London Met opens largest lab in Europe

November 9, 2006

Academics and students working in London Metropolitan University's new Pounds 30 million Science Centre can hardly believe their luck.

The centre, which was opened this week, combines futuristic technology with old-fashioned one-to-one contact between students and academics.

At its heart lies the SuperLab - billed as Europe's biggest laboratory - where there is room for 0 students. This means that 12 different classes, from undergraduate biology to PhD-level microbial physiology, can take place simultaneously.

Academics sit at computer hubs monitoring students' work or rove around the vast space. They are in constant contact with their charges through radio headsets.

The experience of Abigail Baidoo, a second-year biomedical student, is typical as she follows the instructions of her lecturer through her earpiece.

Ms Baidoo is comparing one Petri dish of cultures with another. She checks that her results tally with those beamed from her lecturer's webcam on the other side of the laboratory to her computer screen.

If she has any questions, she can press the orange beacon on top of her screen to call over Ian Hancock, a microbiology lecturer.

If there is an emergency - a spilt beaker of poisonous ethanol, for example - she can press the red siren-like buzzer.

To her it feels like one-to-one tuition. "I really like the fact that we don't have to go up to the lecturers to ask questions. It is much less intimidating. I feel like I'm working things out for myself," she said.

London Met's 1,800 science students are not the only ones who appreciate the university's £30 million investment. The 60 academics in the department of health and human sciences are equally pleased.

Dominic Spillane, principal lecturer in molecular biosciences, said: "The first time I saw the space last winter, it was an enormous concrete block, but as time went on it just blew our minds away. It gives us enormous pride.

"And it is so heartening that the university puts this kind of faith in chemistry at a time when in other universities the subject is under threat."

For researcher Jane Sutherland, it is the Science Centre's Containment Level Three Laboratory, adjacent to the SuperLab, that has changed her day-to-day routine.

She is now able to conduct high-level research into airborne or transferable viruses, such as HIV and the potentially fatal E. coli 0157:H7.

The four-storey Science Centre enables lecturers to digitally record practical science experiments conducted in class - a feature latecomers may appreciate. The recordings will be stored on a database for future students to view.

The centre houses a £400,000 nuclear magnetic resonance machine - which helps diagnose brain tumours - a nutrition clinic and a sports therapy centre.

"Sciences here are getting stronger and bigger all the time. If I were at Imperial College London, I'd be getting worried," said Brian Bointon, head of the department for health and human sciences.

'Why shouldn't our students have the best facilities in the world?'

'The technology has taken some getting used to, but it has been absolutely worth it'

Jane Sutherland , senior research fellow in the microbiology research unit, said: "This centre means we will be able to apply for grants from the Food Standards Agency to research the growth and survival of various types of E. coli in foods. The technology has taken some getting used to, but it has been absolutely worth it."

Dominic Spillane , principal lecturer in molecular biosciences, said: "This has allowed us to give more appropriate attention to those students who need it.

"It is exciting to have a food science class at one end of the laboratory and something totally different at the other. That will give the students the chance for interaction across disciplines.

"It is great as a lecturer, too, because you are asked questions about all different subjects.

"A lab this size is fantastic. You can have so many classes going at once, yet it is also very quiet because of the earphones. I feel as if I am talking to each student one-to-one.

"Iknow that my university would not have built this unless it had a commitment to my subject."

Ian Hancock , microbiology lecturer, said: "It is so easy to teach in the Science Centre. We don't have to raise our voices. It is physically less demanding.

"Everyone has an earpiece and you can give extra help.

"Which adult wants to put their hand up? I think staff and students are flattered that so much money has been spent on this. It makes them feel valued.

"I look at the students getting on with their experiments and I can see how much they appreciate the facility. There is a real 'wow factor' here."

Brian Bointon , head of department of health and human sciences, said: "This is about teaching being a major part of our mission and a statement of our commitment to science.

"It used to be wooden benches and rusty Bunsen burners. Now look at it. I'd be surprised if another new university had an NMR like ours."

Brian Roper , vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, said: "The Science Centre will create new academic posts. We won't be drawn on how many though.

"Our commitment to science has already paid off. Our student numbers have grown, bucking the national trend, and our research efforts are starting to bear fruit.

"Our academics now have the best equipment and the most interactive science learning environment in the world.

"We have more black and ethnic minority students than the whole of the Russell Group. Why shouldn't they have the best facilities in the world?"

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