September 2011

Experimentation hundreds of miles away

For the David H. Murdock Research Institute in Kannapolis, N.C., the desire to offer remote access to some of its state-of-the-art instruments arises from its vision for collaboration. Mike Luther, the president of the DHMRI, says that the institute supports research and development projects with partners who are located both on and off campus.  The cost of each project is decided on a case-by-case basis.

Zhong Wang of the Bio-Imaging Facility at Hunter College, City University of New York, wants external users to share the facility’s high-end microscopes, because smaller universities “may not have enough funding to support expensive instruments.” Wang says that outside researchers can remotely access the confocal microscopes equipped with WebEx and a video-conferencing system.

The future of remote

The remote access of sophisticated instruments, except in the case of synchrotron facilities, largely remains off limits for academic researchers. Some instrumentation experts speculate that the low availability partly is due to the complexities of the operations. “Each lab member undergoes months of intense training before he or she can operate the electron microscope independently or remotely,” notes graduate student Meyerson.

However, there is a growing need for remote access, as sophisticated instruments are “starting to cost more both in terms of purchase and maintenance,” says Tobias Starborg, senior experimental officer of the electron microscope facility at the University of Manchester. He adds that “the only way new techniques get developed [by the facilities is to have] a constant flow of users wanting to try different things.”

Remote control of instruments could be a double-edged sword, however. Chen predicts that remote control via smartphone will be the next step. “[But] would I really like to control the mass spectrometer on the beach?” asks Chen with a smile.

/assets/0/366/418/428/2419/2420/2421/173894c3-01f4-4851-9fde-0a31459e6475.jpgJianfei (Jeffrey) Zhao ( is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute.


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