Thursday, May 7, 2015

PhD Talk for Academic Transfer: How to start up a new laboratory

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


When I started to work at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, one of the tasks I started to work on in the very beginning was the development of a structural concrete laboratory.

While the finalization of the laboratory is not quite there yet, it has been a very interesting journey. Often new professors on the tenure track are required to set up at least some lab space for their research. In my case, the laboratory is (not yet) for my research as well as for a number of teaching activities.

And, there was nothing to start from. The students simply had to go to another university for their laboratory class until recently.

While at times I wish everything would be just done and I could walk into a finished, spacious laboratory and keep working on my experimental research, I trust that with some patience the moment will be there when that will be possible.

Even though I'm currently in step 2 of a 6-stage process, I have learned a number of lessons from the experience of the last 1,5 years of building up a laboratory that I would like to share with you.

Here's a list of a number of things to keep in mind when you develop your lab space:

1. Get to know the local providers of lab equipment

If you need to import test equipment from abroad, it can be helpful to get to know the brands that have a local representative. This representative can help you with the installation of the equipment, regular maintenance and calibration, and trouble-shooting of any issues you could have with the equipment. A good technical representative can help you with all that, and even more. Unfortunately, some companies seem to have salespeople rather than technical people in their rather distant locations.

2. It's OK to start small...

Unless you managed to secure a large budget for the development of your laboratory, chances are that you'll have to start small and take time to develop the entire space. I'm currently housed in a space that is not even 10% of the floor space that I need, without much of the equipment or facilities that I need for my research, and only with the ability to teach a class in the space and allow for some research on concrete mix design (not my research topic). But it is something, and we're using the space and equipment we have to their maximum abilities.

3.... but make sure you get results with a small lab to notify the authorities of the importance of your lab

As long as there's no big lab floor, I can't continue the experimental research I want to do - but that doesn't mean I'm going to sit in a corner and wait until I finally have the space I need. The space our department has now, is what I've been using for teaching a class (now taught by a junior colleague), for giving space to the students who competed in the national and international concrete competition, and for thesis projects. With our small space, we've had excellent results - our students won the national competition and ended up second in the international competition. And these results have not gone unnoticed by the authorities of the university. I'm hoping that these successes will give more priority to the further development of our lab.

4. Get help

Hire a lab assistant and/or a technician. If you're on the tenure track and need to publish, teach, carry out research and more, then you simply don't have the time to run to the story whenever you run out of something in the lab. Shortly before opening of the lab, our department hired a junior colleague, freshly graduated, who is now in charge of the day-to-day management of the laboratory and teaching the mix design class. It's been a tremendous help, and one of the driving factors in the success of our students in the competitions.

5. Plan stages

You could walk into the office of the authorities of your university and ask for a million dollars, but chances are small they will open their pockets and give you all you need. I was asked to subdivide the development of the laboratory into stages, and focus on the most urgent needs first. We're long since behind on the original plan, but at least we have something that is producing results, and I keep pushing to realize the next stages.

6. Involve your students

The more people you involve, the more enthusiasm for your laboratory. By now, the small space we have is almost always bubbling with activity, and I have the impression that our students like hanging out in and around the lab (except for the afternoons, when our lack of air conditioning makes the inside temperature pretty much unbearable).

7. Get professional affiliations

See if you can get a tie to a professional organization in your laboratory, set up a student chapter of a professional organization, or organize certification exams in your new lab. You'll be able to reach out from the ivory tower and involve more local practitioners into your laboratory, and build a stronger reputation by doing so.

8. Ask for donations


Ask producers for donations of material and maybe even donations of used laboratory equipment. Whatever you get for free, helps, of course, and you'd be surprised how often companies are willing to give a small donation to universities for educational purposes. A plant that produces material by the truckload typically will not make a problem out of a donation of just a few bags of material. Even more so, it might be difficult for you to buy small quantities of material that is typically sold by the truckload.

9. Dream big

Last but not least: pour your heart and soul into the development of your laboratory, and dream big. The civil engineering laboratory of USFQ officially opened in November, and we've organized the national concrete competition, won it, got second place in the international competition, are doing some interesting undergraduate research projects, have started a student chapter of the American Concrete Institute - all of that in an abandoned greenhouse on campus. These successes not only make us proud of our accomplishments, but also motivate us to keep working towards a better and bigger laboratory.

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