A cross-country voyage in search of new academic adventures: A QB3-Berkeley professor moves labs

Professor Alanna Schepartz discusses the challenges and rewards of changing academic institutions.

Moving from one apartment to another is a difficult process. Everything has to be organized, packaged properly, moved over, unpackaged, and organized again. Hopefully nothing breaks in the process and your cats don’t get underfoot.

Professor Alanna Schepartz moves to UC Berkeley to for new scientific opportunities (Photo Credit: UC Berkeley Department of Chemistry)

Moving labs from one university to another compounds these challenges with expensive and delicate equipment, toxic and sensitive chemicals, and far more organizing-but hopefully fewer cat-related delays. It is a challenging but rewarding process.

Professors with established laboratories consider moving to another universities for a variety of reasons including new research or funding opportunities, location, or access to new collaborators. One recent example is Professor Alanna Schepartz, who finished moving her laboratory from Yale University to UC Berkeley in fall of 2019 and was willing to share her perspective on the adventure.

The process of moving labs can be long and tedious and takes months. Important items like laboratory equipment and glassware need to be packaged up and moved carefully so they all arrive intact. The first step, Schepartz says, was cleaning out her whole lab at Yale and taking an inventory of everything they had. “Overall, that was really positive because it gave people more room and got rid of a lot of stuff.” In large labs, it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of all the equipment you have—especially when the students who know where everything is start graduating. For the Schepartz lab, this meant they discovered a lot of valuable equipment they didn’t even know they had. “I have 15 schlenk lines that no one is using now and those are costly!”

Once the equipment is inventoried and packaged, it has to be moved to its next home. Delicate equipment like balances and large freezers must be carefully transported to avoid damage. Freezers kept at -80 degrees Celsius—much colder than typical freezers— are transported cold to avoid too much warming of the components.

“There’s a specific company that is responsible for moving the freezers, refrigerators, and chemicals, and there’s another company responsible for equipment, and yet another subdivision of the company responsible for moving people,” says Schepartz. Transporting chemical reagents can be especially difficult as many of them must also be kept cold or away from water. “The complexity and the cost of moving such a big lab with so many diverse and expensive pieces of equipment was much more than anyone had anticipated, and it was really stressful because everything had to work when it got here.”

Most labs never look this clean, but when you’re moving, everything must go!! The Schepartz lab had to clean and inventory all their equipment before beginning their journey to UC Berkeley. (Photo courtesy of QB3-Berkeley)

Ideally, sensitive chemicals are kept properly stored and refrigerated through the whole journey. In practice, there are many snags that can arise when moving trucks full of sensitive chemicals across the country. Schepartz recounted one particularly stressful incident when a truck carrying refrigerated chemicals broke down on its way to Berkeley: “All of the chemicals were supposed to arrive right before Christmas. A group of us flew in [California?] to unload the chemicals. The chemicals’ arrival time comes and goes, and we hear nothing from the moving company.” As the day wore on, tensions began to mount, until finally, “We learned was that the trailer had broken down. In Indiana. And had to be repaired.” Not the smooth process that the Schepartz lab had hoped for.

Eventually, the truck made it; however, the Schepartz lab members then had a new worry. When the truck broke down, did the chemicals inside remain cold? “We had no knowledge at that point whether or not the refrigeration had been retained when the moving truck broke down,” Schepartz says. If the truck’s freezers warmed up too much, dozens of bottles of sensitive chemicals would have to be thrown out.

The lab needed a way to check what the temperature of the inside of the truck had been during its unintentionally long voyage. The solution? Check the -80 degree freezer: “As soon as we unpacked the -80 freezer, we stuck a thumb drive into the front of it to read its temperature,” Schepartz says. Once we did that, we knew the chemicals were okay.”

The process taught Schepartz that it takes a village to move a lab. “It was an adventure for everyone—the students, staff, and me,” she says. “I am so grateful to my lab members for signing on to this adventure with me.” Now that Schepartz is at Berkeley, she is excited for the new opportunities for her and her research: “The ways in which my science has been enriched since we arrived at Berkeley are too numerous to count,” she says. “I frequently talk to colleagues and we’ll figure out that we have overlapping interests and that there’s a new experiment or collaboration that we can do as a team that we wouldn’t have been to do alone.” The Berkeley community is glad to have Schepartz and her lab here, and we’re happy she and her lab went through all the hard work it took to get here!