Case Study: Isaac Abrahams, QMUL

Dr Isaac Abrahams uses a variety of different equipment both internally and sharing it externally in the field of chemistry.

The context

As a senior lecturer in the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London Isaac supports other researchers in chemical analysis. He also provides an X-ray Diffraction facility to the whole college. About a dozen different research groups use the facility at QMUL, but there are some contexts where they need access to other equipment.

The equipment

Diffractometers look at single crystals of a compound made in research labs in order to determine the structure. This is a basic necessity for synthetic chemistry – the structure is needed to publish research about any new compound. Many university departments will have this type of equipment but facilities elsewhere offer services, better instrumentation and expertise to analyse.

Isaac is a regular user of equipment at the National Crystallography Service (NCS) at Southampton University. The diffractometers there are more powerful, able to look at very small crystals using higher intensity sources, so that offers an advantage that isn’t available locally.

There are many other types of equipment used by Isaac across the country and internationally, including nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS). In some cases it is using a central facility, in others it is a collaborative research project, bringing together a research idea with specialist equipment and expertise from another university. He relies on the use of other equipment to complement the internal facility.

Finding equipment for sharing

Experienced researchers, like Isaac, commonly know what equipment there is and who the people are at different research facilities. This means that he has existing knowledge and may have even supported the original case for funding of the shared equipment. However, he recognises how valuable a sharing service such as can be. “It is very useful to have that for younger staff who don’t have the contacts and are just starting out” he commented.

Without the contacts and knowledge of the location of different types of equipment, early career researchers in particular would find it much harder to pursue aspects of their research. He added, “We don’t know everything , we may find there is something right round the corner and we never knew about it.”
“Some equipment is dedicated to specific tasks, and to set it up for doing other tasks is possible but can be quite an involved procedure for what might be a one off job.” described Isaac. “We look for a comparable piece of equipment that can do the job we wanted rather than reconfigure.”

Accessing local and shared equipment

For single crystal analysis, researchers package and document the samples and post them to the NCS at Southampton, and the results are available online a few weeks later. In that case they can rely on the facility experts at the NCS to collect the samples, without needed to be physically there.

The researchers at QMUL apply for an allocation of usage – the number of samples they expect to submit within a time period – then send them as and when needed. Single crystal crystallography is relatively straight forward and a routine process so submitting the samples remotely works well. However, for other experiments like NMR, it is more likely to need the user there to decide what to do as all the experiments are a little different. Users of the NMR equipment would travel with the samples and work with them on the day in the remote facility.

Barriers to equipment sharing

Issues identified by Isaac include possibly limited access to popular equipment. He also had questions over whether the cost savings of sharing in some contexts doesn’t lead to good research outcomes. He gave frequency of use as an example – the commonly used powder technique is used very frequently and needs a quick turnaround, so wouldn’t make sense as a shared service. Where the experiment is more specialised and less time critical then this isn’t so important, such as the single crystal work. Similarly, for time critical experiments, to go to another site for equipment may not be practical. Here the overheads of booking, availability etc. can interfere with the research.

Costs to users can also be a problem. In some cases this is just consumables such as liquid nitrogen, and costs are kept to a minimum. For the NCS facility, the cost is met by the research councils, so QMUL are effectively applying for an allocation of that in using the equipment.

Benefits and the future

For Isaac, there are clear advantages in being able to use equipment that you wouldn’t normally have access to. With a wide variety of different equipment available across the country for different types of experiment, it broadens the scope of the research they can carry out.

For institutions there is a cost saving, including the running costs and staffing and reduced duplication of equipment. Equipment sharing is also of great value to collaborative research, leading to publications bringing together the researcher with another having equipment and expertise.

Isaac expects sharing equipment to continue to be important for his research and that of colleagues. He described how some sharing is decreasing because of funding and prioritising local interest. When researchers have acquired funding for a piece of equipment, they may not see an incentive in letting others use it. This depends to some extent on openness towards collaboration. However, “Collaboration is an important part of advancing research”, said Isaac, and sharing equipment enables some of those collaborations for him.

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