Hard bargains

Gary Brouhard and his new camera.

Five months after placing the orders, the cameras finally arrive. Biophysicist Gary Brouhard tears open the cardboard boxes, tosses the packaging aside, and gently places the two $47,000 cameras onto the cluttered lab bench, inconspicuously nestled between sheets of pink bubble wrap, unopened equipment boxes, and the week's growing heap of recyclables. "I don't break the boxes down as quickly as they come, so it's sort of a mess," Brouhard admits. Cleaning might not be Brouhard's forté, but he is crafty about setting up his lab on the cheap.

Brouhard, who studies single-molecule dynamics of the microtubule cytoskeleton, joined the faculty of Montreal's McGill University in August 2008. Nine months on, his lab was still very much a work in progress. Unlike most US institutions, which award new hires with generous start-up packages, Canadian universities provide little support to cover infrastructure costs....

Brouhard realized he needed to take a more do-it-yourself approach to equipping his lab. He had spent three-plus years in graduate school building optical tweezers to study motor proteins, and he used some pretty snazzy fluorescence imaging systems at his postdoc at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, so he had a good idea of the single-molecule fluorescence microscope setup he wanted. First thing, the two top-of-the-line, electron-multiplying digital cameras that just arrived from Andor Technology—specialty items from Belfast, United Kingdom, that can visualize individual photons to high precision, but were back-ordered with a 5-month waiting list. One of the cameras' outer casing turned up loose and jiggling, but Brouhard doesn't plan on sending it back to Northern Ireland—he can't afford another long wait just to repair a largely cosmetic problem, he says.

Next up: red, green, and blue lasers from Sweden-based Cobolt, each costing around $10,000. The red one, however, is yet to arrive and the other two are "just sitting there, shooting at the wall." Brouhard also picked up a microscope skeleton, objective lens, and emission-splitting device from Carl Zeiss, a German manufacturer, plus a motorized stage, filter cubes, shutters, and various other optical knickknacks from other suppliers. Eventually, he plans to track single kinesin proteins taken from baculovirus-infected insect cells.

All told, Brouhard figures that building his microscope in-house instead of purchasing a package deal saved him around $100,000, though it also cost him countless more hours researching the parts and speaking with sales reps. "At this point," he admits, "I think I have more time than money."

Brouhard is not the only scientist trying to economize. Gautam Awatramani, a neurobiologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, studies neural circuits using two-photon fluorescent imaging and various electrophysiological techniques—a technologically demanding layout that can cost upwards of $1 million. He received $300,000 CDN in government start-up funds, but that money has taken a while to arrive, and still wouldn't cover his dream tool. "The only way to do it is basically to build it from nuts and bolts," he says.

Awatramani managed to rig up an electrophysiological unit using a $12,000 amplifier from California-based Molecular Devices Corp.'s Axon Instruments with custom-written software implemented on $5,000 hardware from Texas-based National Instruments. He generated enough data to land him a 5-year $140,000 CDN operating grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. He spent around $12,000 on a microscope skeleton and lens from Tokyo-based Olympus and picked up a few $1,000 photomultiplier tubes from Hamamatsu Photonics, a Japanese optical sensor manufacturer. He is building the rest "from scratch" together with colleagues in Switzerland and at the Dalhousie physics department. He hopes to have the system's shell assembled soon so that once his start-up funding arrives, he can just slot in "the big ticket item"—a $200,000 titanium-sapphire laser. "In theory, I could have built that, too, but it probably would have taken me several years," he says.

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