Thought Leaders

Multi-User Facilities: Effectively Supporting Research Goals Across Academia and Industry

Thought LeadersDr. Casey SmithShared Research OperationsTexas State University

Can you tell us about yourself, the core facility you manage, and its mission?

My name is Dr. Casey Smith, and I earned a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of North Texas (UNT) in 2008.  My collegiate journey entailed one of those cosmically appropriate time cycles that allowed me to start and stop my higher education journey in the same place.  When I was 16, I experienced a fantastic early admission program called the Texas Academy of Math and Science at UNT which kicked off my passion for the sciences. Then, 10 years later, I returned to UNT in order to pursue my doctoral studies.

In 2013, I joined Texas State University, San Marcos with the drive to accelerate innovative nanotechnology solutions through multiple avenues, including the utilization of cutting-edge instrumentation.  A few years later, I took on a Manager role for the Shared Research Operations (SRO) which supports the educational, research, and outreach missions in several complex laboratories across campus. These facilities host more than 60 pieces of sophisticated equipment and are heavily utilized not only by faculty, students and staff, but also external users with diverse backgrounds (primarily in science and engineering).

Our team of technical staff at the SRO serves the user base by providing equipment stewardship, in-depth hands-on training, and expert assistance with unique research challenges.

Image Credit: Shared Research Operations - Texas State University

From your past experiences, what advice would you give those who are thinking of setting up or revitalizing a multi-user facility?

First and foremost, clearly define where the multi-user facility will sit in the organization. In university settings, core labs might make better sense to be housed at the department, college, or university level. Still, it depends on the user base they aim to serve and the best avenue for sustainable funding.

Building a diverse support team is also an important factor, as a core lab requires scientists, technicians, lab managers, and administrators with a multitude of backgrounds to run smoothly. Having one person fill all or most of these roles is very difficult. 

Another thing to mention is that the team should communicate effectively and enjoy teaching others.

Lastly, they should establish criteria that justify the inclusion of a piece of instrumentation in the core.  You cannot always predict or control what principal investigators need to accomplish their research metrics. Still, you can avoid taking on stewardship of equipment that is used infrequently, by only one group, or that has a higher than acceptable upkeep-to-use ratio.

What type of analytical solutions do you have in SRO, and how do they support your users?

Our analysis research service center has several core thrusts, including electron/optical/scanning probe microscopy, spectroscopy, electrical and magnetic characterization, and sample preparation. 

Our team takes great pleasure in the diversity of techniques available to our users, whether they are studying blind salamanders, concrete, semiconductors, or nanoparticle-infused polymers - it is always an exciting time! Our Nanofabrication Research Service Center hosts essential cleanroom equipment tailored for a university setting enabling everyone’s favorite Photolithography, Deposition, Thermal, Etching, and Metrology process modules.

We use other spaces for advanced prototyping, epitaxy, and instrumentation repair/fabrication.

What makes the SRO stand out from other core facilities?

Most “core labs” I have been exposed to use a dedicated pool of permanent staff instrumentation scientists or specialists. In the SRO, our permanent staff are outnumbered around three times by the Master’s and PhD students that we employ and train to become equipment stewards. 

We are constantly training a revolving student workforce to maintain, repair, and calibrate our precious instrumentation. Still, most importantly, these students are taught how to train their peers meticulously, and this is what ultimately makes them battle-tested instrument scientists before they graduate.

Personally, I have also particularly enjoyed the challenge of and opportunity to outfit/retrofit our lab spaces to host our equipment. My team is incredibly hands-on and capable of addressing most of our facility needs, including electrical, plumbing, compressed gas delivery, DIY heat exchangers, toxic gas cabinets, vacuum pump repair, computers/networks/servers, and everything in between.

Image Credit: Shared Research Operations - Texas State University

How do you decide on the next analytical solution that will help keep you at the forefront of tomorrow's research?

We work very closely with our faculty to target instrumentation grants that bring new or improved capabilities to impact the greatest number of sponsored research projects.

Which solution(s) among the systems you oversee at the SRO impact your users most and why?

SEM and XPS are the most heavily used equipment in our facility. SEM provides visualization/magnification and introductory chemical analysis pertinent to every research field we facilitate.

XPS is our best composition analysis method as a function of depth and helps take apart heterointerfaces where all the most beautiful science happens. High-resolution X-ray diffraction is a close third and is a workhorse tool for several epitaxy-based research groups in our facility.

Learn more here about the Thermo Scientific Nexsa XPS, Talos F200i TEM, and Helios DualBeam FIB-SEM.

What is the percentage of academia vs. industry customers using the SRO? Do they have the same needs?

Our industry customers comprise 5-10% of our user base, and they largely have the same foundational need, i.e., access to advanced scientific instrumentation. My team and I rarely accept work for hire or perform sample analysis on behalf of others; rather, we train anyone to do it with their own hands and minds. This tends to foster situations where companies hire a TxState student to work on their behalf, so everyone wins.

Our academic users often need more guidance regarding theory, operation, sample prep, and data interpretation based on where they are in their scientific journey. We are particularly pleased that many of our industrial users are actually former students who have convinced their employers to let them “come home” and access a well-run facility to perform analysis + deliver results that they learned about while earning their degree.

You mentioned users operating the Helios FIB-SEM for SEM purposes. What are your thoughts about modern W-SEM systems?

We recently acquired a Thermo Scientific Axia ChemiSEM which has been an absolute game changer. The speed and simplicity of simultaneously collecting images with elemental data benefits so many users in our facility.

Image Credit: Dr. Joyce Anderson, Shared Research Operations - Texas State University

Wtih the Axia stepping into a much needed slot and the Thermo Scientific Talos TEM capable of (inorganic) high-magnification materials analysis, our Helios DualBeam FIB-FE-SEM is no longer the end of the line for our magnification range (although it will still be heavily utilized).

Is there a story you would consider a great success with any of your instrumentation?

This job has brought me the joy of diversity. Every victory is sweet whether it is seeing one of my trainees experience an “a-ha moment”, diagnosing and fixing an equipment issue (ideally at no cost), winning an instrumentation grant, seeing one of my student employees grow as a scientist and getting a dream job offer, or acknowledgments of our humble facility in a peer-reviewed journal or conference presentation.

How do you balance the training tasks of a teaching facility?

Due to time constraints, tutorials and sample data to practice on are the hardest for my staff to make available to our users. The time required to train even a novice user to obtain good data is measured in hours, but helping them achieve proficient and expert data analysis takes much longer.  Depending upon how much homework they have done and their education/field, sometimes starting a project off in the right direction can take substantial time.  Planning and setting realistic goals early helps to maintain balance as well as return on our, as well as the researcher/student's, time.

An Axia [ChemiSEM]... is a game changer for so many users in our facility. 

Dr. Casey Smith, Shared Research Operations at Texas State University 

How do you promote your latest capabilities to your internal and external customers?

We typically showcase new capabilities during department all-hands meetings, via email distribution lists, and during coursework that utilizes our facilities.

About Dr. Casey Smith

Casey Smith completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Physics with a minor in Geology. He then pursued a Master of Science in Physics with a minor in Chemistry at Texas State University, followed by a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of North Texas. Following his doctoral studies, Dr. Smith worked as a research engineer and program manager at SEMATECH. He contributed to developing integration and process modules for non-planar transistors (FinFETs) and other advanced CMOS-compatible technologies, including Nanoelectromechanical systems and tunnel transistors.

Dr. Smith later joined the faculty at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, where he played a key role in pioneering CMOS-based technologies and supervised the construction of specialized cleanroom facilities. In 2013, he returned to Texas State University, where he now leads the Shared Research Operations technical team. This team manages the Research Service Centers, supporting the university's educational, research, and entrepreneurial endeavors. Additionally, Dr. Smith actively develops practical curriculum components for graduate courses, participates on thesis and dissertation committees, and creates training protocols for safety and equipment use, benefiting a broad range of users. He has authored or co-authored over 50 peer-reviewed scientific papers and holds an h-index of 22.

 

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Thermo Fisher Scientific – Materials and Structural Analysis Division.

For more information on this source, please visit Thermo Fisher Scientific – Electron Microscopy Solutions.

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