Biology department discusses MobiLab

Graduate student Philip Drummond (in the red shirt) watches as Sean O'Connell and Jim Costa talk with Russ Lea (right) about the biology department's new MobiLab.

MobiLab on display
Sean O'Connell, Mack Powell, Jim Costa (left to right) show off the MobiLab for Russ Lea.

CULLOWHEE - Biology students at Western now have better access to sophisticated analytical equipment that is essential for advanced molecular studies, thanks to a “MobiLab” that goes where the students need it.

With a combination of grants from the Chancellor's Office and The University of North Carolina Office of the President, the biology department recently bought four new machines, called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) thermal cyclers, to supplement older ones already in use for DNA copying and analysis.

And, because students work in eight separate labs in the Stillwell and Natural Sciences buildings, the new thermal cyclers, supporting equipment and supplies are stored on a custom-made cart that rolls to wherever the students are working.  The equipment also can move to another room where a fixed digital imaging system lets students see their research results.

“Basically, we have a molecular biology research lab on wheels,” said the biology department's Sean O'Connell, whose students are using the equipment to study the DNA of micro-organisms in the Great Smoky Mountains and for other projects.

The equipment and cart were formally unveiled at a recent reception. During the event, Jim Costa of the biology department thanked Russ Lea, vice president for research and sponsored programs in the Office of the President, for his help in funding MobiLab, believed to be the first of its kind.

“This lets us take expensive equipment and maximize its use, and it has greatly enhanced educational opportunities of our students,” said Costa, who holds the H.F and Katherine P. Robinson Professorship of Biology at Western. The grant from the UNC Office of the President was part of a million-dollar legislative appropriation that is earmarked for biotechnological research, Lea said.

Cary resident Philip Drummond, a first-year graduate student in biology, is studying single-celled organisms called archaea.  Drummond said he is grateful that the MobiLab gives him greater access to analytical equipment.

“You can do more work this way because each test takes about five hours, but now we have four new thermal cyclers that can go to various labs, so more students can test their samples,” he said.  With an estimated 10,000 species and 10 billion cells per gram of soil in the Great Smokies biodiversity study, there's a lot of work to be done.

Students at Western are doing much more than practicing research techniques on known samples, O'Connell said.  Instead, they are identifying micro-organisms that haven't been found before, generating data that can be published, gaining experience with important results, and answering critical questions about biology at the molecular level. 

“This kind of outcome is normally available only in more advanced laboratories, but our students are accomplishing it right here at Western,” O'Connell said.

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Last modified: Monday, February 14, 2005
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