High Tech Hubs

Shared Research Labs in the College of Life Sciences

Lauren Richey
Applied physics major Lauren Richey places a beetle sample on the stage of the electron microscope in Microscopy Lab.

At one end of the Plant and Wild Life Sciences Greenhouse, botany students explore a world'sworth of plant samples in the reference collection, while nearby a biology class practices plant propagation. The greenhouse overflows with a multitude of faculty and student research projects, ranging from a study of crop diseases to one of wild land environmental stresses to another of cotton genomes. Like all of the shared research labs in the College of Life Sciences, the greenhouse lab serves as a hub of life science research, virtually bursting at the seams and working at full capacity to educate students and invite them to explore the world through cutting edge research. Whether they are sterile rooms with the newest technology or dusty experimental crop beds, shared research labs serve as intersections where students, researchers, and highly sophisticated instruments meet.

"My job is a lot more than just equipment stashed in a corner," says Sandra Burnett, director of the Research Instrumentation Core RIC Facility, one of six shared research labs in the college Dr Burnett came to BYU four years ago to organize the RIC Facility that centralizes access to research instruments in the college. "When I arrived at BYU," she says, "frankly I was appalled." Slow, outdated computers ran the laboratory equipment, and the students using them for research had no proper training. She started from scratch, collecting laboratory equipment from throughout the college, fixing old machines, finding what worked and what did not, and buying new instruments to create a high quality research facility. Now she says, "We're just humming to get samples processed." 

Professor Sandra BurnettProfessor Michael WhitingProfessor Bruce WebbProfessor Jiping Zou
As directors of the four of the six shared research labs in the College, Professors Sandra Burnett(RIC Lab), Michael Whiting(DNA Sequencing Lab), Bruce Webb(Soils and Plants Lab). and Jiping Zou(Chromatography Lab). use the newest technology to train students how to be better scientists.

A big advantage of shared research labs is the ability to pool department faculty and university funds to invest in the latest most powerful technologies. Instruments like the new dual beam electron microscope in the BYU Microscopy lab, which magnifies samples up to a million times and can create images in three dimensions, often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. On top of the initial cost, instrument service contracts can exceed $30,000 per year. Careful stewardship allows shared labs to minimize or forgo service fees through in house repairs and routine service of the equipment. With each valuable asset, says Dr Burnett, directors and staff ask the all important; "How can we best use it? How can we best train our students with it? How can we take care of it so we don't lose something useful to our research?" 

Dr John Gardner and student Lauren Richey
Dr John Gardner director of the Microscopy Lab and student Lauren Richey study diamond based photonic crystal structures in the weevil scales of a beetle the honeycomb image on the monitor The electron microscope allows the researcher to create a D image of the scales.

The advanced technology available in shared labs allows research in the college and across campus to blossom For example, 11 years ago, what little DNA testing occurred at BYU took place in individual faculty laboratories, using manual sequencing technology that required handling dangerous radioactive isotopes. In 1999, BYU centralized all of its sequencing operations into the DNA Sequencing Center. Investing in the newest sequencing technology and pooling resources immediately paid off with greater safety and a thousand fold increase in output. In the decade since, facility director Dr. Michael Whiting estimates that the DNA Sequencing Center has brought million in research grants to BYU and involved nearly five hundred undergraduate students in research projects.

Professors Jeff Maughan, Rick Jellen, Mikel Stevens and Craig Coleman
Left to right Professors Jeff Maughan Rick Jellen Mikel Stevens and Craig Coleman check quinoa seedlings in one of the Green House Labs
With faculty and students from throughout the college and across campus meeting in one place, some cross disciplinary fertilization is bound to occur. For example, in the case of the DNA lab, a new piece of equipment now allows researchers to sequence not just sections of genes but entire genomes. Inundated with a sudden flood of data, biology researchers in the Center realized they simply did not have the tools to manage so much information. To remedy their problem, they reached across campus to faculty in the Computer Science and Statistics Departments who helped them develop not only the tools they needed, but also a new Bioinformatics major that draws students together from various disciplines in a modern melding of nature and machine.
Most of the research in these labs begins with faculty and student projects. In some cases, however, labs generate research on their own. For instance, a few years ago, Soil and Plant Analysis Laboratory director Bruce Webb and his student lab assistants joined with a reclamation company to study a dry lake in California. After being drained to divert water to Los Angeles in the early 1900's, the remaining lakebed wreaked environmental havoc as wind drove the fluffy surface salt into the air. Students processed samples in the lab to see if methods like growing plants on the surface or leaching the lakebed with water might assist reclamation. "I think the project helped them pull their whole education together," Webb says. Their work received national acclaim. 
Chromatography LabTrevin Cardon in the Soil and Plant Lab
The Chromatography Lab(left) uses the Headspace Sampler to test volatile chemicals in samples. And student Trevin Cardon(right) in the Soil and Plant Lab using atomic absorption spectrometry to analyze for levels of potassium

Furthering science may be well and good, but immersing students in real life research is the central focus in these shared labs. "The most important thing is that we involve students have them interacting with research," says Dr Jiping Zou, director of the College Chromatography Facility. Though only highly trained researchers can run sophisticated chromatography analyses, Zou works in the trenches with individual students, guiding them as they develop their projects, tutoring them in research methods, and teaching proper data analysis. In all six of the college's labs, directors and staff mentor students one-on-one encouraging them to participate in every stage of the research process. "BYU is about teaching," Whiting says. "And research is an important complement to that job."

The fruits of the shared labs are evident in the growing ranks of BYU graduates who leave campus with laboratory skills far beyond their peers. In turn those students are creating a living web of excellence in research that stretches out from the labs across the college and campus and into the world while forging connections for future students to build upon. "There's a network out there of BYU graduates," Webb says ."That network just keeps going.""