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Rethinking research facilities: harnessing expertise together

10 June 2024 | By: Dr Casey Dixon and Kevin Wright | 3 min read
Newcastle University technician processing sample

Most universities have a suite of high-end facilities to support research activities. But at Newcastle University, the Research Facilities team is taking this provision one step further, building a holistic offer to join up the various facilities to better support academics and commercial partners.

At Newcastle, the focus isn’t on the shiny boxes and cutting-edge labs. Yes, the University has an enviable complement of equipment, but it’s the expertise behind the kit that gets the results.

Having that expertise consolidated as one team means a researcher or commercial partner doesn’t need to hunt around for the right person or equipment. We’ll coordinate the process and work collaboratively to achieve the project’s goals, whether that’s reducing methane in farming or recreating the origins of life.

Experienced staff make all the difference

Preclincal in vivo imaging

Preclinical In Vivo Imaging

Nearly all the technicians at Newcastle have PhDs related to their area of work whilst many have postdoc experience. Some also have industry experience, in research and development positions, for example.

This research background means the technicians aren’t just there to press buttons on a machine – they co-design projects to help achieve goals. They’ll think of new ways of doing things, find tools or techniques to improve efficiency, and team up with other academics to pool their collective expertise.

Often a researcher or industry professional has a particular outcome in mind or a problem to solve but doesn’t have the specialist expertise to know how to achieve it or what might be possible.

The technicians have the skills to interpret that goal and work with the project owner to gather the results they need.

Case study: life on Mars

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance

Working with the analytical facilities across the Faculty of Science, Agriculture and Engineering, Dr Graham Purvis conducted a pilot experiment looking at the origins of life. The facilities team helped Dr Purvis mimic the generation of organic molecules at ancient hot springs and deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

The project involved a suite of analyses to detect organic molecules:

  • in bulk materials (thermal-desorption gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), thermogravimetric-differential scanning calorimetry coupled with quadrupole mass spectrometry (TG-DSC-QMS))
  • on the surface of the mineral (X-Ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy, XPS)
  • in the aqueous phase (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, NMR; ion chromatography, IC)
  • in the gas phase (GC-MS)

With the success of this work the team helped secure a £1 million NERC Pushing Frontiers grant for a wider cross-faculty project delving deep into the mystery of life’s origins.

Greater than the sum of our parts

Newcastle University - Facilities Photography - Group - dataOur Research Facilities team collaborate across departments to draw on a broad range of expertise for clients 

The world’s biggest problems will be solved by experts from different areas working together. So it makes no sense for the Research Facilities team to stick rigidly to departments or faculties.

At Newcastle, the team work as one, across traditional departmental boundaries. If a project needs multiple facilities, the project team or lead technician can arrange it. Clients don’t need to deal with multiple departments that aren’t aware of what each other are doing. We’ve consolidated all these experts and machines to create a one-stop shop.

Coordination, collaboration and discussion across different areas of expertise means we can be much more effective with the service we offer.

Drawing on the full range of Newcastle’s expertise

 

The advantage of having a facilities team that works across the University is the broad range of expertise clients can draw on.

Technicians each have their own academic specialisms, but they’re also very aware of how other parts of the process work.

This means the University isn’t just limited to supporting a few specialist areas. The team have worked on projects in biomedical sciences, pharmaceuticals, material sciences, synthetic chemistry, marine biology, agriculture and many more.

Top equipment managed by experts in their fields

Princess Royal 1200 x 800 - Internal

Princess Royal research vessel

While the Research Facilities team know it’s the people that make a project a success, you also need the equipment to match. And Newcastle has just that, from high-end analysis equipment to our two fully equipped farms set up for measuring methane emissions, comparing soils and much more. Our facilities and equipment include:

Zeiss ORION NanoFab helium ion microscope

Instead of electrons typically used in high-resolution microscopes, the Zeiss ORION NanoFab ionises helium atoms at a tip so sharp that only three atoms exist at its apex.

The result? A resolution below 0.5nm, with contrast that reveals surface features invisible to scanning electron microscopes. It’s a world-leading instrument and collectively, our Surface Analysis suite can provide an unprecedented amount of understanding across many areas in chemical, structural, and topological makeup of materials.

X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS)

The XPS is one of the principal methods of probing the composition and electronic structure of surfaces, such as semiconductors, biomaterials, or geological samples.

The AXIS Nova at Newcastle is the highest energy resolution instrument we have, capable of spectroscopy down to 10μm.

The Princess Royal research catamaran

This speedy and stable vessel is the ideal mobile research base for a range of marine applications, from wind-farm support to marine mammal surveys.

The vessel is capable of gathering large amounts of real-time data, from ocean temperature to wave height, allowing it to be used for many marine and engineering research projects.

Setting you up for success

Life in the Research Facilities team never gets boring – there’s always another fascinating project around the corner.

By working with us and commissioning our independent expert advice, we can help you get the maximum value out of limited budgets and internal resources. It’s never a purely transactional process, our technicians have the in-depth knowledge to be able to support and advise and make the project the best it can be. They’re invested in the project and want to see it succeed.

Are you thinking of using our analytical services? The first step is to simply get in touch and start a conversation. Fill in the form on our website and we’ll get back to you and explain what facilities you could benefit from and how we can work together.


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