Oleg Grunsky is Acting Director of the Centre for X-ray Diffraction Studies at St Petersburg University. He talked about how the new equipment for the University Research Park is purchased, why it is not always used to full capacity, and who can obtain data from the high-precision laboratory facilities.
Please tell us about the latest research findings of the St Petersburg University members at the Research Park.
At present, the priority research areas of the St Petersburg University Research Park are determined by the most important aims and objectives of science both nationwide and worldwide. These priority areas can be divided into two groups. The first group comprises research that fuels technological development and benefits all mankind. The second group includes environmental projects such as the Environmental Monitoring of Coastal Ecosystems of the Arctic. As we know, the rapid expansion of human activities in the Arctic zone, most notably oil and gas extraction, is one of the significant factors impacting natural communities. The situation requires careful evaluation. If indiscriminate extraction of minerals continues, what are we going to pass on to our descendants?
Also, the Research Park specialists implement global projects related to finding answers to the biggest questions about the universe. For instance, Sergey Britvin, Professor of the St Petersburg University Department of Crystallography, initiated a project devoted to the study of meteorites. This study enables better understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe and the Earth in particular. Furthermore, the University has promising developments in certain areas of microelectronics and in creating new materials with unique properties. Take, for example, the project of Sergey Belyaev, a leading researcher of the Theory of Elasticity Department at St Petersburg University. It is aimed at creating a metal with the shape memory effect that will function within a narrow temperature range. The project objectives have been identified to serve the needs of technology. Such alloys are used as the working fluids in power actuators. Besides, imagine a car made from a shape-memory alloy. In the event of a motor vehicle accident, the vehicle body is deformed. But once heated in a temperature chamber to a relatively low temperature, it will restore its shape literally before our eyes. Another project that has gained currency is ‘Genome Russia’. St Petersburg University is among its active participants.
How does the St Petersburg University Research Park carry out renewal at its facilities?
This is determined by the needs of the ongoing projects carried out at the University. The decision on the purchase of a particular device is made only after public discussions regarding the list of equipment and consumables that should be acquired. There are two main selection criteria: a new device must perform a unique task, in other words, the completion of the task is dependent on the new equipment; or the new equipment will satisfy the demands of the largest number of users.
As for consumables, they are purchased according to a plan. The Research Park has been in operation for seven years. During this period, data have been gathered on our needs. In other words, a consumables management plan is in place. It takes into account what equipment is used and what supplies are needed for it. Nevertheless, there are exceptions to this rule, mainly associated with the purchase of consumables for individual projects.
Most of the University’s research equipment is used daily, but some facilities may remain unused for months. Why does this happen?
Indeed, such a situation does exist. It is due to the fact that all the equipment of the University Research Park can be divided into two main groups. The first group comprises the so-called ‘routine’ equipment, which has been in constant use since its installation. It is required for the ongoing studies of certain materials, for example: to study the phase composition; to record the NMR spectrum during the synthesis of certain chemical compounds; to determine or check the elemental composition; and to store samples. Such equipment is used on a daily basis, and its utilization rate is 80–90%. However, there is another group of unique research equipment necessary for the implementation of highly specialised projects. Usually such equipment is hired by a small team of researchers. They have a limited amount of time to work at the facilities, to analyse the findings of the experiment, to write the experimental report and, finally, to rest. It is for this reason that utilisation levels in this group cannot be as high. At the same time, St Petersburg University, as a world-leading centre for research and education, must have such equipment. Otherwise it would be fundamentally impossible to carry out some types of research. Besides, at present, work is underway to create a database of specialised technical resources available at the universities that are members of the Association of Leading Universities of Russia (ALU). This will enable the researchers of ALU members to share specialised equipment of their universities’ Research parks.
What happens to such unique equipment after the project has been completed?
In science, cases when research has been definitively completed are extremely rare. Usually, at the completion of the current phase, there are more questions than answers. Consequently, the equipment remains at the University and is used further. The possibility of the project expanding is subject to equipment availability. Additionally, if the equipment is available, the results of the study can be demonstrated to doctoral students, or it can be used to train students. Therefore, I would not refer to such laboratory facilities as ballast.
Usually, the St Petersburg University Research Park is open to the University members as well as to external users. However, some facilities can be used only by a certain group of users. What is the rationale for this limitation?
There is relatively simple research equipment at the Research Park. Technicians and students of St Petersburg University can be trained to operate this equipment within a few days. They can obtain and process data themselves and they have independent access to these facilities. Sometimes, however, the equipment is a little more complicated and is therefore less suitable for mass production. A trained technician is required just to turn it on. Its developers were unable to provide reliable protection against human error. Consequently, by allowing everyone to operate this equipment, we would significantly increase the risk of damage due to user error. Only well-trained users or the Research Park specialists operate such equipment. Thirdly, at the St Petersburg University Research Park, there is equipment that enables a researcher to make observations which require further analysis and interpretation. The incorrect interpretation of the data would lead to completely erroneous results. Obviously, we cannot allow the name of St Petersburg University to be associated with false data. Consequently, the observational data are interpreted with direct involvement of the specialists who know both the equipment and the research method. Finally, there is research equipment created in the form of laboratory facilities. Often it has been intended to perform a narrow, perhaps unique, research task. Moreover, it has been designed by a research team that did not regard it as their goal to make the equipment accessible to all. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to operate and interpret the data obtained for third-party users.
In interdisciplinary projects, can other members of the University research and academic staff request to use the research facilities and obtain data?
Most certainly. The Research Park operates on the principle of equal access to research facilities by any member of St Petersburg University. It was necessary to prevent an exclusive situation occurring, which had not been uncommon before. For example, only one research team had access to a gas chromatograph or an X-ray diffractometer, while another team, say, archaeologists, could not use this equipment to conduct a study. It is clear that at some faculties the research equipment maintenance and operation does constitute a problem. However, the data obtained using this equipment are often invaluable to their research. At present, any member of St Petersburg University can bring their samples to the Research Park. The samples will be studied most thoroughly, and the researcher will receive data in the form of quantitative or qualitative information. If a person cannot fully understand the results, the experts will help to interpret them. To achieve this, a person must register the project, completing all the necessary conditions, and submit an application.
Tell us about the plans for the development of the University Research Park.
This is not an easy question to answer, since in many respects, the plans are determined by the times we are living in. At the moment, a new St Petersburg State University Strategic Plan is being developed. The Research Park and its improvement hold a significant place in it. Still, we need to wait for its publication. The second factor is the so-called ‘challenges’. To face them, two high-capacity resource centres are being established – genetic and mathematical – aimed at storing and processing large amounts of data. Finally, the development of the University Research Park is to meet the needs of our industrial partners, including the companies Biosad and the Scientific and Technical Centre Gazpromneft. We are very happy to tackle the tasks set by big business, because the results are immediately implemented in the industry.