The importance of lacking necessary equipment


It’s frustrating to to be hampered by inadequate facilities.

My university is severely underequipped. We have a Bioinstrumentation course featuring mostly broken and outdated equipment. Our EM has cobwebs. I can’t weigh to milligram accuracy. Until last year, only one person could use our autoclave because he knew the special trick (how to not kill yourself). The GC-MS has a useless detector, and HPLC is out of the question. The DI lines are not to be trusted, and a recent triumph was to convince physical plant to not shut down the vacuum lines over the evenings and weekends. (My rainforest field site is better equipped and staffed by an order of magnitude.)

My last university, which I left six years ago, had everything I could want, and plenty more – bomb calorimetry, confocals, automontage, and the machine that goes bing.

So why did my research productivity quadruple (or so) since I arrived at broken-down-equipmentville? It’s a causal relationship.

When I was in Equipment Heaven, I designed experiments that fit my most pressing questions. They involved cuticular hydrocarbons, image analysis, microsats, isotopes, nutrients, volatile odor bioassays and headspace analysis. And none of them worked. Either I didn’t have enough experience to make it work on my own, or my relationship with the expert connected to the machine didn’t work. The chemists at Equipment Heaven were great, but didn’t give a hoot about my biological question, and they had their own students, classes and projects on the front burner. What good is the fanciest GC-MS in the world if you can’t get a chemist to troubleshoot with you? I spent a lot of time at the fancy university spinning my wheels but getting nowhere.

After I moved to a place without working equipment, I needed access. But instead of finding machines, I sought out people. I’d find the best person to fit the project. “Hi, you don’t know me, but here is a cool project. It’s about ants that live in outer space and eat moondust. Doesn’t that sound cool? Want to work with me on this?” I was surprised how easy it was to find collaborators. People want to say yes to something fun. If the machine is next door, it seems easy enough to do it yourself. But it’s better to pack it in a box, and send that box to someone who’ll do it for you and then write part of the manuscript. Some of my best collaborators have been grad students and postdocs. Their PIs are generally happy to see them get extra papers and have them build their own networks.

I’m getting more done without any equipment now, because I have no limits. If I want to do a project, I just need to find the right people. My students are getting a more genuine taste about how science happens, too.

6 thoughts on “The importance of lacking necessary equipment

  1. I realize that I’ve made a few posts just in the last day and a half. I’m trying to build up content, but I think I’ll settle down to about 3-4 per week soon. Experienced bloggers, readers, what do you think the frequency should be?

  2. Very Keynesian of you Terry. Nice work – look forward to catching up with you a bit this way!

  3. The blogs I enjoy the most, post a few times a day.

  4. Andrew, that’s good to know. (I won’t tell your advisors if you don’t.) I think one per day will be my maximum, but I typically will want to post something of substance, which’ll take a bit of time to craft.

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