T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T     N O V E M B E R   -  D E C E M B E R   1999



by Fran Pollner



In the life of every scientist, a little rain must fall. Sometimes it’s a radioactive or chemical spill or a computer crash; sometimes it’s a cash shortfall for needed equipment; and sometimes it’s physical fallout from ergonomically unsound lab techniques or clutter. But if the scientist happens to work at NIH, he or she is at a distinct advantage because there’s an umbrella organization on campus that exists to shield researchers from such inclemencies—the NIH Office of Research Services (ORS).

ORS was out in force at this year’s Research Festival, with six exhibits, 19 posters, and even a table in the vendors’ tent to display the myriad ways NIH supports its intramural scientists.

SEIB: Up-Front

"For years, we weren’t allowed to advertise; we couldn’t participate in a show like this one and appear to be competing with the private sector," said Annie Burke, who manages the sales and rental program of the Scientific Equipment and Instrumentation Branch (SEIB) of the ORS Division of Intramural Research Services. As a result, very few scientists on campus knew what was available to them, literally steps from their door (in Building 13).

Annie Burke (left), with Stacy Jackson (middle) and Anne Treanor

That’s not the case now. SEIB happily publicizes its services every chance it gets. Situating itself in the vendors’ tent during the Research Festival, instead of in the Natcher Conference Center along with other ORS displays, SEIB tried to let NIH scientists know they could arrange to secure through SEIB equipment on exhibit at other vendor tables.

"We buy equipment from the vendors here and then rent it out—for a month, a year, four years—at much lower rates than you can get in the private sector. Delivery is free, maintenance is included, and you don’t have to go through the procurement process—we handle the CAN," Burke said, referring to the governmental CAN number that identifies service and supply transactions.

For new labs, it’s generally cheaper to set up by renting from SEIB with an option to buy; if a lab needs a high-ticket item, like a gene sequencer, it’s often feasible only through a rental arrangement, Burke observed. Private sector leasing companies will charge about $200 to $300 a month for a popular item like a freezer, with an additional $150 delivery fee; SEIB charges $90 a month and throws in delivery and maintenance, she said. A sequencer that costs $130,000 (government rate) is usually beyond the means of a lab, but a $2,500 a month rental fee is often not, she added.

Other components of SEIB include a lab instrumentation repair shop and computer repair (the Center for Information Technology takes care of computer software problems, but SEIB handles hardware crashes, Burke explained) and instrument design and fabrication services. The latter, she said, produce models that rival the works of medieval artisans. "A researcher will have an idea and describe what’s needed, and they’ll design and fabricate it," Burke said, citing as an example a model of the uterine vascular system made of blown glass, created for a researcher who was studying drug metabolism in uterine cancer.

Ken Ryland (middle), with MAPB branch chief Lem Canady and design chief Linda Brown

MAPB: They’ve Got the Look

Continuous video demonstrations attracted a lot of passers-by to the ORS Medical Arts & Photography Branch (MAPB) exhibit, where Ken Ryland, chief of the video section, boasted that not only were the videos high quality they were also 10–25 percent less expensive than what one could expect to pay in the outside marketplace. According to administrator Nancy Guerin, MAPB handles 50,000 jobs a year—serving all the institutes and producing anything from slides to exhibits to full video production and distribution.

Jason Barr and Bony Friend

Safety First

Attached to the tools of the trade are those who use them—sometimes to their detriment, especially if pipetting or keyboarding are major components of one’s day. With the aid of a skeleton to illustrate every bone in one’s body that could be laid waste by repetitive or improper technique, the ORS Division of Safety dedicated two of its multiple posters to the subject of laboratory ergonomics. There’s nary an object in the laboratory—table, chair, microscope, cabinet, computer, microtome, pipette, cryostat, flow cytometer, centrifuge rotor, glovebox—that cannot be a vector for injury, according to industrial hygienist Jason Barr, who reviewed all NIH laboratory injury and illness reports filed from 1991 to 1997. Between 1991 and 1995, he found, there were 59 cases of repetitive strain injuries (RSIs), representing 2 percent of all reports; in the following two years, there were 29, or 4.5 percent of all case reports—a reflection, Barr thinks, of increased awareness and reporting. There was a higher proportion of RSIs among younger (40 and under) than older workers and more RSI case reports from women, inspiring the speculation that women might perform more repetitive activities.

The upper body—shoulders, wrists, and thumbs—is most vulnerable. For example, turning a microtome to cut paraffin for histology specimens affects the wrist; removing the ovaries of a fruit fly with small tweezers affects the thumb, Barr noted. Using cushioned forceps would help, he said, as would alternating the fingers used to hold them. "We ask manufacturers to redesign products, and until that happens we improvise—like gluing foam around the forceps."

The division routinely sends questionnaires to labs, interviews personnel, checks out worksites, and consults with manufacturers—no fee involved.

For pithy, ergonomically sound, illustrated advice related to typical lab environments, click onto this web site.

Albert Lock (right), with Mike Pallay, occupational safety specialist, and Roz Rutledge-Burns, chief of the Safety Operations Section

MPTP: A Case Study

Albert Lock, toxicologist-pharmacologist in the Occupational Safety and Health Branch (OSHB), is in the business of assessing the risks of adverse health effects run by scientists who work with hazardous substances. MPTP, a chemical used to model the effects of Parkinson’s disease in the brain, is a risk-analysis case in point. "This is a chemical that can cause permanent brain damage. We’ve been evaluating it since the mid-’80s, updating our literature searches, mon-itoring its use, and doing routine lab checks," Lock said. The OSHB has 14 specialists, assigned by institute, whose work includes attending animal care and use meetings and signing off on protocols involving chemicals, toxins, or recombinant DNA.

Beth Reed

Radiation Rigors

NIH labs are surveyed monthly and inspected two to six times a year to keep tabs on another potential hazard—radiation. Beth Reed, health physicist in the ORS Division of Safety’s Radiation Safety Branch, was pleased to report that although her branch responded to 129 potential problem calls between 1989 and 1999, there were no radiation injuries. "There have been no adverse effects, not even from the notorious case" (involving a pregnant scientist who ingested radioactive material).

"Accidents happen. It’s what you do afterwards that counts," Reed said. Most of the 129 incidents involved unforeseeable spills in restricted areas. The most typical scenario is that someone drops a container of radioactive phosphorus 32, a common material used to label cells. Should such an accident occur, the key action, Reed said, is to take action right away by calling the Radiation Safety Branch, based in Building 21 (496-5774), and clean up the spill immediately. Radiation Safety Branch staff clean up spills that occur in common areas; lab staff usually clean up spills within their labs. Generally, cleaners found in labs are effective—Windex, 1 percent acetic acid, or Radiacwash.

That such accidental spills have not had any biomedical effects on exposed personnel can be attributed largely to maintaining the low radiation limits set for both restricted (2,200 dpm/100 cm2) and unrestricted areas, Reed observed. Aside from possibly jangled nerves, the worst consequence for personnel may be having contaminated articles placed in storage—they are held to allow for radioactive decay, a period determined by the half-life of the contaminant. An article contaminated with P32, with a half-life of 14 days, for instance, would be held for 20 weeks.

Dennis Bernard

Animal TLC

Two million pounds of feed and 1.5 million pounds of bedding yearly go into the tending of laboratory animals at NIH. They arrive under the auspices of the laboratory animal nutrition quality assurance program provided by the DIRS Veterinary Resources Program (VRP).

Unlike commercially available animal diets, which have proprietary quantitative formulations, the open-formula diets developed by the VRP Nutrition Office provide standard reference diets with known quantitative formulations. The open-formula diets help to eliminate unknown variables from research; the VRP quality assurance program ensures the nutritional quality and safety of the feed and bedding. Because research projects involving laboratory animals amount to $427 million a year, this is no small matter, noted laboratory nutritionist Dennis Barnard. For nutrition consultation, diet formulation, and quality assurance, and problem solving, call Barnard at 402-7255.


New DIRS Director Aims To Please

Shirl Eller

Shirl Eller, the first permanent director for the reconstituted ORS Division of Intramural Research Services, has a few questions for NIH intramural scientists.

What services are most appreciated? What services should be improved? What services are needed that are not yet available?

Formerly the chief of financial management at the Army Research Lab in Adelphi, Maryland, Eller arrived here in May with visions of a "business model" for DIRS, namely, that the division be run along the lines of the private marketplace, with customer satisfaction the driving force.

She’ll be conducting customer surveys in each of the four DIRS components: the Scientific Equipment and Instrumentation Branch, the Medical Arts & Photography Branch, the NIH Library, and the Veterinary Resources Program. Right now, each service is undergoing a one-by-one review, but the future, Eller said, will bring a more comprehensive strategy for the ORS overall.





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