Learn about Carnegie Mellon’s $40 million life science ‘gamble’

Rebecca W. Doerge, Glen de Vries Dean of the Mellon College of Science and Professor of Biological Sciences and Statistics and Data Science at Carnegie Mellon University was issued a challenge by the administration to elevate the reputation of the school to rival that of their IT and engineering colleges. Her answer was to invest $40 million to emulate the ECL lab setup for the university’s exclusive use. She shares her story here with DDW.

In just under a year’s time, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) will set a life sciences record: It will be the first institution of higher education to have a dedicated Internet-accessed automated laboratory for its students and researchers, called the Carnegie Mellon University Cloud Lab.

Carnegie Mellon scientists and their collaborators will be able to create and perform experiments and share data remotely over a single software interface, allowing them to conduct research from anywhere in the world. They’ll use the power of the Cloud to control over 200 different categories of lab equipment held in a massive 16,000 square foot facility.

The sweeping project is the result of an agreement between CMU and San Francisco-based Emerald Cloud Lab (ECL). The $40 million agreement is a landmark in higher education, and the approach – which has been labeled in the media as “Science as a Service” – is likely to change the way the modern life science lab is thought of from now on.

The agreement between ECL and CMU unfolded quite organically. Some five years ago, ECL founders Brian Frezza and DJ Kleinbaum, both CMU alumni, asked whether CMU had ever considered housing a cloud lab for their own purposes.

Carnegie Mellon University’s reputation for excellence in the foundational sciences, robotics, machine learning and data science makes it ideally suited to hosting a cloud lab. We devote considerable time and resources to educating the scientists of the future and to shaping the future of science. The promise of the cloud lab for academic research and education was undeniable. We jumped at the chance to be the first to bring this genre-defining technological advancement to academics.

The CMU Cloud Lab will be built on top of ECL’s software architecture. ECL will also collaborate with Carnegie Mellon on the facility’s design and construction, equipment installation, and laboratory management and operations.

How does a cloud lab work?

Emerald Cloud Lab (ECL) hosts an automated laboratory with 190 different categories of research instruments, enabling scientists to run any standard research protocol via the Internet, using a single piece of computer software. With an annual subscription that costs less than a typical lab instrument, researchers can send in their samples and code in their protocols, and ECL will run their experiments using automated, high-throughput technology.

ECL’s laboratory environment offers a comprehensive set of capabilities for researchers to perform all their basic cell biology and biochemistry experiments remotely – with the same flexibility they would have running experiments in their own lab.

Setup is dynamic and instantaneous. From idea through sign-up, typically only a few short hours elapse before the researcher can be up and running their experiment.

The ECL Command Center is a single digital platform that allows scientists to design, execute, and interpret nearly any in vitro experiment, without coding experience. The process is nearly as simple as pushing a button, and it is that software that will form the backbone of the CMU Cloud Lab as well.

Cloud lab benefits

The operational benefits of a cloud lab also will help, in a very real sense, to level the playing field in how scientific progress is made. In a typical academic setting, a researcher may apply for a grant with which they may purchase a laboratory instrument. After that part of their research has been done, that instrument may sit unused. In a cloud lab setting, everyone has access to every instrument. New instruments or additional units of the same instruments can be brought online very quickly, increasing capability across the board.

More importantly, however, the Carnegie Mellon University Cloud Lab will be an important way to “democratize” science. Faculty and students will no longer be constrained by the cost, availability and location of equipment.

The same holds true for others in the scientific and academic communities. Researchers from smaller universities, local life sciences startups, even high school students, who may not otherwise have access to such advanced lab facilities will likely benefit. We plan to open the Carnegie Mellon Cloud Lab to other organizations, to ensure that scientific advancement is not held back by limited means.

The future of life science

If we agree that academia should be focused on continually finding new and better ways to advance research and provide education, there is little doubt that a cloud lab is among the best of those new ways forward. That’s speaking from experience.

Over the last few years, CMU’s faculty has used ECL’s facilities for research and education. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when most of us were working and learning remotely, we were able to use ECL to provide students a real-world laboratory experience. Researchers may have otherwise had to pause their laboratory work, but with access to the cloud lab their experiments could be continued without interruption. It proved to be a real game-changer for CMU. Those benefits could be realized by any organization.

For research, the cloud lab directly affects the speed at which discoveries can be made, with highly accurate, reproducible and sharable data. For education, the cloud lab concept is immediately appealing to students, our next generation of scientists.

In case it may not be readily apparent, I think CMU is justifiably enthusiastic about the enormous potential of the cloud lab. It’s undeniably part of the future of science. Academic institutions that move quickly to adopt the platform are well-positioned to take a leadership position as the industry continually embraces the technology.

About the author

Rebecca Doerge is the Glen de Vries Dean of the Mellon College of Science at Carnegie Mellon University and a member of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ Department of Statistics and Data Science and the Mellon College of Science’s Department of Biological Sciences.

Doerge’s research program focuses on statistical bioinformatics, an interdisciplinary component of bioinformatics that brings together many scientific disciplines for the purpose of asking, answering, and disseminating biologically interesting information in the quest to understand the ultimate function of DNA and epigenomic associations.

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