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research plans at SMALL universities

Dianna L. Bourke dlb17 at PSU.EDU
Wed Jul 10 22:47:13 EST 1996

Sarah Boomer asks:

>Here's a question I have had problems with - what about research plans for
>obviously small colleges.  Having gone to one myself and knowing quite a
>few people who have taken "molecular biology" teaching positions only to
>find the colleges had no idea what kind of budget was involved to "set up
>a program in molecular techniques," I am curious what people would advise
>for both writing in response to questions about "developing a small
>undergrad. research program" - not knowing the awareness of the
>faculty/college on potentially new subject matter and budget - and rooting
>out these kind of questions tactfully in advance.
>Thanks!  Sarah

Hoo boy! This one is difficult. Exactly how small is small?? Small is a
relative term when applied to colleges. 1000-5000 students? 5000-10,000?
These differences can be important in the way departments and
administration are set up. For instance, in PA we have several
colleges/universities that have 5000 to 15,000 students. The ones on the
larger end of the scale have more requirements for research and have heard
of the concept of seed money for scientists. The smaller ones may think
$5000 is an extremely generous amount of seed money! When I first came to
my campus they were washing glass slides and plastic pipet tips to save
money!!! Acckk.

Anyway I have learned some techniques designed to get what you want without
scaring to death the administrators (mine were a psychologist and a
historian!) The secret here is patience and compromise.

1. Try to narrow what you want to do to only one or a few experiments that
would use the least amount of equipment. At least initially. I was able to
wrangle about one large piece of equipment a year after that, budget

2. Pick experiments and equipment that use the least amount of consumables.
Can you do your assays in microtiter plates that can be read
spectrophotometrically instead of with radioactivity? (It's a mess to deal
with radioactivity in a small school setting, and everyone is terrified of
it!) Can you run your gels and blots on a smaller scale, even it it means
having to do more runs? Think small as possible without sacrificing
quality. Are there nearby large research universities that will let you use
their large equipment for free or will recharge you?

3. Try to justify research equipment by using it for a course. You may even
be able to write an internal or external TEACHING grant to purchase the
equipment, then use it for your research on the off times.

4. With all equipment you seek to purchase, find out if you can buy it in
modules. For instance, just today I received a call about an inverted cell
culture microscope. Of course they will try to sell you the best they have
and try to convince you that you should buy quality, but after some
resistance they finally told me that I could buy the stripped down model
first then add the camera system and fluoresent optics at a later time. I
would sacrifice some quality, but I suspect if would be more than
sufficient for my needs. Sometimes equipment comes with fancy software to
print out your data that can cost several thousands of dollars. Usually
these instruments will print out the raw data on a strip without the
software and you just retype into your computer. (Better yet find a
workstudy student that thinks this is really neat to do!)

5. At nearby reasearch universities find as many salvage barns, loading
dock rejects, used equipment dealers, national meeting demonstrator models,
and reconditioned units as possible. Someone at another PSU campus just
gave me a cryostat that was sitting in storage. They had gotten it from a
local hospital. It took about $2500 to recondition it, (a new one is about
$20,000) but I have a perfectly functional cryostat.

The bottom line is it is sort of like pioneering, but the challange to make
do and jerry-rig is kind of fun sometimes....but you have to be kinda


Dianna L. Bourke
Penn State Hazleton

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