|By Judy Fredenberg
Science is changing.
Charles Thompson, UM professor of pharmaceutical sciences and chemistry, describes this
change with an aura of Mary B. Shelleys Frankenstein: Its
rare to have individual scientists anymore. Scientists do not work in solitude at night by
Instead, scientists rely on countless daily conversations either verbal or
electronic to keep their research aloft and alive. University researchers readily
agree that regular communication and sharing equipment makes them more productive,
stronger scientists. The collective spirit Thompson says, will move your
science faster and further.
The fact is that by unspoken agreement researchers at UM have long understood there is
strength in unity. Often, to the amazement of faculty members new to UM, everybody works
together, says Ralph Judd, biological sciences professor and director of the Montana
Molecular Biology Facility. This sense of collaboration extends into the laboratory.
All of our labs are open, Judd says. There are no closed doors. UM
researchers know that if they cant afford a particular piece of instrumentation, if
its on campus, they can have access to it. Thats what makes this place pretty
neat and completely unique.
Thompson, for example, recently purchased two mass spectrometers with grants from the
Murdock Charitable Trust and the National Science Foundation. One mass spectrometer is a
high-end machine used to attack problems at the interface of biology and chemistry.
Think of this one like the full-service gas station, Thompson says.
The other is a turnkey operation where graduate students and others can get
high-quality results within an hour. This one is like the self-service island,
he says. Faculty, staff and students in pharmaceutical sciences, chemistry, biological
sciences and the Center for Environmental Health Sciences will benefit from this core
Mass spectrometers, used by scientists to solve problems that range from atoms to
organisms, can measure tiny things and have been used in researching the human genome.
Similarly, small-contaminants in large fields or streams can be isolated and measured.
In Thompsons opinion, a mass spectrometer is, in fact, the singular most
powerful tool to problem solve. While the instrument often is confusing for
nonscientists, and the actual experiments and data indecipherable, Thompson tells about
the title of a journal article that, in a nutshell, describes in laymans terms the
capabilities of mass spectrometry: How much thyme did your grandmother put in her
Advances in technology have allowed common themes in visualization and computer
applications to cross scientific disciplines like never before. Geologists, chemists,
astronomers, physicists and pharmacists are able to excel in vastly different disciplines
while sharing common instrumentation. Thompson sees science today as having evolved to a
lively round-table discussion, as opposed to occurring in solitary cubicles.
A significant number of small instruments at UM were bought over the years through
research grants and departmental funds or through federal laboratory surplus. These
include equipment such as scintillation counters, ultracentrifuges, gamma radiation
detectors and microtiter plate readers. Judd calls these UMs bread and butter. A
researcher can use such instruments to prepare data for additional analysis on a big
instrument in a core facility.
Most instruments at the University are free to any trained researcher. Other equipment
is provided for a fee. Some facilities are available with technical assistance and
support. The Montana Molecular Biology Facility, for example, offers DNA sequencing and
synthesis and peptide synthesis and has a technician who runs experiments and returns the
data to a researcher for a fee.
Diana Lurie, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences, finds the availability
of shared facilities at UM surprisingly good. Shes impressed with equipment quality
and access, both crucial issues to researchers because UM is relatively small but has a
growing research program. Shared instrumentation is one of our successes here at the
University, Lurie says.
Luries laboratory houses a confocal microscope to examine tissue sections. Using
laser technology, the microscope is able to optically section the layers of a cell. The
result is very thin layers that give high resolution. With an image analysis system, Lurie
can color label more than one protein, take a picture of different colors with the
confocal microscope, and feed the results into a computer that generates a photo. Called
double labeling, this is a very accurate way to look at tissue.
Additionally, Lurie has a molecular histology facility that is similar to a hospital
pathology laboratory. Its pretty amazing we have facilities here that are
comparable to any medical facilities Ive been in, in terms of the work I do,
Its a key reason Lurie and others stay. When we send in grants, we compete
on a national level, she says. Thus, we have to be able to compete with the
big medical schools, and to keep competitive we must keep up with the evolving
Judd adds that UMs shared instrumentation helps keep the University competitive
in international science. When a facility is shared by 25 scientists, rather than
two, five, or even 10, a sponsoring agency generally takes favorable note of such a
critical mass of researchers, he says.
Johnnie Moore, geology professor and director of the Murdock Environmental
Biogeochemistry Lab, concurs. MEBL instrumentation centers on chemical and microbial
analysis of environmental materials, such as water, soils, sediment and plants.
Researchers and students in forestry, chemistry, biological sciences and geology all have
used the lab, which has become a focal point for research on regional problems related to
heavy metal, arsenic and selenium contamination. An unanticipated use has been archaeology
students and faculty finger printing pot shards.
Moore, however, recognizes that keeping instrumentation current and maintained can be
problematic. Shared instruments are essential for propagating state-of-the-art
science, he says. UM cannot be competitive without it. But these facilities
are like cars: They require a lot of maintenance and wear out eventually, so you need a
new one. Consequently, one way to function more cost-effectively is to have shared
facilities where several researchers contribute instruments and funds.
For example, the Montana Biotechnology Center houses a flow cytometer that uses a laser
to measure large quantities of cells. The cytometers cost was shared by the center,
the Division of Biological Sciences, the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and the
Office of the Vice President for Research. Before its purchase researchers traveled 45
miles south to Hamilton to use a flow cytometer at Ribi Immunochem, a private company.
Also shared through the Montana Biotechnology Center is the HIV Laboratory, a
state-of-the-art facility with specialized air handling, a keyless security system, an
autoclave to disinfect instruments, biosafety cabinets and hoods, microscopes, plate
washers, and a liquid nitrogen freezer. Standard operating procedures maintain
Instrument sharing isnt limited only to UMs Missoula campus. Researchers
from Montana Tech and the Montana Crime Laboratory were included on the mass spectrometry
grants. Moore collaborates with the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management,
the U.S. Geological Survey and the Missoula Water Quality Council.
Such examples demonstrate that as new technology is brought to campus, more and more
scientists will use it. As UMs HIV efforts grow and expand, lab director
Jack Nunberg predicts, the use of the laboratory will increase and continue to
attract modern molecular and cell biologists.
When a rock is tossed into a pond, the ripples spread far beyond the point at which the
rock enters the water. Similarly, the benefits of shared instrumentation extend far beyond
the borders of campus. Our broad mission, Moore says, is to help the
citizens of Montana.