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Duke med school reinforcing "core" lab services for research professors

Monday, March 6, 2017
By Ray Gronberg, The Herald-Sun
Nancy Andrews

DURHAM -- Duke University’s putting $31 million into updates of the common “core facilities” researchers in the various arms of the School of Medicine lean on to get their work done, the school’s outgoing dean said in her final “state of the school” address to faculty.

The effort’s touching such services as lab-animal care and pathology. And Duke’s also working with UNC Chapel Hill and the RTP-based National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences to operate a relatively new type of electron microscope that can map molecules, Dean Nancy Andrews said.

An investment in “cryo-electron microscopy” is “critically important these days for a number of areas of science, but it’s also outrageously expensive,” sparking the collaboration of of the three institutions, she said.

The technology marries traditional electron microscopy and digital imaging, allowing high-resolution mapping of complex molecules.

Detail-wise, researchers have gone from seeing “a blob to very detailed molecular structure,” Andrews said. “We think it’s going to make a huge difference.”

She didn’t offer details on cost, but a September 2015 article on the technology in the journal Nature said one of the microscopes can cost about $8 million up front and about $4,900 a day to operate. About a quarter of the daily operating cost goes to pay the machine’s electric bill.

Labor is another factor, and Duke was in the market last fall for what it termed an “exceptional, collaborative, and creative mathematical scientist, computational scientist or engineer” to help run the program.

The job posting said the move is also linked to Duke’s “quantitative initiative,” an effort run out of Provost Sally Kornbluth’s office to add between five and 10 big-data specialists to the ranks of the faculty.

“Core facilities,” at Duke, UNC Chapel Hill and other big research universities, are centralized operations that do the laboratory grunt work that’s too specialized, complicated, big or expensive for any single professor’s or research group’s lab to take on by itself.

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