Published: April 12, 2018

The Cell Culture Facility in the Jennie Smoley Caruthers Biotech Building

A new CU Green Labs case study of a shared cell culture laboratory shows the facility provides millions of dollars in cost savings over multiple years to its 16 member labs and the university. This is in addition to other benefits related to research collaborations and the environment.

The case study examines the Biochemistry Cell Culture Facility in the Jennie Smoly Caruthers Biotechnology Building on East Campus versus what it would cost to conduct the same research in 16 separate lab spaces without shared equipment. The study estimates total annual savings as a result of the facility at $253,000. About $195,000 of that is cost avoidance for member scientists, who see savings from a full-time facility manager maintaining the shared space and bulk purchasing of laboratory consumables.

​​ By the numbers

The CU Green Labs program helps campus minimize the use of energy, water, material goods and hazardous chemicals in laboratories. There are approximately 400 labs on campus. Here are just a few of CU Green Labs’ 2017 impacts:

  • 81,500 kilowatt-hours per year savings in electricity
  • $9,912 savings in ventilation from switching out externally vented cabinets with recirculating cabinets
  • 2,700 pounds of plastic film recycled
  • 4,600 pounds of metal lab containers recycled
  • 80 gallons of ethanol re-used
  • 5 additional labs began using the CU Green Labs shared ultra-low temperature freezers
  • 10-plus presentations at national conferences, universities or federal agencies
  • 2 white papers submitted to the Academic Futures conversation
  • 1 grant won, funded by Senior Vice Chancellor and CFO Kelly Fox and the “short experiment” innovation grants program for leading an effort in collaboration with Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology; Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; and Integrative Physiology to improve equipment sharing.

The rest of the annual savings comes from reduced building maintenance and operating costs, including utilities. Additionally, the study estimates that the university avoided roughly $800,000 in capital construction costs by not having to build separate cell culture spaces for the member laboratories, a situation the authors estimate would have required 30 percent more laboratory space than what the existing shared facility utilizes.

Improved space efficiency is an important environmental benefit of the shared cell culture facility, and for shared equipment spaces in general, since laboratory spaces are known to be utility-intensive.

That’s all on top of the collaborative benefits that blossom as a result of researchers sharing lab space.

“The shared cell culture lab facility is a marvelous example of the collaboration that is a hallmark of our research excellence,” said CU Boulder Provost Russell Moore. “At the same time, it illustrates how being good stewards of research funds and campus resources can yield positive returns for all involved.”

Christina Greever, CU Green Labs program assistant, was lead author of the study, which she conducted with Kathy Ramirez-Aguilar, CU Green Labs program manager, and Theresa Nahreini, cell culture facility manager.

Greever and Ramirez-Aguilar noted that Nahreini’s role as facility manager has been a key part of the shared facility’s success and popularity. Demand has been so consistently strong that an additional half-time staff member was recently hired to work alongside Nahreini.

As a skilled and conscientious full-time manager of the shared facility, Nahreini trains new users and maintains shared equipment, supplies and space. The study estimates that, working in independent labs, it would take 16 individuals a combined 150 hours a week to accomplish what Nahreini carries out in a 40-hour week in the shared lab, an indicator of significant salary savings. This means more of those researchers’ grant dollars can go to science instead of administrative costs.

Natalie Ahn, a professor of distinction in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, joined the shared cell culture facility when she arrived at CU Boulder in 1992. The facility was started in 1990 by three other researchers looking to maximize their funding.

“The remarkable thing about our cell culture facility is that it accommodates very high usage, but with relatively little contamination or collapse of cell viability,” Ahn said “This is due to an outstanding facility manager, Theresa Nahreini, and a culture of highly collegial interactions and attitude of unselfishness and sharing among the research labs.”

The Cell Culture Facility in the Jennie Smoley Caruthers Biotech Building

This culture among member labs creates a vibrant work environment with increased opportunities for collaboration among researchers. According to Ahn, it also has “enabled many researchers to have access to specialized equipment and proper training in an essential technology that was well outside their expertise,” which it still does today. And in a time of steep competition for scientific funding, the efficient use of research dollars the facility demonstrates could prove to be a competitive advantage for researchers in future funding proposals.

The advantages of shared biomedical facilities and equipment have long been enjoyed by groups sharing more costly research and diagnostic apparatus, as anyone who has traveled to a medical facility for a test such as an MRI or CT scan can attest. Greever, Ramirez-Aguilar and Nahreini chose this facility for the study to illustrate the benefits of sharing less-costly and more general-use research equipment.

“One important reason we chose to study this particular facility over other research shared equipment facilities is the fact that cell culture equipment is not extremely expensive compared to equipment more commonly found in shared facilities,” Ramirez-Aguilar says. “Cell culture equipment is generally well within the buying capabilities of researchers. It is in this cost category of laboratory equipment where the most potential exists for a shift toward more shared equipment at research institutions.”

The study’s survey of Association of American Universities member schools found that a more individualized approach to cell culture is much more common than shared cell culture facilities across the nation. However, a few biosafety officers indicated that new construction on their campuses sometimes allows more room for shared equipment facilities. With the many benefits of shared lab facilities yet low adoption rates, the authors of the case study note potential for the expansion of such facilities across the country.

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education is hosting a free webinar about this case study presented by Greever from 1 to 2 p.m. (MDT) on May 2. Go to the AASHE website to learn more and to register.

This case study and CU Boulder’s Green Labs Program are jointly funded by the Environmental Center and Facilities Management.