Shared and sustainable facilities: piloting Calpendo at the Electron Microscope Unit

30 Jan 2018
30 Jan 2018

UCT is home to myriad facilities, instruments, software packages and services, ranging from electron microscopes to high-performance computing facilities that are used by a range of researchers across disciplines and institutions. The trouble is that these resources are expensive to buy and to maintain.

The Electron Microscope Unit was one of the research groups to pilot new software, Calpendo, for managing the use of UCT’s facilities and instruments, such as this x-ray diffractometer. (Photo courtesy Stephen Williams)

The Electron Microscope Unit was one of the research groups to pilot new software, Calpendo, for managing the use of UCT’s facilities and instruments, such as this x-ray diffractometer. (Photo courtesy Stephen Williams)

To ensure sustainability, not only do the various facilities need to be used by as wide a community of researchers as possible, but an effective billing system needs to be in place for the user community.

This is a model the Electron Microscope Unit (EMU) at UCT relies on for its five electron microscopes and its protein purification lab.

“The money we charge for the use of the microscopes goes to the maintenance of the resources,” says Miranda Waldron, principal scientific officer at the EMU. “That is how we have always survived, so the microscopes need to be kept busy.”

The EMU microscopes are used by researchers from health sciences, engineering, molecular and cell biology, biological sciences and others. Beyond just the UCT community, the unit receives requests from researchers across South Africa and elsewhere on the continent.

Whether they simply courier samples through to the lab, or come in person to use the microscopes, researchers must book and pay for time on the facilities.

The EMU was thus a natural candidate for a pilot conducted on behalf of the University Research Committee’s (URC) Imaging and Microscopy Working Group, to find the most efficient way to manage the administrative burden and costs of research facilities and instruments around the university.

Working with the URC and EMU, UCT eResearch identified Calpendo, a cloud-based system for managing facilities. Calpendo was first used by the University of Oxford in 2009, and today is used by a range of universities across the globe.

The EMU was the first unit to pilot the new software at UCT. The EMU’s old system was hosted on a server at ICTS, and had been battling under the weight of the unit’s requirements. For Waldron, the advantages of cloud-based software, with a support team on standby, have been excellent.

“With the old system you could only access it when you were on campus, with a UCT computer. This obviously had a number of limitations, one of which was that one of us would have to actually make the booking for external users,” says Waldron. “Calpendo is really convenient. You simply access it through a website, so anyone can use it from anywhere in the world.”

“One of the biggest benefits of cloud-based computing is the strong support provided, enabling effective collaboration between local and remote teams,” says Dr Dale Peters, UCT eResearch director.

Researchers are not simply booking and paying for the use of the microscopes at the EMU. They are also supported by Waldron and her colleagues, who offer a range of services, from preparing the samples and running the microscopes to teaching students how to operate the equipment on their own.

Calpendo meets their needs and requirements, but also goes beyond what previous booking systems have offered. Waldron says she can see the value of this software for scaling up in the future.

“We have a new machine funded by the National Research Foundation, and they require a greater level of reporting than we are used to. We need to provide information such as when a student user started their degree and when they intend to finish, or what their ID number is,” she says. “I think Calpendo is going to be great for that level of reporting.”

The URC has identified a need for a single system to allow all researchers access to the range of facilities and equipment available at UCT. This means that, ideally, the system the EMU implements must be able to scale up, to cover the needs of the entire university and beyond.

“In times of austerity, which all South African universities are faced with now, we need to work together – not only at a university level, but nationally – to make sure we get the best use out of the resources we have,” says Peters. “Hopefully, cloud-based software such as Calpendo will offer the solution to managing the administrative burden of these nationally shared resources.”