Faculty and visitors test out the equipment at bio[box]
Case Western Reserve University's new biological sciences research space, bio[box], debuted in early February.

bio[box] debuts

Modeled after Sears think[box], new experiment space at Case Western Reserve University provides open research lab to bring ideas to life

Look out, there’s a brand new [box] in town.

Case Western Reserve University, home to the internationally recognized Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears think[box]—the world’s largest university-based open-access innovation center—now has a new biology research space.

Meet bio[box]: For now, primarily for Department of Biological Sciences users and mostly within a single room (DeGrace Hall 103) on campus focused on providing cutting-edge research equipment and an experiment space focused on biology.

But planners have higher aspirations for bio[box]: eventually becoming a public-access portal to the understanding of life itself.

“Absolutely everyone has questions about biology, but most of the time the questions stay questions because people haven’t got the tools to ask them,” said Sarah Bagby, an assistant professor of biology who helped plan and furnish bio[box]. “It will be really powerful if we can give people a place to investigate their world.”

Case Western Reserve Provost and Executive Vice President William A. “Bud” Baeslack III called the space a “molecular biology maker facility.”

“It’s new, it’s exciting and it’s clean—for the moment,” joked Baeslack—also a professor of materials science and engineering—who toured the brightly lit lab when it opened in early February. “We often talk to students and their parents about the research opportunities here at Case Western Reserve, so this is a great recruitment tool.”

Birth of bio[box]

The idea for the space came out of department brainstorming sessions over the last few years—but accelerated as soon as they landed on the name, said Mark Willis, chair of the Department of Biology and also a professor.

“Yes, it’s a riff on Sears think[box] and just like that facility, we do see a multi-user facility as soon as we can do it,” Willis said.

The room in DeGrace Hall was renovated with support from the Dr. Mayme DeGrace Endowment Fund—established in 2007 to help with the “maintenance and enhancement” of the building—and other individual donors.

The College of Arts and Sciences and the provost’s office then secured funding for equipment.

“We are excited that bio[box] offers an extraordinary resource for our faculty and students in pursuing their research endeavors,” said Cyrus C. Taylor, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Albert A. Michelson Professor in Physics. “We are grateful for the support of the DeGrace Fund and other donors in transforming this space and providing more opportunities for scientific inquiry.”

Bio[box] has more than a dozen cutting-edge pieces of equipment.
Bio[box] has more than a dozen cutting-edge pieces of equipment.

Cutting-edge equipment

The equipment in bio[box]ranges from a simple scale, pH bath, a microwave, and various freezers (able to go down to -80 Celsius), to state-of-the-art equipment for measuring and analyzing DNA, RNA, proteins, and live cells.

Much of the new equipment is capable of analyzing dozens of samples at a time.  One instrument, called a “high-throughput droplet digital PCR platform,” is believed to be the only one available for use in the city, said Bagby.

“My lab is interested in developing ways to use this specific tool to ask questions that have always been tantalizingly out of reach for microbiologists,” she said.

There will be some limitations to bio[box] initially. Undergraduates will require a faculty sponsor from the Department of Biology to do work there, and only department members may use the facility for free.

However, bio[box] is open to non-biology graduate students and senior researchers from across CWRU and even outside the institution, although they will pay small, variable fee to use individual instruments.

Eventually, Bagby said, bio[box] could include equipment like thermal imaging cameras, high-speed video cameras or microscopes, which could be signed out by students, faculty members or members of the public.

And while current plans do not call for bio[box] to grow into a full-sized building like its more well-known university sibling, Sears think[box], that won’t stop researchers from starting small but thinking big.

“We’re trying to build a set of tools that will open up questions that we haven’t been able to ask until now,” Bagby said. “That’s pretty cool.”

For more information, contact Mike Scott at mike.scott@case.edu.

This article was originally published Feb. 15, 2018.