Case Study: Mark Pfuhl, King’s College London

Our fifth case study turns to highly specialised equipment sharing, focusing on research carried out by Dr Mark Pfuhl at King’s College London (KCL).

Dr Pfuhl is a Reader in Cardiovascular Structural Biology. His research includes investigating the structure of proteins involved in muscle signalling and regulation in the heart. This is important for the understanding and treatment of a range of diseases including cardiomyopathies and cancer.

The methods used include solution and solid state NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) spectroscopy, studying the molecular environment at a scale of nanometers. This requires higher sensitivity of detection than the familiar MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) used in hospitals. Also, in contrast to the images generated by MRI, NMR produces three-dimensional molecular models from complex computer calculations.

What is the equipment?

NMR spectrometers are used routinely in other fields such as synthetic chemistry where they are relatively inexpensive and feature in departmental facilities. However the equipment used by Mark is much more advanced and powerful. The spectrometers use stronger magnets and perform at higher resolutions, typically costing in the region of millions of pounds.

Such highly specialised equipment is therefore not widely available, with only 5 or 6 similar instruments in the country. These tend to be based at central facilities such as the KCL NMR facility. Mark is a regular user of this facility, which hosts a set of four NMR spectrometers. The laboratory has been refurbished and now houses 400 MHz, 600 MHz, 700 MHz and 800 MHz NMR Bruker spectrometers. All the instruments have different consoles and probes suitable for a range of applications.

Where is the shared equipment?

Mark reflects that “NMR is such as small community everyone knows everything” about the equipment. He has sessions block booked in advance to use the KCL NMR facility and colleagues would also be familiar with the location of such equipment. As such, equipment sharing services such as Jisc’s are not typically the first point of access for experienced researchers. However, Mark acknowledges that he might in future need a specific tool or piece of equipment that he doesn’t yet know about. Similarly, he feels new researchers would find this useful. The facility is listed in the Jisc equipment database, as are the individual NMR spectrometers. The equipment can also be booked through Clustermarket.

Mark is also a user of shared equipment elsewhere, when he needs even more powerful facilities. He cites other national facilities, at the MRC in the Francis Crick institute, Birmingham University, and a national solid state NMR facility at Warwick.

These are used for specialised investigations. For example the University of Birmingham hosts the UK’s only cold probe-equipped 900 MHz spectrometer available to UK researchers. This is findable through an entry in Jisc’s as is Warwick’s NMR equipment such as their Bruker Avance II 700. Mark uses all of these facilities occasionally when his research needs even more powerful instruments.

Accessing the equipment

Even though he attends the facility with his samples and operates the instruments himself, he does rely on the support of specialist staff. The facility manager is always at hand to give advice when going beyond routine investigations (which is most of the time!). Having a manager who interacts with a variety of researchers means “he picks up all the tricks and workarounds that I might not be aware of” said Mark. “He knows who has done it in different ways and so indirectly I can draw on the experience of other researchers.”

Are there barriers to equipment sharing?

Using shared equipment is so essential to Mark’s research that he finds it difficult to think of any barriers to usage. Mark would always have discussions with the facility manager. They would routinely explore which is the best option, how to set up, what preparations need to be done, and sample requirements. As this level of support is standard, he felt that even an inexperienced PhD student could use shared instruments. The other aspect that Mark would like more of is time with the equipment. “We don’t get 100% of time, we have to make do than less time than we like” he reports. “You can always run more experiments!” he adds.

Benefits and the future

The state of the art facility gives Mark access to the full range of the most challenging applications. His research questions are at the cutting edge such that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. He uses the equipment to explore different ways of conducting investigations, and looks at literature for new ways of running the experiments. He sees it as very open ended, “trying this and that” and “talking to colleagues to get hints from other people”.

This flexible approach can only be achieved through a shared facility. Sharing provides access to expensive special equipment pooled for different researchers to access. Mark reports that it is very demanding getting data out of this equipment. He “optimises everything to an inch of its life”, so the joint trouble shooting with facility experts is particularly important to his type of research.

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