Shared Research Labs in the College of
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 Slow, outdated computers ran the laboratory equipment, and the students using them for research had no proper training.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."
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 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.
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
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.
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.""