Setting up a lab is like running a startup, people tell me. The institution is an Angel investor and your research program is your company. You get seed funding and working space to establish that ambitious program. The goal, for assistant professors, is a good product (high-impact papers) and self-sufficiency (a steady stream of outside grants).
The parallels don't end there. The sausage-making -- the unglamorous stuff behind the papers and the grants -- is also the same. You alone are responsible for the personnel, budgeting, and day-to-day operations of a group with more capital resources than your own net worth. Am I doing it right?
I have been buying things on eBay. You know, to save money.
I am in a bit of disbelief, actually. There is a lot of surplus lab equipment on eBay; unopened, never-been-used lab equipment.
On average, I have been saving ~40% off of manufacturer quotes. Sure, some of the stuff is a bit older, but it's stuff that doesn't go bad on the shelf. The best deal I've found so far has been a new, unopened high-vacuum valve at 90% off its current price (Update: it works great!).
Let's be clear: This system is admittedly risky. I'll find out how much of what I bought works as expected. Provenance is important for mechanical equipment (e.g., pumps) and chemical-handling equipment, so I have a strict rule against purchases of that sort. But under threat of reduced government funding for the geosciences, I'm trying to save money where I can.
We are building robots.
If you read my earlier blog post about the long hours necessary to do our analyses, you will understand why automation is almost a necessity in this lab: Taking data at a rate of 12 hours per data point is not sustainable. The problem with automating sample preparation is that I have next to no experience with that kind of programming.
Thankfully, I am working with some great people. Shuning came from Naomi Levin and Ben Passey's lab, where automation is king, so she knows how these systems should operate. Ian Mellor-Crummey is a recent addition to the lab; he is a talented Rice undergraduate who is as handy with a wrench as he is with a mouse. He has been working hard this summer on the automation project while Shuning has been away working on her research.
I designed the lab so it can change.
You could say I was inspired by one of my favorite architects, Joshua Prince-Ramus, who designed Seattle's Central Library and Dallas' Dee and Charles Wylee Theatre. The overarching goal was to plan a flexible, efficient, multi-purpose workspace that would be ready for whatever the future would throw at it -- new equipment, new experiments, new collaborations -- without losing any of its core functions.
Everything is on wheels. In principle, I will be able to move my workbenches, instruments, or vacuum lines around to different parts of the lab. Electrical outlets and other utilities are distributed throughout, but concentrated in key areas to prevent "wander" of work areas over time as unclaimed space begins to be associated with specific lab members as opposed to lab work. Most tables are height-adjustable, too.
The goal here is to have a lab that not only adjusts to those working in it, but that can also embrace unexpected research directions. Will this experiment work? I hope so!