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Sharing ideas and cultivating collaboration: A DMNB lab story

Posted by Erinor Jacob on September 12, 2014 in News
Dr. Thomas Pulinikunnil (left) and Purvi Trevidi, a graduate student, share DMNB's collaborative lab space. (Photo courtesy of Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick)
Dr. Thomas Pulinikunnil (left) and Purvi Trevidi, a graduate student, share DMNB's collaborative lab space. (Photo courtesy of Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick)

A typical summer day in the new biomedical research lab at Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick (DMNB) sees students of various backgrounds working alongside each other and the six principal investigators based in the lab.

“It’s an open access model lab which is a combined lab space owned by five investigators with no barriers in the lab. Trainees can use any equipment; they’re not limited to the equipment their supervisor has,” says Dr. Thomas Pulinilkunnil, one of the lab’s five principal investigators.

Dr. Pulinilkunnil, an assistant professor in Dalhousie Medical School’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, likens this type of lab and the collaboration it fosters to the borderless European Union. “When travelling to another country, you don’t need a VISA or passport; it’s the same principle in our lab for using different equipment.”

“The lab is based on the technology that is in it, not the people.” According to Dr. Pulinilkunnil, this model actually encourages more collaboration and improved sustainability because the technology is shared which eliminates the duplication of equipment. Two key components to making this type of lab successful are communication, and collegiality and trust among the investigators.

“The concept of open access goes a long way to enhance research sustainability,” says Dr. Pulinilkunnil. All new labs are being modelled this way; it’s becoming a best practice. The increased levels of communication, collaboration and collegiality mean ideas can flow freely amongst peers. Dr. Pulinilkunnil insists a certain level of competition between investigators is healthy, but to work successfully in an open access lab, one must be willing to trust and work collaboratively with colleagues.

The open access model is also encouraging collaboration between partners. Presently, University of New Brunswick Saint John students and physicians from Horizon Health Network use the lab as members of the Tucker Park Collaborative. This group seeks to create opportunities for the four institutions co-located off Tucker Park Road (UNBSJ, New Brunswick Community College Allied Health, Horizon Health Network and DMNB) to work together to foster innovation in healthcare and health research.

While the lab is technology based, Dr. Pulinilkunnil emphasizes the important element is the people, especially the students. “This style of lab helps the students mature and share ideas and knowledge freely.” Frequently the students completing their graduate and postgraduate training guide and assist the undergraduate medical students and summer students.

From a student’s perspective

Purvi Trevidi, a Dalhousie graduate student with Dr. Pulinilkunnil in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology likes the open access model. “It’s not like I can only go to Thomas if I have a problem, I can go to [one of the other investigators].”

Trevidi, who did her undergraduate degree in pharmacology in India and worked in the industry before deciding to continue her studies at Dalhousie, has worked in open access model labs before. She likes DMNB’s lab because “Everything is located in one area, it’s easily accessible and the collegiality is good. You can go ahead and use the equipment without any problems.”

She also likes the learning opportunities that exist. “Everybody is doing different stuff and using different techniques. This leads to daily learning,” she says.

Having been with the lab since the beginning, and seeing the equipment arrive, has given Trevidi the opportunity to learn how all of the equipment works. She has become one of the student leaders in the lab.

 “Students are being trained into leaders…knowledge transfer is key. This takes time initially, but is valuable because of the different levels of students and it takes the onus off the principle investigators.”

This fall, undergraduate honours students from UNBSJ will join the Dalhousie masters students, PhD students and post-doctoral fellows in the lab.

Having the more senior students guide the junior students helps to create and develop the culture of leadership in the lab. “They will transfer information of what is expected of the trainees very quickly. This helps with the students’ academic and research career development,” says Dr. Pulinilkunnil.

Summer student learns to work in lab

One of fourteen summer students in the lab this past summer was Alyson Zwicker from Western University in London, Ontario. For Alyson, who is completing her undergraduate honours degree in psychology with a major in pharmacology, this summer was her first experience in a biomedical research lab. She views her time at DMNB as a “…good learning experience. I took lab courses, but did not have any work experience in a lab. There was a very steep learning curve.”

The time she spent in the lab gave her a practical knowledge of the information she had read in text books. It also gave her the opportunity to see first-hand what the texts described and referenced, like protein blotting and expression studies.

This feeling was echoed by Trevidi.  

The open access model meant that Purvi was just one of the students who helped her. Alyson received help along her ‘steep learning curve’ from all of the graduate and postgraduate students and technical staff who were in the lab, and even some of the other summer students who had worked in a lab before. Learning how to use the technologies in the lab was an opportunity she values.

The biggest lesson she took from working in the open access model lab is the importance of organization and time management of the experiments. She also noted how communication is central to the smooth flow in a lab setting.

Way of the future

With new labs being built around the open access model, collaboration, communication and collegiality are key. This type of lab is becoming the norm within research.

“The silo style lab is becoming obsolete. The concept of the open access lab is going a long way to enhancing research sustainability,” says Dr. Pulinilkunnil.

Sharing ideas and cultivating collaboration within DMNB and among its partners are goals of the new lab and its principal investigators.