Core Facility helps scientists envision research strategies

Director seeks to optimally use equipment, build professionalism

Director Austin Changou says TMU’s Core Facility is much more than an equipment center. In fact, the Core’s director has modeled both staff and services on the professionalism he encountered at Memorial Sloan Kettering, a major U.S. cancer research center.

The TMU Core Facility operates as part of the Office of Research and Development, supporting researchers “by providing highly specialized services, equipment, and staff that would be too costly or impractical for a single laboratory or department to provide.” Its operations include cores for imaging, mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), flow cytometry and bioinformatics.

These staffed facilities provide researchers access to high-end instruments, technical support, expertise, and training. In fact, the website notes that several instruments in the Basic Research Core are available 24 hours a day. The Core Facility also hosts instrument-related seminars and training programs, because students and other users must show that they understand equipment before they can use it.

Dr. Changou is clearly proud that in two years he has built a devoted and capable workforce of technicians, some of whom now aspire to become researchers themselves. He says that the more training and experience a technician has on a machine, the more skilled they are in teaching others to understand it. The director seeks to further engage the TMU community to ensure that researchers are aware of the Core’s ability to help them earlier in the research process, so they can fully utilize the machines to benefit their research.

Everyone can request new machines

Dr. Changou’s role directing the Core Facilities unit is critical to the university achieving its research goals. He oversees acquiring the equipment, perfecting its use, training students and others to use it, and helping scholars decide the best ways to pursue their research.
Acquisition is so important that virtually everyone can have their say: the faculty is surveyed to nominate potential apparatus, and a multi-college committee makes recommendations. Since budgets are limited, it’s important to spend carefully; the university’s developmental directions matter too, with cancer research and other priorities factored into purchase decisions.

Dr. Changou’s own research affiliation is the the Ph.D. Program for Translational Medicine, and Ph.D. Program for Cancer Biology and Drug Discovery. He laughs that his “messy” career of doing research in many different U.S. laboratory settings, ranging from bacteria, yeast, drosophila, to mice, from genetics to biophotonics, made him a good candidate to run the Core.

He uses this unusual breadth of experience to optimize TMU’s highest-tech resources. Asset allocation is the Core’s puzzle: how to best use these machines that are expensive to operate and maintain, let alone purchase initially.

Beyond getting and wisely allocating equipment, Dr. Changou said the centralized core’s mission statement provides that “everyone has access,” with first-come, first-served policies that give students and senior staff equal priority. Second priority goes to non-campus users that help to finance Core operations; these are mostly businesses that do not want to purchase expensive laboratory setups when their needs are occasional.

Making good things better

Staff do not just sign things in and out – they train users and even help solve their methodology problems by suggesting equipment and measurement approaches. “We’re not here to turn on a switch… We help make good things better” by expanding users’ capabilities to solve scientific questions, Dr. Changousaid. “But we need more visibility.”

Cultural differences are an important factor influencing how scientists access lab resources, he said. In his American laboratory work he saw more openness, with people actively seeking answers and discussing their projects with anyone they think might have good ideas. He believes that more sharing among TMU scholars would help enhance their knowledge about research strategies.

As he spoke of nurturing his technical staff, Austin was enthusiastic about building confidence and skills by giving even master’s-level technicians ample work situations where they are teaching others and helping them solve complex research problems with optimal use of equipment. “Then they want their Ph.D., they know what they want to study,” he said. “They’re not just going onward because their parents want them to.”

Students and technical staff benefit from working together to “spot the problem” and from learning how to ask for help, he said: “Both sides learn something, and they build experience and competence along with confidence and trust.”

He is used to US laboratories where equipment technicians are career professionals who can make the most of the equipment based on diverse applications over years. In contrast, he said equipment assistants in other Taiwan labs tend to be master’s or PhD students whose career interests are elsewhere.

Expanding 24/7 services

So far, only the flow cytometry core lab is open 24/7, but Dr. Changou plans for the imaging, mass spectrometry, and nuclear magnetic resonance core labs to similarly expand access.

He envisions students getting an idea and checking it out immediately – not waiting through a weekend or until they can book a slot if daytimes are busy. The rate for overnight is only 400NT while hourly use is 100NT, further encouraging midnight scholars.

Dr. Changou isn’t running the machines to recoup their cost – he says he sets the fees lower than comparably available facilities to broaden access. Fees may or may not cover operating and staff costs, but they generally don’t vary by the cost of the equipment itself.

“I want to make it affordable for everyone, especially the young professors – they need good data just to write the grant applications so they can gain a quick footing ” he said. With low costs, TMU faculties and students can have more access to these machines earlier than in most universities, where they can be reserved for high-profile projects or high priority users.

The Core’s educational mission

Users must first be trained and possibly certified to use equipment safely, so education represents another important part of the Core’s operations. Most users must take a course and be tested – often with both a written test and hands-on observation of the new user’s abilities.

This training protects the users and the equipment, though Dr. Changou is less worried about damage than about suboptimal use: “If it breaks, I can fix it. But you have to learn how to use the equipment, just like you have to learn to drive by learning how to start the car.”

Certification of a user’s abilities to operate particular equipment is expanding, he said, because it gives users something extra for their later job searches: a proof of their ability to use complex equipment. This is currently a pilot program involving Nutrition and Pharmacology students, but Dr. Changou wants to expand this for better career opportunities in many fields.

“Taiwan undergraduates tend to be more focused on their career goals,” Dr. Changou said. “By the time we get them, they’ve decided on medicine or dentistry. In the US, students can explore more” and get a diverse background for different career directions. Certification will expand career options for TMU students because it can prove their abilities in a way that is meaningful to employers.

TMU’s TOF-SIMS expertise

Employers know that equipment operators need experience to get reliable and reproducible data. TMU’s Core is internationally respected for such experience, notably with a notoriously difficult piece of equipment known as TOF-SIMS: the time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometer.

He laughed that it took the better part of two years, but his team’s skill with this method has led to consistent reliable data, great discoveries, and even inquiries from international collaborators and companies – as they have actively sought to cooperate with TMU scientists because of the Core Facilities’ excellence in this area.

As it is the age of big data, the fifth of the Core subsections lists not specialized machines but computerized data analysis services – a list that is bound to expand, and to connect all the cores as a whole, with this promising area of TMU research.

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