Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka Harding, Head of the Functional Materials and Nanotechnology Center of Excellence (FuNTech), Walailak University (WU)
High quality research requires high quality infrastructure to support it. In this article, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka Harding, Head of the Functional Materials and Nanotechnology Center of Excellence (FuNTech), Walailak University (WU) walked us through the evolution of WU’s laboratory infrastructure and her perspective on building the lab of the future.
Early inspiration from the building for millennials
“Constructing laboratory infrastructure as a Center for Excellence requires a variety of tools, as well as sufficient funding. However, regardless of how big or small financial investment is, it has to serve the needs of the WU research community and also those outside. That’s our motto,” said Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka.
Three and half years as a PhD student at the University of Bristol, UK, from 1997 to 2001 introduced Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka to global standard labs. A visit to WU prior to her graduation, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka, a PhD student at a time, allowed her to assess research facilities. After this she worked closely with the Director of the Center for Scientific and Technological Equipment, to build a standard laboratory from scratch.
“At first, all that was available was an office. The minute I saw that, I knew that it was impossible for me to conduct research in my field. As a result, I requested the installation of a workbench and a sink. On top of that, an infrared spectrometer and electrochemical equipment worth a million Baht each were installed prior to my return to Thailand,” said Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka. This was the first of many steps towards developing research infrastructure at WU.
Adaptation to what is available
With more infrastructure needed, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka proceeded to write a proposal for a grant from the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) and received 200,000 THB to begin with, amounting to a total of 270,000 combined with the University’s research fund for doctoral lecturers. Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka’s first research project concerned metal compounds with electrochemical properties, her area of expertise. However, limited resources forced her to find new ways of doing things to fit in with the resources available.
“While building research infrastructure, I also had to make adjustments in my research so that I could continue. For example, many fascinating compounds are sensitive to air, but at that time I didn’t have the facilities to explore such systems,” explained Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka.
Laboratory of the future
Despite the challenges involved, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka still envisioned a fully-equipped laboratory designed to provide a functional, safe, and discipline-specific space that met international norms. In other words, the lab space would protect researchers from toxic chemicals with installation of hoods, lighting, and zoning.
“It could actually extend to the level in which a chemical cupboard’s hinge must be of a specific type to prevent erosion caused by the chemicals stored in it,” added Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka.
Regarding this, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka was inspired by the design and construction of the new Synthetic Chemical building at the University of Bristol. With regular consultation with the University head of the Postgraduate School, who was also her research advisor, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka started conceptualizing a standard laboratory designed and certified by the private sector from her involvement with the scheme.
“I felt personally attached to this building because I also helped out in telephone fundraising and got the chance, as an international student, to talk with the alumni sharing my experience and the potential for the building to serve the needs of current students,” said Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka.
Eventually, the construction of Innovation Building was approved with two zones for chemistry and physics. As head of the Molecular Technology Research Unit, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka planned the building of the laboratory for the future to ensure the viability and feasibility for current and future research work.
“Instead of one-phase electric power, I requested three-phase power, as is used in factories and because of its higher capacity, no future change will be necessary when new research instruments are installed,” added Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka.
Our progress so far
Molecular junction EGaIn table
" Our success in modernizing our laboratory infrastructure has been reflected in both in tangible and intangible aspects. In 2018, the Thai Government approved the establishment of a full structural and nanotechnology analysis center at WU, with 11.6 M for a Single Crystal X-ray diffractometer (SCXRD). With the SCXRD installed, we are able to perform structural characterization on a wide range of samples for WU researchers and also other researchers in Thailand. One year after installing the SCXRD, I helped the Center for Scientific and Technology Equipment to secure budget and installed the 500 MHz Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer (NMR) which has enhanced the quality of physical and medical research at WU, " said Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka.
She talked further about her future aim, " In a move towards real world applications, I aim to improve our technology readiness level (TRL) from TRL 1-3 to TRL 4-6. Specifically, I am conducting frontier research which will validate molecular magnetic materials technology in the laboratory. Key to this effort is the recent purchase of an EGaIn table – a tool that allows researchers to probe molecular properties in nanodevices, the first to be installed in Thailand."
In this regard, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka pointed out the importance of networking and collaboration with her collaborator and friend, Professor Christian Nijhuis, University of Twente (UT), Netherlands who has helped to facilitate this initiative.
However, what is more important are the skills instilled in the students. These students develop an international standard laboratory behavior and constantly practice it, inspiring others to adopt the same practice. With more advanced equipment onsite, students have chance to gain experience in operating the equipment and analyzing data which are high demand skills for new graduates.
“We have been commended by many research institutes in and outside Thailand where our students have worked as part of their research program. They have learned to work safely, be organized and use their high-level research skills,” added Assoc. Prof. Dr. Phimphaka.
This is just the beginning since research constantly changes, so laboratory structures must also evolve accordingly.
News by Nootchanat Sukkaew, Academic Affairs, Division of Corporate Communication (DCC)
Image credit: Functional Materials and Nanotechnology Center of Excellence (FuNTech), Walailak University (WU)