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Pieces of Eight


ECU Labs on Solid Ground

By Doug Boyd and Erica Plouffe Lazure

Despite budget pressures, laboratory education at East Carolina University is largely alive and well thanks in part to new facilities and lower-cost approaches to lab teaching.

Dr. Paul Gemperline, a chemist and associate vice chancellor for research and graduate studies, couldn’t be happier with the facilities in ECU’s Science and Technology Building. The $55.1 million, 270,000-square-foot facility was built with funds from the $3.1 billion Higher Education Bond Referendum voters passed in 2000. The five-story building holds industrial design laboratory equipment, computer laboratories and two floors of chemistry laboratories and classroom space. It opened in 2003 and replaced the 1930s-era Flanagan Building, which has been renovated and offers lab and storage space for the anthropology department.

“We’ve been able to attract new, young faculty with exciting research agendas and see a lot more undergraduate students become interested in research,” Gemperline said.

“Having students apply known processes into new situations -- that’s the kind of learning we want to have happen, and that can happen in a lab,” Gemperline said.

Dr. Paul Strausbauch, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the Brody School of Medicine, agreed that labs help students learn and understand concepts taught in lectures.

“People emphasize teaching, but I think what is important to emphasize is learning,” Strausbauch said. “How do students learn?”

Lab courses also foster collaboration, he added.

“One of the most important aspects of medical care is the concept of team care,” he said. “A patient is cared for by an M.D., nurses, a physical therapist, nutritionist, and social worker. The modern M.D. must learn to be a team player.”

Approximately 72 second-year medical students spend 60 one-hour sessions in lab as part of their pathology course. Students rate the laboratory portion highly, Strausbauch said. Even so, labs face challenges.

One area putting labs at risk is their expense. According to Strausbauch, simply equipping a pathology lab with microscopes can cost $350,000 plus $50,000 for upkeep in subsequent years. Add in the cost of 300 specimen slides at $6 each, and the bills add up. That’s one reason his labs have left microscopes and gone to computer images and photomicrographs, or photographs taken through a microscope.

Strausbauch said his pathology lab course now costs approximately $200,000 to operate each year, which is approximately half of his annual budget.

Most of the expense is faculty pay, plus the fact the faculty member is not performing patient-related work that could be billed.

If Strausbauch had to make a significant budget cut, the lab could be an obvious target, he said, but they are safe for the foreseeable future.

Computers are also used in labs in the Science and Technology Building. They help students and researchers record measurements and analyze data. They can also simulate certain kinds of experiments, but Gemperline said it’s important for hands-on lab work to occur.

“My view, as a chemist, is that you can’t learn to ride a bike without getting on one; likewise, you have to do hands-on chemistry,” Gemperline said. “I think students enjoy doing hands-on work.”

But while the higher education bond benefited some teaching and research labs, not all got a boost. In many departments, laboratories continue to serve students and faculty without new funding or equipment.

In the biology department, for example, the laboratory budget has remained relatively stagnant. Dr. Bob Christian, a microbiologist and professor of biology who supervises a shared faculty research lab, said it is difficult to replace or upgrade older equipment, particularly equipment in the $20,000 to $100,000 range.

“There is an ever-increasing demand on resources because people want to introduce new labs. It’s something the social science and humanities departments don’t realize, is how expensive it is to have a lab course,” he said.

Upgrades occur either through grants or by the specific needs of new faculty, who are provided with money to equip their lab space.

“You need a significant lab component in biology, and often you have to find external funding. There could be recognition, internally, that more support is needed, too,” he said. “It’s not a problem unique to this campus, or to this department.”

In the past few years, biology researchers have received grants to purchase a DNA sequencer and an electron microscope, two expensive pieces, Christian said.

The Howell Science Complex, which houses most biology labs, is slated for minor renovations next year.

They will primarily involve upgrades to the building’s heating and air-conditioning system, said Mark Myer, one of the university architects in charge of the project.

As far as student laboratories, Christian believes student lab experiences aren’t as rich as they used to be, in part because of the lack of more modern facilities and because some sections of biology courses do not require a laboratory component.

“It’s safe to say the educational experience, especially in a formal lab, is worse now that was five or 10 years ago,” he said. Christian said programs that do receive additional funding often have links with an outside need or interest. For example, he said, the surge in nursing enrollment required more funding for the department’s anatomy and physiology courses.

“Those areas were upgraded,” he said. “In time, they may need an upgrade for microbiology as well.”

This page originally appeared in the July 15, 2005 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at http://www.ecu.edu/news/poe/archives.cfm.