Propelling World Class Research at Duke University
The culture of research at the Pratt School of Engineering serves as a model to many research institutions and industries across the globe. The high level of innovation, productivity, and advancement reflects a vibrant community of students, faculty and researchers across a range of disciplines in science and engineering. However, pioneering research requires access to the most advanced equipment. That’s where the idea for the Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility (SMIF) began.
In 2000, a university strategic planning committee, which was a collection of top administrators working to create initiatives for the university’s future, formed the “Materials Working Group” to help catalyze nanostructured and bio-inspired materials and device research. The group realized that there was a lack of equipment necessary to perform high-level research for the fabrication and characterization of materials, devices, and nanostructures. Their solution to the problem was the creation of SMIF, Duke’s resource for advanced characterization and cleanroom fabrication, which is available to undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and non-university researchers alike.
By 2002, SMIF obtained X-ray diffraction and atomic force microscopy capabilities, originally located in the basement of the Levine Science Research Center. A year later, a scanning electron microscope in the physics building and a small cleanroom in Hudson Hall were added to the SMIF arsenal. However, it was not until 2007 that SMIF moved into the 12,000 square foot facility where it currently operates. SMIF now has more than 65 instruments serving the needs of more than 500 users across the Pratt School of Engineering, Trinity School of Arts & Sciences, the School of Medicine, neighboring universities, and companies across the Research Triangle Park.
With the constant bustle in SMIF from its many users and projects, safety has always been an important consideration. SMIF director Mark Walters, Ph.D. explains, “The safety of students and researchers using our facility is our top priority, which is evidenced by the safety training and safety systems in the facility.”
For instance, the toxic gas monitoring system in SMIF is a $1 million state-ofthe- art system that can detect the type, amount, and location of any gas leak or chemical spill and immediately notify SMIF staff by wireless communication to any locality. There have been no incidents of injury since SMIF first opened.
SMIF now not only offers its capabilities as a research facility, but also as an educational tool. The staff allows professors to illustrate concepts from class at no charge. Further, several funding agencies, such as the LORD Foundation and the Donald M. Alstadt Fund, have enabled undergraduates to use the equipment for research projects by covering the hourly access fees typically billed to its users for operational costs. Headlining this idea is the SMIF Undergraduate User Program, or SUUP, which encourages undergraduate research and innovation by supplying students up to $500 a month. There are currently 23 undergraduates participating in this program.
There are many reasons why SMIF stands out among other noteworthy shared facilities. SMIF owns the only electron beam lithography system in North Carolina, which is capable of producing structures at the nanoscale. It also has a $1 million dollar transmission electron microscope capable of cryogenic sample imaging and 3-D tomography. The SMIF cleanroom, which was the first such facility in the nation to use a “Bio Bay” for the integration of biological materials, enabling the creation of novel sensors and biomedical devices.
However, since the user fees of the facility only cover operational costs, the SMIF relies on external funding for new equipment and capabilities. Currently, the staff is looking into purchasing atomic layer deposition and dip pen lithography instruments for the cleanroom and focused ion beam and thermogravimetric analyzer instruments for characterization purposes. Together this equipment carries a heavy price tag of well over $1 million.
Hired in 2002, Walters oversees many of the projects inside the facility. Walters works closely with a specialized team of talented engineers to keep the facility operational: Kirk Bryson, Jay Dalton, Michelle Gignac, and Tamika Craige. The Executive Director of SMIF, Nan Marie Jokerst, Ph.D., J.A. Jones Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, along with the advisory committee, leads the group by keeping the facility ahead of the technological curve.
“The capabilities of SMIF and its staff are here to enable cutting edge research for the faculty and students of the Pratt School of Engineering and beyond,” Walters said. The SMIF staff assists researchers by conducting training courses, providing technical support, and keeping the facility stocked with chemicals and materials.
Wyatt Shields is a Ph.D. student in Prof. Gabriel Lopez’s lab in biomedical engineering.