Proteomics staff scientist Garvey McKenzie works with a mass spectrometer at the unveiling of the Stanford Center for Imaging Mass Spectrometry (SCIMS) at the SUMS shared resource. (Image credit: Aaron Kehoe)

When people imagine a cutting-edge laboratory, they probably envision a multitude of large, gleaming machines that perform a variety of wondrous and impressive scientific tasks. The reality, however, is while incredible technologies exist, many are expensive, require special expertise, and sometimes even need to be housed in very specific environments – so no one lab has every machine they could want. The operations working group within Stanford’s Community of Shared Advanced Research Platforms (c-ShARP), however, is hard at work bringing that dream closer to reality.

The operations group is one of four working groups within c-ShARP, which launched in October 2020. This group is tasked with developing the infrastructure to help make state-of-the-art facilities and equipment more apparent and accessible to researchers across the university, including through a website connecting the various groups together and centralizing administrative and financial services for the program.

Over the past four years, investments in shared research facilities across campus were a result of a faculty-focused planning process, led by a collaboration between the Provost, Vice Provost and Dean of Research, and school Deans. Under the Shared Research Platforms initiative, there has been a multi-year commitment of over $50 million toward this initiative, which includes $40 million dedicated to modernizing aging equipment and introducing new scientific tools.

Lisa Nichols, who is director of a shared resource facility in the School of Medicine and co-leads c-ShARP’s operations working group, said it is amazing how technologies spread across scientific disciplines, just as she’s seen with the flow cytometers in her facility. What started as a tool for immunology is now used by many branches of study, including plant studies, genetics, and research on drug delivery systems.

“When you centralize equipment, you have a hub for concentrating experience and the level of available expertise that is very directly related to that,” said Nichols. “This provides researchers the expertise to extend what you can do with the same equipment and push limits to use it to its maximum.”

Shared successes

The operations group has already achieved many specific successes across campus, said Claudius Mundoma, director of the shared instrumentation facilities in the Office of Vice Provost and Dean of Research. “It has enabled schools to upgrade their abilities in many ways,” Mundoma explained.

In the School of Engineering, researchers investigating diamond films for use in power electronics, optoelectronics, and high-temperature and radiation-resistant electronics would regularly travel to other institutions to access reactors for diamond deposition, such as the Seki CVD reactors for p-type diamond films. “This impacted accessibility, student training, and slowed down research,” Mundoma said. Now, the shared Seki diamond deposition system on-site at Stanford has alleviated those roadblocks, empowering those same researchers to get hundreds of thousands in research grants.

The School of Medicine’s new Bruker PET/SPECT/CT machine, a key molecular imaging modality, has been essential to new translational research in theranostics – treatments that combines diagnostics and therapies – and radiopharmaceutical discovery on campus. The c-ShARP program provided $300,000 in institutional support that helped to secure $1.2 million NIH funding for the imaging equipment. Thus, for every $1 put into investing in this equipment, Mundoma said it has attracted about $3 in external funding.

In addition to the financial benefits, easier access to technology is making research more time-efficient.

Through c-ShARP, researchers at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability upgraded a 20-year-old Thermo Finnigan Deltaplus XL mass spectrometer – which measures how the Earth responds to increased carbon dioxide – to a new version of the machine, a Thermo Scientific Delta Q isotope ratio mass spectrometer, that is more capable and reliable. Students can also be more easily trained on this new equipment, and it can accommodate more users. “Scientists can now spend more time doing experiments or design and discussion than troubleshooting malfunctions,” Mundoma said.

In the ChEM-H Macromolecular Structure Knowledge Center, c-ShARP has funded the purchase of high-end light scattering machines that allow researchers across engineering and medicine to perform X-ray characterization of crystals. “Researchers are able to quickly identify the best conditions for crystals to form – a process that used to take months,” Mundoma said. “This centralized resource removes the need for individual labs to buy it on their own.”

“As more faculty convene to access services in the shared facilities, just like a watering hole, they engage and these engagements inevitably spark collaborations.”

—Claudius Mundoma

Director of the Shared Instrumentation Facilities in the Office of Vice Provost and Dean of Research

Spreading the word

Nichols, whose service center is one of more than 20 in the School of Medicine, hopes to spread the word that individual labs don’t need their own specific equipment with shared resources via c-ShARP. Sharing resources has the added advantage of encouraging the sharing of knowledge and collaboration on new ideas, said Nichols.

“You do have to pay hourly to usage on the instrumentation, but this is far less than ownership costs and there’s also a large knowledge base centered directly around that technology and related technologies that can help you get the most out of it,” Nichols said. “Working together can really help people get the answers to their questions quickly.”

The operations group now is touting a new voucher program for incoming faculty, which helps offset up to $10,000 in costs to try shared technology and take advantage of the equipment expertise across Stanford. In 2023, the program supported twenty PIs with vouchers to access shared facilities.

“As more faculty convene to access services in the shared facilities, just like a watering hole, they engage and these engagements inevitably spark collaborations,” Mundoma said.