Sharing equipment also means sharing knowledge

Marwan El Chazli and Juan Francisco Bada Juarez © 2024 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Marwan El Chazli and Juan Francisco Bada Juarez © 2024 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Marwan El Chazli challenged himself to complete his Master’s thesis in bacterial spectroscopy by borrowing as much equipment as he could from other EPFL labs. He passed this sustainability test with flying colors.

Recent microengineering graduate Marwan El Chazli set himself a challenge: to complete his Master’s thesis without buying any new equipment. The former student, now a researcher at EPFL’s Laboratory of Quantum and Nano-Optics (LQNO), harbors a passion for creating things from scratch – the very same fascination with the unknown that underpins all scientific research. As well as completing a Bachelor’s degree, and then a Master’s degree with a minor in biomedical technology, he co-founded the EPFL-UNIL Entrepreneur Club, worked in scientific communications and devoted a lot of his time to student organizations. “You don’t count the hours when you’re doing something you love,” says El Chazli, who has both French and Egyptian heritage. “It’s a privilege to be here, to be part of the EPFL ecosystem. The only way to make a difference for society and the environment is to put yourself out there.”

Reducing waste

For his Master’s thesis, El Chazli added more complexity into the mix: he decided not to buy any new equipment, instead making use of what was already available on campus. His research, which sat at the crossroads of research and industry, aimed to develop a faster method for detecting bacterial contamination in food. “Existing bacteria-detection methods used in the food industry are either selective but too slow, or non-selective but fast,” he explains. “I wanted to develop a new optical spectroscopy technique that could identify a wide range of bacterial strains in less than an hour.” This kind of capability is highly sought-after by food companies, which regularly have to issue product recalls due to bacterial contamination – with all the environmental and financial costs that entails.

During his research, El Chazli saw that surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy – a procedure that involves directing a laser beam at a sample on a substrate made from a noble metal such as gold – could be a good candidate for his application. This form of spectroscopy produces a powerful optical signal that scientists can use to deduce a sample’s chemical composition. El Chazli approached LAPD with the idea of developing a turnkey solution geared specifically toward the food industry. His proposal was accepted with the backing of EPFL’s Vice Presidency for Innovation.

This kind of cross-disciplinary research requires a lot of equipment, all of which must be bought and practiced on before the experimental work proper can begin. In keeping with his circular approach, El Chazli challenged himself to source what he needed on campus, thereby avoiding unnecessary new purchases.

Knocking on doors

El Chazli made use of various EPFL resources to source the equipment and supplies he was looking for. He used Catalyse, the School’s digital catalog, to reach out to other laboratories with a spare stock of chemicals. “For a new experiment, you often need only a few milligrams of a particular compound,” he explains. “If you buy a whole new bottle and the experiment fails, then you’re left with a large amount of something you no longer need.” To source the optical components, he pored over a list of optical labs at EPFL and paid a visit to each one in person. “Simply knocking on doors is infinitely more productive and enjoyable than sending emails,” he says.

Juan Francisco Bada Juarez, a scientist at EPFL’s School of Life Sciences, was one of many people who helped El Chazli source equipment for his experiments. “Research labs all have pretty much the same chemicals – sometimes several bottles – in our cabinets, and these compounds can be expensive,” he says. In some cases, bottles are left gathering dust at the back of a cabinet because the person who used them has left EPFL or is too busy with something else. “Sharing machines is common practice at other universities such as Oxford,” he adds.

The importance of collaboration

Bada Juarez explains that getting laboratory researchers to pool their efforts has several benefits: it helps overcome the sense of isolation often felt by lab technicians, scientists and students, and it promotes knowledge sharing. “Sometimes, we wonder whether we’re not just reinventing the wheel,” he says, noting that staff rotation is high in lab settings.

El Chazli’s strategy addressed this particular difficulty head-on, because he also gleaned theoretical and practical insights from the people he spoke with. “Every interaction was a positive experience,” he says. Thanks to his networking efforts, he also captured the interest of people like Jordan Vacheron, a senior scientist at UNIL’s Faculty of Biology and Medicine, who saw potential applications for El Chazli’s method in his field of interest.

As well as supplying El Chazli with bacteria for his experiments, Vacheron also taught him basic usage and storage techniques. “Cross-disciplinary research opens up a world of possibilities,” says Vacheron. “Working with Marwan was a great experience!” Vacheron adds that research groups in his department share some machines, which lets him broaden his skills base while advancing his own research.

Co-benefits: doing more with less

El Chazli has now completed his Master’s thesis and is pursuing further research in the field. How did he fare with his sustainability challenge? Throughout his research, he borrowed equipment and supplies of all kinds from a couple dozen EPFL and UNIL laboratories, and ended up purchasing just three new items: a special laser and two 20 mL bottles of nanoparticles. In all, El Chazli’s strategy was a resounding success: he proved beyond doubt that laboratories could do more when it comes to pooling equipment.

But his approach delivered some equally important co-benefits. First, by borrowing and sharing supplies, he saved tens of thousands of francs when compared with the cost of buying them new. Second, he prevented resources from going to waste, which was good for the environment. Third, he saved a substantial amount of time: by meeting people face-to-face, he was able to tap into their knowledge and expertise and avoid the kinds of failed experiments that are part and parcel of research. Fourth, borrowing equipment meant he didn’t have to wait for orders to arrive. And last but not least, his approach promoted cross-fertilization between disciplines, which is a powerful driver of innovation.

In today’s climate of budget cuts, scarce resources, widespread pollution and growing isolation, might EPFL and other universities stand to gain from pooling resources and buying second-hand equipment on a larger, more organized scale? “The small steps we take as individuals all add up to big change,” says El Chazli.

So don’t be afraid to start knocking on doors. You never know what opportunities await.

Author: Guillaume Rueff

Source: Sustainability

This content is distributed under a Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 license. You may freely reproduce the text, videos and images it contains, provided that you indicate the author’s name and place no restrictions on the subsequent use of the content. If you would like to reproduce an illustration that does not contain the CC BY-SA notice, you must obtain approval from the author.