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November 24, 2010

New BSL-3 lab to aid undergraduate education

The lab planned for the fifth floor of Langley Hall is the first level-3 facility in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences, Graham Hatfull, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, told the University Times. It will replace an existing lower-level facility as part of a larger renovation of the Clapp-Langley-Crawford complex.

The study of bacterial and viral pathogens is an important component of the department’s research, Hatfull said.

The lab’s potential to add to the success of the department’s research makes it valuable for that fact alone, but it’s also groundbreaking in its incorporation of design features that facilitate undergraduate learning, he noted. The suite’s observation room and monitoring cameras allow students to “see everything that’s essentially going on in the lab,” Hatfull said. He knows of no other such lab in the nation, acknowledging that others likely will be watching. “There may be a community out there interested in the design of how we use the facilities,” he said. “We need to be very careful about how we establish that.”

He noted that the department’s missions of education and research long have been closely entwined. “We bring them together as much as possible,” Hatfull said.

Biosafety issues are a concern today both in terms of the potential for emergence of new diseases as well as bioterrorism threats, he said. Scientists need training to work with pathogens and students who have the experience, understanding and training in this area are expected to find it a marketable skill.

“The experience of working in a BSL-3 lab is unique. It’s an unusual opportunity,” Hatfull said.

“Having this type of facility is an opportunity not just to do research work, but an opportunity to train students in at least part of what it takes to work under these conditions,” he said. Eventually students may advance to the point where they could enter the lab either to observe or to perform rudimentary manipulations “so they have a full understanding of what it takes to work in that unique environment.”

Faculty likewise will benefit from having the BSL-3 facility close at hand. As an example, Hatfull said his own research with the bacterium that causes tuberculosis — which requires level-3 containment — could be expanded.  Other strains of bacteria can be substituted in some studies, but with the BSL-3 lab available, the range could be expanded to include experiments that must use the TB bacterium itself.

Another research area that will become possible with the availability of the lab is one in which samples with suspected but unknown viral pathogens can be examined. “We can’t do those experiments now,” he said.

Hatfull said the department is continuing to expand and recruit. He sees the lab as a potential key to drawing in new faculty. “Having facilities like this could be very, very attractive,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 43 Issue 7

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