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Building the World’s First University Cloud Lab

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Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and Emerald Cloud Lab (ECL) recently announced their plans to build a cloud lab at the university's campus in Pittsburgh. A carbon copy of ECL’s lab in San Francisco, the CMU Cloud Lab will enable scientists to perform experiments remotely and give them access to nearly 200 types of scientific instruments.

To learn more about the CMU Cloud Lab, the motivation behind the project and the benefits it will bring, Technology Networks spoke to Rebecca Doerge, PhD, dean, Mellon College of Science, Carnegie Mellon University, and Toby Blackburn, head of business development and research, Emerald Cloud Lab.

Anna MacDonald (AM): What was the motivation behind creating a cloud lab at CMU?

Rebecca Doerge (RD):
Carnegie Mellon University excels in the foundational sciences, robotics, machine learning and data science — all fields that are at the core of the cloud lab and automated science. We’re also in the midst of a future of science initiative, where we are devoting our time and resources to creating the future of science and educating the scientists of the future. It just made sense that we should be the ones to create the world’s first cloud lab at a university.

AM: This will be the first cloud lab in an academic setting. Why do you think other universities have so far not adopted this approach?

CMU is being visionary and forward thinking in bringing a cloud lab to campus. ECL’s Brian Frezza and DJ Kleinbaum are our alumni and they presented us with the chance to be a pioneer in this space. To us, the promise of the cloud lab for academic research and education was undeniable, and we jumped on it early.  

AM: What makes CMU well suited to host a cloud lab?

Carnegie Mellon has long been a world leader in the foundational sciences, computer science, robotics, machine learning and data science, all of which are at the foundation of the cloud lab. We’re also known for being an institution where interdisciplinary collaboration is encouraged and thrives. Scientists at Carnegie Mellon often collaborate with computer scientists, engineers and statisticians to enhance their work using technology. The cloud lab is an extension of this.

Carnegie Mellon is also committed to educating the next generation of scientists. Part of that is preparing them to use the latest methods and technologies. Giving our students access to a cloud lab will expose them to coding and automated science. It will also provide CMU students with greater access to state-of-the-art research equipment when they conduct their own research.

AM: Can you tell us more about the platform that the lab will be based on?

Toby Blackburn (TB):
Emerald Cloud Lab is the world’s first state-of-the-art pre-clinical biopharma R&D laboratory that runs experiments virtually from the cloud. Experiments ranging from basic chemistry to cell biology can be run using ECL’s collection of instruments that encompass 190 different capabilities, all through one single platform, ECL Command Center.

The Carnegie Mellon University Cloud Lab will be based on ECL’s Global Cloud, a facility located in South San Francisco that is accessible to enterprise, start-up and academic customers. Command Center, the system used to interact with the lab and data, will function in the same way across both facilities, allowing for interoperability of experiment commands and data analysis functions.

AM: Can you give us an overview of how the cloud lab will work? What equipment will be available and what experiments will be possible?

The cloud lab will work identically to the current ECL’s Global Cloud but will be wholly dedicated to the experiments and research of the CMU community.

Scientists will use Command Center to design their experiments, which are then performed in the Cloud Lab. Once an experiment is complete, users can also perform all data analysis, visualization and interpretation within Command Center.

Equipment and capabilities of the CMU Cloud Lab are largely based on the
ECL Global Cloud, but we are presently working with CMU to finalize the list of equipment and ensure that the facility will meet the needs of CMU faculty, staff and students.

AM: In what ways do you expect the cloud lab to benefit faculty, students and the wider community?

The Carnegie Mellon University Cloud Lab will democratize science. Carnegie Mellon faculty and students, both undergraduate and graduate, will no longer be limited by the cost, availability and location of equipment. We also plan to open the Carnegie Mellon Cloud Lab to others in the research community, including high school students, researchers from smaller universities that may not have advanced research facilities and local life sciences startup companies.

AM: How does developing and implementing a cloud lab in an academic setting compare to developing one in an industry setting?

Functionally, both Cloud Labs will work the same way, with the CMU facility leveraging all of the development and lessons learned from building the ECL. We plan to maintain this compatibility, allowing CMU to benefit from the further development arising from our pharma and biotech clients, and vice versa.

One thing we are really excited about is the public nature of academic research. With the potential for research to be published with not only the raw data associated with the research, but also the experimental commands used to generate that raw data at the push of a button, the cloud lab can really change the landscape of scientific research and go a long way to address the reproducibility crisis.

AM: Do you have any advice for other academic institutions thinking of developing a cloud lab?

Universities should be constantly looking for new and better ways to do research and provide education. A cloud lab is a great example. Over the last few years Carnegie Mellon faculty has used ECL’s facilities for research and education. On the research front, we’ve found that using the cloud lab accelerates the pace of discovery and yields accurate, replicable and sharable data. On the education front, students are excited about the cloud lab. We believe that the cloud lab is part of the future of science and believe that it is important for academic institutions to begin to use the platform.

Additionally, having access to ECL facilities was a game-changer while many of us were working and learning remotely due to COVID-19. We were able to use the cloud lab to give students who were learning remotely a laboratory experience. And while many researchers had to pause their laboratory work, those who were working with the cloud lab could continue to do experiments.

Rebecca Doerge and Toby Blackburn were speaking to Anna MacDonald, Science Writer for Technology Networks.