Home to a $6 million microscope, the Facility for Electron Microscopy Research (FEMR) is one of the most highly funded labs at McGill. The Daily sat down with its Director and founder, Dr. Hojatollah Vali, who described what it’s like running a lab at McGill, especially at a financially uncertain time. He also answered questions about the monstrosity of a microscope that the FEMR hosts, shedding light on what it does, how it works, and why it’s such an important tool. It’s known as the state-of-the-art FEI Titan Krios 300 kV cryo-scanning/transmission electron microscope, and Vali gave us an idea as to why it cost, in total, a whopping $10 million.
McGill Daily (MD): In short, how would you describe the FEMR?
Dr. Hojatollah Vali (HV): When I first came to work at McGill, the electron microscopes were…all over the campus. Different faculties had their own microscopes for different purposes. Out of the total of 18 microscopes, 12 of them did not work. I thought it would be important to develop a facility which would allow and promote research using electron microscopy in all the disciplines that [it] was relevant to. Hence, I drafted a proposal to set up what later became the FEMR.
MD: Are the facilities of the FEMR open to any department at McGill?
HV: Absolutely. Any department at McGill can use the FEMR’s facilities. People from outside McGill, from other universities, [also] come and use [our] equipment. We also make it a point not to charge high user fees because we want to promote academic excellence and the idea of learning, which would be difficult if we charged high prices.
MD: The most interesting piece of equipment in the lab is the Titan Krios. When was that bought?
HV: That was actually in 2009. But it took two years for us to install it. The problem was that the ceiling was not high enough to accomodate the 4.5 metre height of the microscope. It was because of this renovation that its installation was delayed. And unfortunately, this renovation cost McGill about $4 million.
MD: This renovation was just for the microscope to be hosted in the building?
HV: Yes, it was just for the microscope.
MD: And how much did the microscope itself cost?
HV: The microscope’s cost was about $6 million, but that came from government agencies, from the CFI (Canada Foundation for Innovation). Almost $4 million of the renovation costs was completely from McGill.
MD: What exactly does the Titan Krios do? What makes it such a special state-of-the-art machine?
HV: It really comes down to the question of conventional electron microscopy versus more advanced cryo-electron microscopy. Cryo-electron microscopy is to examine the structure of cells, proteins, polymers, et cetera. It’s the best way to get the most accurate structure of such systems. Your samples are frozen at the liquid nitrogen temperature, since the microscope operates at this temperature. The entire time, your sample is frozen…and is never exposed to any form of dehydration. This is a very advanced and state-of-the-art technique [that produces] some of the best results. That is why this microscope is so unique. But also why it is so expensive.
MD: How many of these microscopes are there in the world?
HV: When we bought it, it was the first one. But right now, I think there are about twenty or so in the world. This is the only one in Canada.
MD: Where else in the world are they?
HV: NIH (National Institute of Health) has one. There’s one in Washington, one in San Diego. Harvard and MIT don’t have one yet.
MD: Do you think there is a reason as to why schools like Harvard and MIT don’t have one?
HV: Well, the first thing is that it’s not so simple. You have to have a grant; you have to apply for it. They might have applied for one, but it takes time.
MD: Would you say the FEMR is one of the best-funded labs at McGill?
HV: Yes, although it’s difficult to say. We get $135,000 a year. There are some labs that get more, and others that get less. It really depends on your requirements, how much you really need to conduct quality research. The costs of other labs and facilities may be less, so we would take more priority in terms of finances.
MD: How does funding work for the FEMR in general?
HV: Maintenance of [our instruments] is very expensive. […] We get grants, user fees, and support from the university. And usually these machines are on the service contract. But generally there’s a possibility that grant agencies will support us. Unfortunately, since the Conservative government came in, most of these grants are gone. Some agencies in Quebec…[support] us – we have one grant from NanoQuebec that’s providing only for the maintenance. But, ultimately, the university has to support us. The indirect cost for this facility is huge. You need electricity, maintenance, air-conditioning – all these things come at a very high price. And McGill covers all this.
MD: McGill estimates that its budget will be heavily affected by the freeze in tuition. Do you think this would affect this lab?
HV: That’s something we have to see. They might be able to come up with a solution. Unfortunately, money is always an issue. Tuition is a big issue, but it’s not the only issue. The grant issue is a very big issue as well – the fact that, with the Conservative government coming into power, we have lost access to many grants. Last year, we had two or three grants which don’t even exist anymore. But, in terms of tuition, I think we [should] share [the responsibilities]. For instance, my colleagues and I don’t get high salaries. We get either half or one-third of what we would get in the private sector. But we stay here because we are committed. We are here for the students and that’s something they need to realize. The money doesn’t go anywhere – it doesn’t go to buy luxuries; it’s going to maintain [the quality of the lab]. It’s not here for our salaries. The students have to understand this. We all have to contribute in our own way.
MD: To what extent do you think the freeze in tuition hikes would affect the lab?
HV: It affects, directly or indirectly, everything. My point is that it shouldn’t even go so far that students have to demonstrate and the government has to come in and freeze tuition. I think that everybody has to contribute – everybody. …People feel they need to have their car, their laptop, their apartment – and that’s all okay. But then why not pay a little more for tuition? It’s for McGill. I’m not saying we should support capitalism or anything. This is an educational system. …We [as professors] are committed no matter how much the students pay, but people must remember that as teachers, we are researchers as well. My everyday business as a researcher is directly associated to the financial situation at McGill. If we don’t have the support of research, teaching is not going to help us very much. We’re good [teachers] because of our research.
MD: Have you experienced a financial change already?
HV: Oh, yes. Every year, we are getting a certain chunk cut. It’s not that we don’t have enough money to cover our expenses; we are reducing our expenses. We are honestly cut every day and gradually that adds up.
MD: Have you ever experienced a situation where you haven’t been able to do something because of a lack of funds?
HV: Yes. Almost everyday.
MD: What separates this lab from other labs?
HV: Nowhere else in the world can students touch state-of-the-art instruments like the Titan Krios. We are the only lab in the world that actually trains students in how to operate such high technology machinery and such state-of-the-art equipment. We see it as theirs – as the students’. The mentality of the FEMR is to incorporate students. Everything we have, we share with them. And this is really the only place in the world where you can get such experience. It’s important for the students to know and remember that we really are here for them. We are all part of the system. We are all in this together.
S. Azam Mahmood can be reached at email@example.com.