"New" Equipment and Materials Give Science Lab a Giant Boost

June 07, 2010

The fall semester is still months away, but science faculty at the main campus are already thinking about the laboratory courses for the upcoming academic year with glee.

???New??? Equipment and Materials Give Science Lab a Giant Boost Their delight is fueled by an unexpected inheritance, not of cash, but of long sought-after laboratory testing equipment and materials. Two assistant professors of biology, Iain Duffy and William Ellis, located a federal government source of recycled equipment available at no cost. In consultation with Linda Bergen-Losee, biology instructor and lab director, the pair selected the items most suitable for Saint Leo’s needs. Now, the science teachers and plant operations staffers including Roger Massey are at work arranging the contents of the lab to make the best use of the new devices.

While the names of the most highly prized pieces––DNA analyzers, an RT-PCR machine, a microplate reader, a densitometer––are unfamiliar to most people, the words signify progress and possibility to Duffy. The use of a DNA analyzer is particularly important, he explained. Students will be able to test organic materials and discover key attributes of the genetic material of the samples. Many potentially significant student experiments and research projects cannot proceed without this step, he said: “Everything stops at DNA sequencing.”

The list of activities now possible goes on and on. Students can use the RT-PCR, as scientists do, for viewing DNA found in samples and for making certain calculations. Densitometers are used to analyze proteins. Microplate readers can detect minute levels of biological, chemical, or physical changes in tested samples. Duffy and Ellis also found less complicated, but also useful, pieces of equipment including shaking water baths that can be calibrated to certain settings, and drying ovens that remove the water from biological samples. Every item is a tool that serves an important purpose in contemporary scientific inquiries.

Both Duffy and Ellis recalled ways recent graduates would have employed these devices, had they had been available, in directed and senior projects. Returning and new students now have that advantage, which Duffy hopes the students will use to conduct studies that merit publication and impress graduate schools. He also sees advantages for students who might seek employment after graduation as laboratory technicians in research or medical settings: “Being able to show that they have experience, and are comfortable using complex technology such as the DNA analyzer or the RT-PCR, would certainly be an advantage to them when applying for positions.” Duffy and Ellis never expected to find so much valuable equipment––or to have such a memorable time.

All the material comes from a program run by the National Institutes of Health. Ellis discovered through word of mouth from other scientists that NIH has a donation program for surplus materials and older-generation equipment no longer used in its laboratories. Donations are for public agencies and not-for-profit institutions only, as all the goods were purchased with taxpayer dollars. Organizations that are interested in seeing the merchandise have to send employees to look through the inventory, which is stored in a warehouse outside Washington, D.C., with limited hours.

Duffy and Ellis got the OK to travel in early May, but decided to keep their expectations in check for fear of being disappointed.

When they arrived at the warehouse, they couldn’t believe their luck in finding such bounty. “We were like kids in a toy store,” Duffy said. Also, the NIH staffers were incredibly gracious to the newcomer-shoppers, he added. The two made frequent cell phone calls back to Bergen-Losee at the lab to consult on specific items. Hours later, they wrapped up what might be called their “shopping” list.

The list was so long that they had to come back with a van two days later to pick up the contents, and then drove 20 hours overnight back to campus. Bergen-Losee recalled she was stunned when she saw the van and contents. “They said they had a lot of stuff, but I was still amazed.”

Mathematics and Science Department Chair Siamack Bondari is also impressed. He gives the assistant professors high marks for their accomplishment and for modeling the university core values so well. " There was no guarantee that the trip would be a success,” Bondari noted. “Bill and Iain put a lot of time and effort into the idea and carefully timed and coordinated the trip. The result was a great success and surpassed all expectations. Their contributions to the department and Saint Leo University and their sense of community and responsible stewardship are greatly appreciated.”

Pictured: From left, Assistant Professor Iain Duffy, Professor Siamack Bondari, Instructor and Laboratory Director Linda Bergen-Losee, and Assistant Professor William Ellis with new equipment students will be able to use to analyze DNA samples.