Research cores: Making science easier, more fruitful, and more efficient
Working with supercooled superconducting circuits, researchers prove a practical solution is possible to a decades-old problem bedeviling quantum computing: how to correct errors corrupting quantum data faster than entropy introduces them.
Viewing flash-frozen samples through a cryogenic electron microscope, a team makes clear images of the ancient molecular motor that helps cells coordinate the beating of their threadlike cilia. The images reveal springs and elastic chain-like structures at its heart.
Capturing all the RNA transcripts in individual monkey brain cells and in artificial miniature brains, scientists zero in on the sensitive moments during fetal development when neuropsychiatric disorders may originate.
Published recently in the journals Nature, Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, and Science, respectively, all these discoveries were enabled by Yale’s research cores — a constellation of service organizations that unite shared scientific equipment with in-house expertise to support scientific research across the university. From quantum computing to cryo-electron microscopy to single-cell transcriptomics and beyond, the research cores are indispensable resources.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a high-profile experimental research paper from Yale that hasn’t been touched by a core,” says Ben Myers, a co-director of research cores who oversees those located on Central and West Campus.
The cores arose years ago as resource-sharing agreements among individual labs or departments, but they have since evolved into campus-wide full-service organizations. A principal investigator needing access to a sophisticated transmission electron microscope, a physician conducting functional MRI studies, or a graduate student looking to prototype an innovative carbon dioxide sensor can head to a research core to get the job done.
These campus spaces also make it easier to work across disciplines and share expertise. The cores enable different research groups throughout campus to interact, collaborate, and develop new applications to advance the university’s scientific mission.
“The technologies housed in our research cores span a multitude of disciplines and adapt with research needs to continually answer complex scientific questions,” said Amy Blanchard, a co-director of research cores who oversees those at Yale School of Medicine.
In recent years, it has become clear to researchers around the world that advances in technology and scientific complexity in many fields are overcoming the ability of any one laboratory or department to perform top-flight research. For that reason, and with guidance from a 2018 report by the University Science Strategy Committee (USSC) chaired by Scott Strobel, now university provost, Yale has accelerated high-impact investments in instrumentation for and coordination among cores, as well as in support for cores professionals.
Scientific complexity also means interdisciplinary collaboration is key to many advances. Few researchers today, however qualified, can master all the techniques relevant to their fields.
“Historically, cleanroom microfabrication technologies were used by engineers and physicists to make semiconductor devices,” Myers says. “But now, you’ve got doctors in the medical school trying to make microfluidic devices to trap and interrogate individual cells. This type of work is often completely orthogonal to their training, so they need a lot of support to get that done.”
As Yale’s cores have matured, strategic investments by the university ensure they are amply equipped to meet investigators’ needs. Shifting complex instruments from individual labs to shared cores has increased cost efficiency by preventing duplication of instruments. Lab and departmental resources become available to support other efforts, and researchers can focus on study design and implementation. Experienced cores personnel, who provide continuity in dedicated roles, offer researchers detailed guidance and instruction in specialized technology. Updated, centralized software for the cores eliminates piecemeal solutions to administrative tasks.
“The cores play a central role in advanced scientific research,” said Michael Crair, Yale’s vice provost for research and the William Ziegler III Professor of Neuroscience and professor of ophthalmology and visual science. “That’s why we’ve invested heavily at Yale in developing them, expanding their capabilities, and staffing them with experts.”
To improve communication about what the cores have to offer, the university conducted an extensive inventory of research cores, instruments, and services. These efforts have resulted in a new campus-wide directory of cores offerings, which includes information about the services offered, equipment available, pricing, and more. This directory resides at Research at Yale, a purpose-built website showcasing the cores and other science and engineering-focused research resources.
The changes go well beyond software and web services, though. Substantial investments in facilities, instruments, and talent are further empowering the cores to serve science at Yale. Since 2019, the university has invested more than $25 million in cores technology and instrumentation on Science Hill and West Campus, and more than $35 million in cores at Yale School of Medicine.
“Yale’s commitment to the cores ensures ample resources for trailblazing research in the traditional sciences and emerging fields alike,” said Anthony Koleske, who is deputy dean for research (basic science) at Yale School of Medicine and the Ensign Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and of Neuroscience. “Our goal is to enable our scientists to lead in their respective fields.”
Investing in infrastructure
The cores are integral to the university’s plans for its infrastructural future and are incorporated into new building projects across campus, Yale leaders say. The Physical Sciences and Engineering Building, for example, will house over 20,000 square feet of core space, including an 11,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art cleanroom, materials characterization suite, and imaging suite. In new space at 100 College St., BrainWorks, part of the Wu Tsai Institute, houses cores technology that measures activity across the human brain.
Investing in technology
The university has made investments in cutting-edge technology a top priority in recent years.
Quantum science and engineering has been a particular focus, supported by significant investments in new microfabrication equipment in the University Cleanroom in addition to a new electron beam lithography system at the Yale Institute for Nanoscience and Quantum Engineering.
The Yale Analytical and Stable Isotope Center became home to a new carbon dating system for use in carbon-capture research across disciplines; the instrument is one of just a few operating at American research universities.
And in a brand-new capability for the Northeast region, a new aberration corrected electron microscope will enable the visualization of individual atoms — a key materials science investment for 2024.
“This is exactly the kind of sophisticated technology that allows our scientists to push the boundaries of research and scientific advancement,” Blanchard said.
Investing in people
In 2019, Yale hired Myers and Janie Merkel, who previously held Blanchard’s role, as its first co-directors of the research cores. The directors work to ensure campus-wide strategic coordination and integration of the cores. This includes programmatic efforts to build efficient core operations, develop cores’ infrastructure, and support career cores personnel by providing more professional development opportunities.
The work of an expert based at a research core is distinct from that of a lab technician or faculty member, Myers explains.
“This is more than a technical role; it’s a customer service role,” he says. “You have to have interpersonal skills, administrative skills, and teaching and training skills in addition to being able to understand the science. It’s different than any other job at the university. This is why we are currently engaged in a process to build support for cores professionals.”
Professional development and community building come together at annual Cores Fairs, where faculty members, graduate students, postdocs, and personnel from the research cores mingle and discuss technologies, nuances of technique, and possible cross-disciplinary collaboration. These and related activities, such as a planned retreat, enhance the Yale experience for current cores staff and place the university in a favorable position for further personnel recruitment and employment continuity.
“It’s becoming ever more important in modern scientific research to have expert staff running core facilities,” said Crair. “This hasn’t always been the case, but it’s absolutely essential now.”
Visit the cores directory and stay tuned for the first installment in an occasional series of stories about cores instruments.