Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

From Sharpies to Sputtering Guns: School Supplies for the CM Experimentalist

Posted by Melissa on September 1, 2010

I was talking recently with an individual who was considering a career as a condensed matter experimentalist at a liberal arts college, and the talk inevitably turned to how one goes about building a lab at such an institution. Of course, there is no universal answer to that question, but there are some strategic decisions to be made about how to budget and make the most of the modest start-up funds available at undergraduate institutions.

Even within the general classification of liberal arts colleges that expect their faculty to be research-active, substantial variation exists in the start-up funds and infrastructure support available. When I was on the market six years ago, start-up funds ranged from $50-$100K depending on the economic means of the school and the expectations for faculty scholarship. I’m sure that amount has gone up, but nevertheless figuring out how to make the most of those funds is a challenge.

I was given a couple of good pieces of advice about funding an experimental lab at a primarily undergraduate institution that I’ll mention here.

  • Minimize the cost of consumables, even if it means you pay more upfront. For example, a closed cycle cryostat costs more than a cryostat that requires liquid helium, but in the long run, you save yourself both money and logistical challenges by avoiding liquid helium.
  • It’s okay to buy used. You can get perfectly good equipment from eBay and BidService if you don’t need the cutting-edge bells and whistles.
  • Recycle. Find out what unused equipment is available at your new institution, and whether you can repurpose it for your research agenda. Similarly, if you are coming from a well-established research group at a large university, there may be equipment lying around the lab that isn’t being used. Consult with the PI to see if you can “borrow” some items, with no fixed return date.
  • Get to know what’s available at research universities within driving distance of your institution. Large universities are often willing to allow faculty from undergraduate institutions to access shared user facilities (with materials characterization or processing instrumentation), and sometimes they will provide grants to cover usage fees.
  • Think double-duty.  At an undergraduate institution, the department may have an equipment budget for curricular labs. Consider whether there is equipment that would be useful to you that could also be used for an advanced lab course. For example, a portable turbo pumping station can be wheeled around easily so you can use it in your lab during the summer and in courses during the academic year.

Since it’s back to school time, with the associated lists of required school supplies, I’ve put together the A-Z list of “school supplies” that I’ve used and/or acquired for my experimental work since coming to Carleton. The list is not comprehensive, but it gives a vague sense of the instrumentation and supplies in one experimental condensed matter physics lab at one liberal arts college.

A – aluminum foil; Al2O3 substrates
B – Bourdon, Baratron, and other pressure gauges
C – closed cycle cryostat
D – DC power supplies
E – electromagnet (1.2 T); europium and other elemental sources
F – fork for sample transfer; furnace (11oo °C)
G – gas cylinders (oxygen, nitrogen)
H – H20E (and other) epoxies
I – ion gauge
J – jewelers screwdrivers (and lots of other screwdrivers, wrenches, tweezers, etc)
K – Keithley electronics (multimeter, current source, nanovoltmeter, etc); Kaleida graph
L – leak valve
M – MPMS by Quantum Design (At the University of Minnesota — I accessed it as an external user.)
N – National Instruments Labview
O – optical microscope
P – platen for sample transfer
Q – quartz crystal microbalance
R – residual gas analyzer
S – substrate heater, soldering iron, sputtering guns
T – temperature controller, thermal evaporator
U – ultra high vacuum chamber
V – vacuum pumps (mechanical, cryo, turbo, ion)
W – wobblestick
X – x-ray diffractometer (At the University of Minnesota — I accessed it as an external user. However, Carleton recently was awarded a NSF MRI grant to purchase a system that will be delivered in October!)

I’ll just leave it there… I’m sure there are some Y and Z supplies, but I can’t think of anything at the moment.

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