How to Move Your Lab

Irene Pepperberg, a Harvard University research associate who studies cognition and communication in African grey parrots, has moved her lab four times since 1984.

Nov 7, 2005
Erika Jonietz(ejonietz@the-scientist.com)
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© Christine Balderas/Justin Allfree

Irene Pepperberg, a Harvard University research associate who studies cognition and communication in African grey parrots, has moved her lab four times since 1984. "None of the moves has been easy," she says. During her first move, from Purdue University to Northwestern University, she had only one bird; Pepperberg loaded the animal and all her research material in a student's station wagon and drove the 120 miles overnight. By the time she moved from the University of Arizona to Boston 16 years later, she had to negotiate with airlines to buy seats for three birds (one of which had to travel with a student due to airline restrictions). "When you have these incredibly invaluable animals, you want to make sure they're OK," she says.

Any move provokes anxiety, but adding the task of relocating an entire lab to packing up a home and adjusting to new surroundings and colleagues can send stress levels through the roof. Smart planning and reliance on key personnel can ease the process considerably.

Like Pepperberg, researchers moving animals must plan carefully. Institutions have strict rules regarding the introduction of animals into clean facilities. New animals will almost always be quarantined – for how long depends on state and institution rules – and many mouse facilities require that transgenic lines be rederived in-house, a process that takes at least three months. Contacting the veterinarians at the new organization to learn about health and vaccination requirements is necessary, and sending founder animals ahead of a move can help minimize downtime.

Even without animals, though, moving a lab is complex. "One of the stickiest things to deal with is the transfer of your grant," Pepperberg says, because you have to estimate how much money you'll have left at the time of the move. Department administrators at both your current and new institutions can help you wend your way through the maze of offices involved in transferring grants, equipment, and research materials, and they can help you with getting to know your new city.

IT'S A TEAM EFFORT

Administrative personnel can also help with perhaps the most important aspect of relocating a lab: picking a mover. Companies that specialize in lab moves can recommend the best way to transport different pieces of equipment and research materials (for instance, using overnight air or generator trucks) and determine whether the move will require special equipment such as cranes. And even if they lack the expertise (or permits) to move materials such as animals or hazardous cargo, they should be able to coordinate with third-party shippers.

"My responsibility is to take all the pressure off the researchers," says Scott Harkness, director of business development for Suddath Relocation Systems, who has been moving labs for 15 years. Companies such as Suddath, which is a preferred vendor for the University of California system, can also determine the amount of insurance coverage needed and provide it, similar to a household move.

For specialized or delicate equipment such as microscopes, optical benches, or mass spectrometers, Harkness suggests contacting the manufacturers. Such equipment must be properly secured to avoid damage in transit and must be recalibrated after the move; without such service, the warranty may be void.

Lab staff should disassemble and label the parts of any equipment designed by the principal investigator, says Helen McNeece, who has been coordinating lab moves for 30 years with Whalen's Moving and Storage in Mt. Kisco, NY. Stanley Opella, who uses nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to study protein structure, moved several home-built instruments from the University of Pennsylvania to the University of Calfornia, San Diego in 2000. He suggests photographing and sketching such setups before disassembly to facilitate rebuilding.

As much as possible, however, the actual packing should be left to the movers. "One must prove negligence on the part of the mover in order to put an insurance claim in for anything self-packed," McNeece says. "Because of the limited liability, I recommend leaving the packing of all fragile materials to us."

TIME TO CLEAN HOUSE

As with any move, "house cleaning" will make the process easier. Bill Lease, procurement supervisor for the California Institute of Technology biology department, strongly recommends scientists replace rather than move certain delicate or older pieces of equipment such as subzero freezers, floor centrifuges, and biosafety cabinets. And while Caltech will allow principal investigators to bring enzymes with them, any other chemicals are verboten, so be sure to check institutional rules.

Mark Muskavitch, who moved in 2000 from the University of Indiana, Bloomington, to chair the biology department at Boston College, took the opportunity to replace chemicals, as well as computers and equipment such as centrifuges, freezers, and refrigerators. "It's a good chance to refresh your stocks," says Muskavitch. If you elect to bring equipment with you, make sure your new facility has the correct plug configurations installed, advises McNeece, who recalls an instance where a researcher paid dearly in generator truck rental fees for this oversight.

Don't needlessly throw out something important, though. You'll need to keep accounting records and old lab notebooks, for instance, and you can always toss as you unpack. Compiling a manifest will help with organization and insurance, as well as determining what permits you will need. Such a list is essential for international moves.

Former Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemist Peter Seeberger learned this when he accepted a position at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich in 2003. "We had to make a list of everything we moved, every last little detail," he says. "I think there were probably about 15–20 pages." That thoroughness saved time in customs, he says; from the day the movers packed his lab until the crates arrived took only six days.

Getting a research program back on track can take considerably longer, however. The time between the last experiment at Seeberger's MIT lab and the first experiment in Switzerland was about six weeks, which is fairly typical. Yet the move actually slowed him down about a year and half, he says. "I lost almost my entire lab when I moved. I had 26 or 27 people in Boston, and I moved with five people. I think the knowledge you lose is much, much greater than anything that has to do with downtime of experiments."

Tips for a Stress-Free Move

1. GET YOUR ANIMALS READY If you are moving animals, contact the animal-care directors at both new and present institutions. They can help find alternate arrangements if the new institution doesn't yet have the proper animal or biocontainment facilities for your research. When Mark Muskavitch moved to Boston College, the school built a BSL-2 facility to accommodate his mosquito research. The facility wasn't ready when he moved, so he elected to temporarily shut down his mosquito colony and focus on the lab's Drosophila research in the interim.

2. GET YOUR WORK PERMITS Contact the new institution to obtain any assurances or permits required for radioisotopes, controlled substances, animal work, or select agents. And don't forget: You and your lab members will need to undergo environmental health and safety (EHS) training once you move.

3. MOVE YOUR FUNDINGContact both current and new institutions to transfer your grants and resolve intellectual property issues. Contact your grants-management officer at the granting organization to receive approval and to formally close out the old account and establish a new one. You will need up-to-date information on budgets and balances to determine the amount of money to be transferred.

4. CULL YOUR SAMPLES

4. CULL YOUR SAMPLES The more you move the more you'll pay. So, take the opportunity to cull your samples, cell lines, and papers to determine what can move with you (subject to grant transfers, material-transfer agreements [MTAs], and intellectual property restrictions), what must stay, and what can be thrown out. Archive critical samples and cell lines, and begin reexecuting MTAs with the new institution, if necessary. Finally, be sure to label the chemicals you're leaving behind, to simplify disposal.

5. COMPILE A MANIFEST Keep a record of everything you're moving, including the contents of each box. Number the boxes and indicate at which lab station they should be placed at the other end, and note any premove damage on the manifest. This will help with the unpacking process, and will let you know immediately what, if anything, is missing or damaged.

6. CHECK THE REGS State and federal regulations require specific packaging, labeling, and permits for hazardous chemicals and infectious agents. Transfer of many infectious agents requires a permit from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, which may take up to 10 working days to obtain. Consider shipping especially important items on dry ice via overnight carrier; make sure someone is available to receive and properly store these materials on the other end. If you aren't moving your freezers, make sure new ones are up and running at the new site or arrange for temporary storage until your own equipment is ready. Your best bet: check with EHS and your mover to ensure you're in compliance with all pertinent regulations.

7. SCHEDULE PRE- AND POSTMOVE SERVICE Contact manufacturers of specialized instruments to schedule appointments for pre- and postmove service. Stanley Opella says he contracted with the manufacturer of his nuclear magnetic resonance magnets to have them decommissioned and packed before he moved to San Diego; Muskavitch had an entire microscope disassembled and reassembled by Zeiss representatives. Helen McNeece recalls an occasion when a freezer broke down in transit, forcing the driver to service the unit himself at a truck stop. "Moral of the story," she says, "call the manufacturer or service company for any major equipment and get it serviced before it moves."

8. BACK UP YOUR DATA Back up all electronic data (including your lab's Web site) onto archival media such as CDs or DVDs and take them with you. If you are moving computers, simply shut them off and let your movers pack them.

9. CHECK YOUR CONTAINERS Containers should be in good condition, properly labeled, free of external surface contamination, and leak-proof. When in doubt, ask your EHS office about moving dangerous or reactive materials.

10. SUPERVISE THE MOVE On move-in day, ensure all equipment and boxes land in the right spots, and examine each box for signs of exterior damage. Cross-check your shipment against your manifest and bring any damage or missing items to the mover's attention as soon as possible, for insurance and liability purposes.