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Mission, Objectives, and Strategies

As an educational institution, it is not sufficient to provide access to materials characterization facilities.  Undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows must not only learn to apply and interpret the data generated with these techniques; they must also learn to operate instruments and design measurement protocols for the systems being studied.  Indeed one cannot be considered a complete materials scientist or engineer without developing such skills; nor can one expect employment in technological industries without significant understanding of both materials and materials characterization.  Conversely, one cannot expect local industry to flourish without ready access to trained graduates who are savvy in materials characterization.  Moreover, from an educational standpoint, the physical principles underlying characterization techniques spur broader scientific understanding.  One is concerned not only with the structure and properties of the materials studied, but also the essence of a "probe"-sample interaction.  The details of this interaction can provide much more than just a picture or spectrum; they can tell the user more about the sampled materials.

Maintaining a materials characterization facility requires much more than grants.  The principal means of covering costs are user fees for instrumentation and staff time.  In the CharFac roughly a third of user-fee income is from external users, primarily industrial clients from roughly 50 companies (in a typical year) ranging from small, local companies to multinational corporations.  (This activity is charged at higher rates, consistent with the analytical services market, and comprises less than 10% of instrument/staff time.)  The current paid members of the Industrial Partnership for Research in Interfacial and Materials Engineering (IPRIME) use the CharFac at modestly discounted hourly charge rates.  In turn IPRIME serves as a vehicle to market the CharFac to industry.  IPRIME members also may provide "industrial fellows" who collaborate directly with faculty or CharFac staff on publishable research at academic charge rates for facility usage.

"Usage" by industrial clients may involve either materials analysis performed by CharFac staff or independent, hands-on use following training.  Performing analytical services for industry helps to grow a broader expertise in materials characterization within the staff, adding to the intellectual assets of the university.  Hands-on training is also especially important from a practical standpoint, because the income to cover operations costs cannot be generated solely via analytical work performed by the staff.  Staff effort to generate expertise, develop analytical methods and instructional materials, train users, and maintain instrumentation drives an income multiplier: trained independent users (academic and industrial).  This multiplier also enables the staff to spend time (a) teaching curricular courses ranging from lecture-based graduate courses to undergraduate lab sessions; (b) presiding over workshops, short courses and user meetings; and (c) providing training (at low academic charge rates) to visiting academics and summer students.

Some corporate users of the CharFac have demonstrated high utility of analytical techniques, convincing their managers to purchase the same instrument.  Although this means a loss of user income to the CharFac, the instrument vendors recognize the showcase value of the CharFac.  This has resulted in large discounts on the purchase of electron microscopes and proximal nanoprobes (AFM, nanoindentors, etc.).

It should be clear from all of the above that there is a large degree of cross-fertilization between different kinds of activity in the CharFac.  Given these outcomes, the following mission statement has been formalized:

The mission of the CharFac directly connects to the core teaching, research and service missions of the University at large.  The CharFac mission is to

  1. provide centrally accessible materials characterization instrumentation for University researchers, maintained and upgraded by experts;
  2. develop and preserve the intellectual resources and advanced skills for optimal operation and research capability of the instrumentation;
  3. teach and advise University researchers and curricular students to fruitfully apply the above instrumentation, intellectual resources and advanced skills;
  4. make the instrumentation, intellectual resources and advanced skills accessible to entities external to the University of Minnesota; and
  5. engage the broader academic and industrial communities in research collaboration, training and educational outreach.