The ‘Imax’ of science labs – next generation facilities

Posted on June 8, 2011

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La Trobe launches next generation teaching and research facilities

Top laboratories in North America and Europe and gigantic synchrotrons in Australia or overseas are now within reach of La Trobe science students and research scientists.

This remote access is possible thanks to a futuristic computerised ‘Visualisation Laboratory’ opened on the Melbourne Campus earlier this year.  It’s the first in Australia designed around a Virtual ‘Beam Line’ (the experimental front-end of a synchrotron) and serves as a template for others to come.

The new lab, which looks a bit like a multi-media Imax cinema, serves as a remote training space, classroom and research node. It teaches undergraduate students the latest in instrument-based science and boosts global research opportunities for postgraduate students and staff. 

‘It extends students’ laboratory experiences beyond those they encounter in their daily experimental work on campus,’ says Head of Physics, Associate Professor Paul Pigram.

‘This will improve their employment outcomes. Familiarity with international state-of-the-art instrumentation is important for people seeking work in both the private and public research sectors.’

Built at a cost of quarter of a million dollars, the pioneering e-science lab is controlled from half a dozen computer terminals that have high-speed access to the Australian Synchrotron at Clayton and La Trobe’s high performance computers and distributed data storages.

It can link to many Australian and international facilities, in particular those with existing La Trobe remote stations, and to analytical equipment at Berlin’s BESSY synchrotron, the Canadian Light Source at Saskatoon and Chicago’s Argonne Advanced Photon Source machine.

High definition images are projected by a bank of six full HD projectors onto a wall-size screen, nine metres wide, creating a life-size and fully immersive laboratory experience.

‘It’s like being there without the time and expense of travel,’ says Dr Pigram. ‘For example, our students are now able to carry out experiments on the Protein Crystallography beam line at the Australian Synchrotron.’ The University is a founding partner in the Australian Synchrotron.

The technology overcomes the need for students to complete safety induction, protects expensive instruments from unauthorised use, promotes involvement when otherwise too many students are crowded in to a small space, helps schedule access for experiments and manages the resulting data.

It also allows more students virtual access to sophisticated analytical equipment housed on La Trobe’s own Melbourne campus, such as state-of-the-art X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy instrumentation. These are often located in spaces which have limits on the number of students who can use the equipment at any one time.

Walk-up 3D touch screen for molecular modelling

The facility was built by staff from the University’s eResearch Office, Centre for Materials and Surface Science and from the Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative (VeRSI).

The next group of students to benefit from a new Visualisation Lab will be those in the biological sciences. Their purpose-built facility is expected to be completed next year, says La Trobe eResearch Director, Dr Mark Kosten.

It will feature a large 3D walk-up touch screen where students will be able to manipulate molecular models to learn about drug design and explore processes at the molecular and cellular level in proteomics (the identification and function of proteins expressed by genes) and systems biology.

Apart from teaching, the facility will also deepen high-level collaborative research in biotechnology and molecular science.

This involves links with the soon-to-be-completed AgriBio, the Centre for AgriBioscience, a $288m public private partnership on the Melbourne campus, and the $94m La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS) which comes on stream in 2013.

A third high-definition eResearch theatrette for teaching and laboratory research simulation is planned for the humanities where a 3D environment will help students learn archaeological techniques, map social changes on huge Google Earth images, investigate artefacts for art history and study multimedia sources in journalism and cinema studies.