shared facilities.
“People from EBIO might bump into people from MCDB and learn new techniques or simply discover what other labs are doing,” Smith said. “It will be a nice way to knit some of our departments together around the resources we all need and use.”