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The School of Medicine Creates System to Connect Core Services for Research

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The School of Medicine Creates System to Connect Core Services for Research

The School of Medicine Creates System to Connect Core Services for Research

By Gretchen Miller and Vanessa Wasta

October 2017 — Does your lab have a mass spectrometer? Probably not. It’s a huge, costly piece of equipment, and many research universities, such as Johns Hopkins, house these kinds of essential resources in centralized facilities called “cores.” Such core facilities—ranging from proteomics to genome sequencing tools to biostatistics services — offer individual labs access to scientists and technicians with expertise in certain research disciplines and the ability to use equipment and technologies that are often expensive and difficult to master without consistent staffing and support.

Labs from across the university pay fees to use core services on an “as needed” basis, avoiding higher expense and ongoing maintenance of these highly specialized tools or skill sets. Simultaneously, the university gains an efficient way to offer its scientists the latest technologies and services staffed by highly skilled technicians and scientists.  

Core facilities are an essential part of an academic research enterprise, and we need to support their infrastructure and utilization across the university,” says Antony Rosen, vice dean for research and professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Rosen has worked over the past year to connect more than 47 core facilities to a common web-based platform, called iLabs, and provides grant funds to offset slower times, when cores have more flexibility to develop and test new cutting edge techniques.

First used by The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, iLabs offers a central web-based location to highlight core facilities at the university’s schools of medicine, public health, engineering, and arts and sciences. iLabs also provides central ordering and billing services to digitize and automate paper-based financial systems.  

Melissa Olson, who co-directs the Genetic Resources Core Facility (GRCF) at the Institute of Genetic Medicine, says, “iLabs has streamlined core service processes for us. Principal investigators at Johns Hopkins can request services they need online, track the service process, allocate funds for payment through an integrated billing system and build quotes for services.”

Olson also sees benefits in iLabs’ online scheduling systems. “Principal investigators can schedule time in our facilities, so they know precisely when equipment is available and when their sample will be processed,” she says.

At Johns Hopkins, the primary mission of cores is to support and advance the research programs of faculty members. However, to run a core facility efficiently, directors pay close attention to cash flow. “Every dollar is meaningful to me to help maintain and build on this cutting edge resource for promoting scientific discovery at Johns Hopkins,” says Bob Cole, director of the Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Facility at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “With the ebb and flow of faculty grants, cores can’t always be supported merely on fee-for-service,” says Cole. “Other funds, such as center grants and contracts, are essential to support cores and to keep fee-for-service charges reasonable.”

Scientist Andrew Holland, assistant professor of molecular biology and genetics, says his laboratory often uses services from core facilities. “iLabs helps track the financial resources I use for core services. I now have a fluid record of all of our core transactions,” he says. 

In addition to the digital infrastructure that helps promote, centralize and organize core facilities, the School of Medicine’s initiative to help core facilities remain financially viable has been called a “win-win” situation.

With the goal of helping faculty members fill gaps in research funding and giving them incentive to experience core services they may not have used before, core facilities compete for $25,000 grants, called “Core Coins,” which the cores request School of Medicine researchers apply for, based on how the services are needed for their research.

“The researchers benefit from learning about institutional funds for a service they need in their research, and the cores benefit from attracting additional users,” says Cole.   

Olson says the transition to iLabs took about six months. “There’s a learning curve, like with anything new,” she says. “If every core facility is onboard, researchers can use iLabs as a tool for finding the services they need right here at Hopkins.”