I left academia in 2009 after 20 years of research as a student, grad student, postdoc, faculty member, and core director. That was also about the time that the ACA changed some aspects of the Anti-Kickback Statute [42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(b)]. This seems like a good place to note that I am not a lawyer or compliance expert. Just an average person offering some advice. For as long as I have been in sales I have been dealing with the Anti-Kickback Statute. When it first came out, it froze companies, since in its broadest interpretation it limited not only buying meals and handing out pens at shows, but doing demonstrations. I have been taking the mandatory HR training on Anti-Kickback and other statutes every year since then. So, imagine my surprise when I heard a physician having this conversation today:

MD: Hi, I wanted to talk about the trip you were offered to send me on, and unfortunately, it appears that it breaks the rules for our university and our state. Were you aware of these rules?

Unheard company response, I assume it went something like this: scramble, scramble, everyone does it, something something

MD: Well, I was told pretty clearly that this was a violation and that the only way I can attend this meeting is to pay myself. That would be an expensive trip….

At this point the MD walked away from my table where he had been standing having this conversation.

There are two reasons I bring this up. First, you might be tied to this rule closer than you think. The law states that anyone associated with a healthcare organization is covered by these rules. That means you basic researcher in a medical school/hospital environment. Or, maybe not. It seems that everyone interprets the law differently. That is why some states, like Virginia, seem to outlaw taking anything from anyone at anytime. No lunch & learns, no coffee meetings, no lunches.

Second, in the past when a company was found guilty of some criminal business activity they were held accountable, but the MD/scientist was not. That is no longer the case. The poor MD above, if he had gone through with the trip, could have been found guilty under the Anti-Kickback Statute. Doubtful, but possible. If so:

Criminal penalties and administrative sanctions for violating the AKS include fines, jail terms, and exclusion from participation in the Federal health care programs. Under the CMPL, physicians who pay or accept kickbacks also face penalties of up to $50,000 per kickback plus three times the amount of the remuneration.

Two points.

  1. Be aware that the laws are complex and innocent mistakes are going to be made. However, there are also reps out there that have been doing it differently for a long time and might think these rules don’t apply to them. You have to look out for yourself.
  2. There are lots of legitimate exceptions to the law, including those covered under the “safe harbor” regulations.

In the end, you should probably pay attention to the compliance training you receive every year. Figure out who your compliance officer is and reach out to them when you have any questions. I do.


Saw science twitter discussing discounts and why companies would offer different discounts to people on the same hall or in the same building. The tweet that set this off was encouraging people to share their quotes with one another, put it to the man!


I can (and did in drafts) go off on a tangent about why people hate their vendors so much. But, instead of discussing that, here are three times I/we offered different discounts to one PI and asked them not to share.

  1. KOL/Key Opinion Leader – at one account a key user in the field was looking at our system and a competitor system. We offered them a very deep discount in order to have our system associated with their ground-breaking research. I know longer work with that company, but that system has been referenced in a number of ground-breaking experiments. Not every person who reads that paper and looks at the same system is going to have the same influence.
  2. Reference Site – At a different company we decided to create formal reference sites in each territory. The reason is that shipping/install/deinstall/shipping is expensive. If you can use a local reference site you save a lot of $$$$s. Therefore, you can add deeper discounts to one system for that purpose. But, you can’t share that discount with everyone.
  3. Part of a larger purchase – Recently, I dealt with a customer who was purchasing a microscope, but also many other items. All of these items are available from other vendors, so we were looking at a number of competitive sales. In this case, it might be worth it to give a larger discount on each item in order to win the sale of all the items. In business, the top line and bottom line both matter. Sometimes you can lose some profit on the bottom line to win top line sales and brand loyalty.

In the thread about sharing quotes one person did make a good point. Universities should use their buying power to negotiate better prices, then all parties should stick to those prices.

I previously wrote about how to assess needs for large equipment purchases for a group. Today I wanted to touch on another issue I run into while working with PIs. Specifically,  the PI who has received funding from an internal or external source to purchase a microscope for their own lab, then finds themselves without enough money to purchase the scope they need.

microscopeIn this case, I am talking about anything from a $5K tissue culture scope to a $60K fluorescent scope.

I have worked with a number of PIs who need a microscope, but who are not microscopiest. They came up with a funding line based on discussions with friends and colleagues or single quotes from a familiar source. However, when the funds come and they start looking around to make a purchase, they find that the system they need is too expensive.


In my experience, the people who find themselves in this situation were often faced with last minute budgeting and raced to find a number, any number, to put into their submission. I recall when I was submitting grants massive amount of supporting materials that are required. If you aren’t prepared for this, then you might find yourself struggling with Biosketch formatting at the same time you are looking for last minute quotes. Hey, Joe down the hall uses microscopes, he could help me out with a budget for a cell culture scope. Next thing you know, your budget of $3000 is trying to buy a $6000 microscope.

So, here are my two tips for putting equipment in a personal grant or for internal submission.

  1. Start early. Just as you will be thinking about your Specific Aims from the start, spend some time over your morning coffee thinking about what equipment you will need to achieve each Aim.
  2. Put the burden on the vendors to educate you. Google the type of equipment you are looking for and then Cut and Paste your needs for that equipment into the quote request form for each and every supplier. When you are inevitably contacted by the vendor, send them a canned response that you would like a quote for a grant submission and Paste the needs into the email.
  3. If you aren’t familiar with the equipment, do a series of short demonstrations. Two subpoints: 1) just because you do super-resolution doesn’t mean you know what you need in a tissue culture scope 2) the demonstrations can be short and sweet, but make sure the vendors proves they can meet your needs. For instance, tissue culture scope demonstrations can last 15-30 minutes. Here is our scope, here is how you work it, here is what your cells looks like, here is how you capture an image if you want, here are some cool features you might like – you try it.
  4. You need to make the decision, not your graduate students or postdocs. I often hear how “the lab” will be making the decision because they are the ones who will be using it. However, “the lab” is not the one who is applying for funds that will determine whether or not they have jobs next year. Also, “the lab” might not know the nuances or future directions you are considering. Their input is essential, but your name is on the door for a reason.
  5. Budget twice, cut once. Ask for everything you might need and get a list price quote for the equipment that best meets your needs. You won’t get all the money. Don’t ask for steep discounts when submitting the grant. Wait until you receive 75% of what you asked for, then figure out what kind of system you can buy for that price.


Okay, those are my thoughts. What did I miss? Where am I wrong? I welcome your input.

I think two of the hardest lessons to internalize as a parent are to roll with the punches and to still get done what needs to be done. Perhaps the third is learning what actually NEEDS to be done and what we WANT to be done. I’m not sure that I have internalized any of these lessons, but as time goes by you either get better at them or you crack.

This morning I had my January Goals all mapped out and then life happened. See my tweet from early yesterday morning.

After this tweet another kid came downstairs still sick and was definitely not going to school. Oh, and we had a two hour delay because it was cold. Cold. So, while my plan was that after starting out my morning with a great workout, I was going to drive over Duke to see existing owners of our EVOS microscopes and to speak with several people interested in buying a system. By now though, half the morning was gone, my 1v1 call with my manager was moved from yesterday to today, I had two sick kids at home, and my wife had three video conferences calls today. So, I rolled with the punches and worked from home. I managed to work for several hours before anyone but sick kid 1 was awake, in-between warm drinks and comforting words. Then, after the other kids were gone I figured out who I needed to email at Duke and who I could go see in a couple days, then I spent the rest of the day getting ready for my trip to Nashville today. Oh, and took care of the sick kids and picked up the other kids from Afterschool.

Roll with the punches? Yeah, I think.

Get done what needs to be done? I think so, because..

What needed to be done versus what I wanted to be done? Yes. This is why I do what I do. My position has flexibility built in to take care of my kids when they need me and to be a partner with my wife. I took care of the kids most of the day today, but now I am on an airplane and she will have them all day tomorrow. What I NEEDED to do was get work done to find new business while still being a Dad. I accomplished that today.

Resolutions are amorphous. They are feel good changes that are designed to last a full year and through that process, change the person for a lifetime. There is a reason these fall to pieces. They are too broad and too easy to break. This year I am focusing on monthly goals. For those goals that involve personal changes, I have worked with my wife. We have figured out our schedules for January and how we can schedule our goals to match our work and carpool duties. We are also going to sit down on the 28th to review how things went and what changes we need to make for February.

I am trying to make these SMART goals.


For instance, in my personal fitness I don’t just want to “work out”, my goal is to complete 29 of the #2018vday40 working in January and to make 5 of those outdoor rides for 200 miles. My goals are all overwhelmingly achievable, which is key. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Small victories. They are relevant to me being a better Me in 2018 and they are time limited because I am only focusing on January.

I won’t go into too many more specifics, but these are the areas where I have tried to make achievable goals for January.

  • Personal/Physical – using Twitter to keep track of my workouts #2018vday40. Also, given the temperature and a week out of town for meetings, I am shooting for 5 rides for a total of 200 miles in January.
  • Personal/Family – Setting aside time to do things that each person in the family enjoys. See the family forest that have been hidden behind the trees of housework, carpools, and homework. One specific is to spend 20 minutes each night in one of my older child’s room reading. Not to them, but next to them. They have lost their love of reading and I want to rekindle that in them as well as meeting my next goal.
  • Personal/Mental-Spiritual – Two parts. One is to read 26 books this year. Second, to continue teaching Sunday School in January. Reading and teaching/coaching make me happy and feel centered.
  • Work/Personal – Going to use 20% time and try not to turn it into 120% time to focus on learning our image analysis software, Celleste, in January.
  • Work/Customer – I have been creating Excel sheets of every system in my territory and I will aim to meet every available customer at the sites I visit for new sales activities. I want to make sure they are happy with the EVOS they have and that they know how to use it correctly.
  • Work/Sales – People are going to be buying things in January and I want to make sure they have a chance to see our offerings. I will be walking the halls to meet new faculty members and to promote our promotion on Varioskan LUX plate reader.

One reason I wanted to write this was to make myself accountable. I will check in and let myself/you know how things are going.


The #1 thing you need to keep in mind when buying equipment is to clearly identify and communicate your needs before starting the process.

There, that is the punchline, read on if you want to learn a little more about my perspective. I have been involved in equipment purchases from the customer and sales side. They have been as small as mini-microfuges for the lab or multiphoton systems for live animal imaging. I have purchased systems without thinking through what the criteria were clearly and I have worked with customers to determine their criteria.

Too often the ideal criteria are murky for the large equipment grant, joint purchase, start-up/new PI purchase, or institutional purchase. When I have been on the sales side this is irritating becasue I can’t even tell you if my system is the correct one if you don’t know what you want to do. There are some people that take advantage of this and discuss your needs in such a way that, Lo and Behold, their system becomes the best possible option for you. Occasionally, this might work out for both parties but too often the result is a piece of equipment that has unnecessary or missing features.

What should the first steps in the buying process be then? I would suggest the following:

  1. Identify wants and needs. These are different. Lots of people “wanted” a multiphoton back in the early 2000s but not nearly so many needed one.
  2. Convert needs into slightly more generic terms. “We need a spinning disc to image yeast bud formation” becomes “We need a highly sensitive, live cell imaging system with incubation control.” Don’t lock yourself into the technology you know or that one person suggests.
  3. Rank the needs by impact. This is difficult. It requires you to look at what resources you have, how they might be modified or upgraded to suit some needs, and what is truly missing. It also requires a dispassionate person to look at the overall impact on the facility that meeting different needs will have.
  4. Reach out to every supplier you can find with a list of needs. This list should not specify features “point scanning confocal with GaAsP detectors” but needs “live cell imaging system capable of imaging yeast bud formation without bleaching”. Let the vendors bring you the best match to your needs.
  5. Let the vendors know how much funding you have. What! I can hear your saying that the vendors will just try to squeeze every penny out of you. Maybe. But, just as likely is that you hide the funding level from them and they demonstrate a system to you everyone loves, but that you cannot afford (I will be writing about this next).
  6. Do a demonstration that measures your needs. Plan this out well in advance, maybe way back at step 2 or 3. The demonstration should test your needs, not the system. It is great that the system makes coffee, but you already have a coffee machine, you were looking for a food processor – right?
  7. Measure the equipment demonstrations versus these needs. You have done your homework, now stick with it. Don’t let your head get turned by some really cool feature that will impact no one or a software package that you don’t need or the promise of a “free” system that will be thrown in with the purchase of a lesser system. Stick to your list of needs and see which system quantitatively meets them best.
  8. Negotiate in good faith. You gave a budget, your vendor should have brought in and demonstrated a system that will meet that budget. You chose their system as the one that would meet your needs and fit your budget. Want to negotiate, sure, this is ‘Merica after all. But, keep in mind that you are about to join a parntership with this vendor and you don’t want to start that partnership with a fight.

So, there you have it. Those are my thoughts on large equipment purchases. Each one could be its own blog post, but please tell me what you think and what you would add.

After ~20 years in research, I made the leap into a commercial role. For the past nine years I have functioned on the dark side – selling equipment to scientists who are pure of heart. As a postdoc I did most of the ordering for years. Tips, tubes, plastics, media, microfuges, all the consumables and minor equipment. I know how disruptive it can be to have generalists and account managers walking in and out of the lab trying to sell you stuff.

Now, I am often the person walking through the door and the most common interaction I have had with customers is:

Me (walking into lab): Hey, how you doing, I’m Rob from GE. 


Alright, that might be a slight exaggeration, but scientists are wary of salespeople and jealous of their time. What they do not realize is that they might be losing out on advice that could improve their chances at funding.

Wait, did I just say that? Some salesperson is going to improve your chance at publication and funding? Yes.

Through my time in science I did reproductive biology, cell biology, neuroscience and developmental biology. I have used (to some degree) human tissue, mouse, chicken, zebrafish, sharks, rays, and urchins. My techniques were pretty broad from IEF to Sanger sequencing, from oocyte isolation to cutting brain slices. I won’t be walking in and telling anybody how to do any of this work. The closest I come is to enjoy watching and chatting about it on Twitter. But, I have been doing microscopy for 25 years and in that area I can offer some advice.

I might never walk into a cytoskeleton lab and tell them how to perform their TIRF or a neuro lab and tell them how to image living, moving mice. There are a lot of world experts who don’t need to hear from me when it comes to techniques. On the other hand, I have trained hundreds of people and I have done trouble-shooting on an equal number of systems. More importantly, I have seen the mistakes your labbies are making that might be costing you time, money, and results.

As a salesperson I walk into a lot of imaging facilities or labs. I have walked into high-end cores and seen incredibly poor standards. I have seen people imaging samples for HHMI investigators with oil on dry objectives because if it works for one objective it must be good for all of them. One of my favorites was a user doing “DIC” on a scope without DIC. Labs who explain their lasers are out only when they look through the eye pieces and not when they actually scan their samples. There are a number of labs I know who have published questionable data based on manipulating images and not knowing what they are doing. It is a good idea for researchers to guard their valuable time, but wasting it using bad techniques is worse. Every time someone in your lab makes a mistake on a piece of equipment it costs you money and time, which you can never recover and which your competitors might not be wasting.

In every one of the cases above, the faculty probably paid a lot of money to someone for their microscope system. Why not create a relationship with those microscope companies and ask them for help so these basic mistakes don’t happen? Most of my colleagues come from the same background as I do, PhDs who have run labs, cores, or published good papers before deciding they wanted something different. Use us, that is what we are here for. Ask us:

  •  Do you have a training manual we can use for our own training?
  • Do you provide a special training for the person in our lab/core that will be training others?
  • Can we get an initial training and then follow-up at 30/60/90 days as new questions arise?
  • Would you be willing to provide a formal/informal user group meeting every year so everyone can get up to date on new software or hardware changes?
  • Can I have your cell phone number, the apps support number, and the local service tech number?

I don’t know about you, but I feel like anyone who buys a piece of equipment should have as good a relationship with that company as they do with their local barista or cashier at their regular grocery store. Yes, we can provide insight into doing TIRF and multi-photon, but we can also help your lab run more smoothly and efficiently. Try us.

Last time, I added that title as a joke to my blog post on how to keep people from breaking your equipment. The take home message was to make people feel comfortable coming to you with questions or concerns and to let them know that this stuff can be complicated so it is okay to forget and need help. So, the obvious joke was "okay, now how do i get them to stop asking me for help!"

That's an honest question to a real problem. Any of us who have run cores or who do training for a commercial product have had those users/customers that just won't learn the system. They come to rely on the core director/manager/product specialist to answer any and all questions. These users quickly wear on you because before long the questions start repeating themselves. If you are working with someone that is exploring new functionalities each week, then you can excuse continuing questions because, again, this stuff can be complicated. But, about the third time someone asks you how to save data or export files or put in a sample – you can be excused for getting annoyed.

So, what to do with users that keep asking for help.

  1. Ask yourself, why aren't they valuing your time? First, you need to be clear whether or not it is your job to be on call for every little thing. If the answer is no, then why do they think you are on call and how do you make them realize your time should be valued as much as their own. One possibility is that you haven't made your role clear.
  2. Clarity is king. If you are in a commercial role, did you clearly lay out what the process would be after the sale and install? Did you include the words "independence" in the description? If you are a core director, did you start out your training session by explaining what you would be doing over the course of several sessions and how the final goal was independence? Be clear up front, let the user know what will be expected of them or better yet what they can expect – understanding and independence.
  3. Be honest with yourself, your training might suck. At some point, if this is a recurring problem then you have to ask if you are doing a good job teaching. Being a core director, assistant, or an Application Specialist is not the same as being a scientist, just as being a good postdoc is not a guarantee to be a successful PI. Are you teaching users how to become independent or are you just dumping information in their general direction?
  4. Charge them. When all else fails and someone refuses to value your time, then you have no choice but to charge for your time. This should not come out of nowhere, there should be an open and calm discussion with the user concerning the expectations you laid out and that hands-on time requires a fee.

These are my thoughts. What are yours?


A couple months ago I was at a core facility with one of our account managers. This was not a microscopy facility, but I still saw the one thing that many cores have in common – angry warning signs. “DO NOT LEAVE THIS EQUIPMENT ON ALL NIGHT” or “DO NOT TURN OFF THIS EQUIPMENT!!!” or “IF YOU BOOK TIME ON THIS EQUIPMENT AND DON’T USE IT, YOU WILL STILL BE CHARGED!!!”

Not all cores have these signs, especially those that offer services for hire, but many of the cores I have visited have posted warnings in the facility or on sign-up pages. Why? Well, because users tend to break stuff. On my first day as a core director at UNC Chapel Hill I was shown the 63X oil immersion objective on our Zeiss 510 NLO confocal. It had weird striations around the barrel and I asked what they were. “Oh, it wouldn’t come off and someone took a wrench to it. We don’t know who did it.”

I think the second sentence of that conversation is the more worrying one. I think the fear of  the core director finding out you don’t know how to use the equipment and that you then broke something is the reason why so many things are destroyed. Everyone makes mistakes and if we keep this in mind when training our users, making it clear that there is a correct way of doing things but that we understand mistakes happen, then they are less likely to feel the need to hide those mistakes. If we make it clear that none of us are perfect and there is a lot to learn and a lot to remember, then maybe more people will come to us before making an error to ask for help. I say “us” even though I am now on the commercial side because we get the same calls you do as core directors, only they are usually from angry core directors instead of users.

Perhaps the only signs or rules that really help avoid equipment damage are those that make it clear how complicated systems can be, that we all need help, and that asking for help will never be punished.

Next time – what to do with those users who KEEP asking for HELP!!!

First off, I don’t think I have blogged two days in a row since those halcyon days of political blogging in the late ’00s. Maybe this will start a new habit for me, maybe not. Yesterday, I wrote about the satisfaction that one gets from making eyes pop with a new and better way of doing something. There is no better feeling when you are working on the commercial side of science. I thought it would only be fair to treat the other part of this emotional roller coaster and one that is much harder to deal with – making your customer’s eyes burn with anger. Here are three examples that are somewhat specific to equipment sales, a brief description of mistakes made, how I handled them at the time, and lessons learned.

  1. We don’t do that anymore.” Early in my sales career I found that our organization promised a manual tweak to an instrument for our customer. Once the system was delivered and installed and it was time for the tweak, those of us in the field were informed by the office that we didn’t provide that service anymore because of the implications of new FDA regulations. There was anger and righteous indignation. We did as much of the work ourselves that was allowed and then found a third party vendor that would finish the tweak. Lesson Learned – try to ask for clarification internally about any process or promises with which you are not familiar and that are not written out clearly in the quote. If you are a customer know that anything quoted is under contract, but anything promised is possible or probable, but not certain. Priorities change. Economics change.
  2. What do you mean it won’t scan that fast?” I walked into this situation where a previous sale had been completed without a demonstration – not my sale. It was insinuated that the system would scan a sample at a certain frame rate. The system arrived and it would not do that frame rate under normal conditions. Eyes burned with hatred, venom was throw, spittle was spittled. At me, because I was the guy who showed up. After walking through what they were looking for, I showed them a super-secret hidden feature that could be activated in the .ini file that would allow for faster scanning at a lower resolution. They were only looking for intensity data and not images so this fit their needs. Hugs were exchanged, backs were slapped. Lesson Learned – try to know your product inside and out and if you don’t, then have some good people on speed dial. If you are a customer, see the result you want or talk to someone who is doing the same type of work.
  3. He doesn’t work here anymore.” The downside of having a great support person is that they don’t always stay with the same company. People want to recruit them away. In one case, we made a sale that was at least partially based on an awesome application specialist, who then left the company before the system was installed. It happens, but it is never a fun conversation. There isn’t much you can do except to put the customer in contact with whoever will be filling in the gap while a new person is hired. Lesson Learned – the goal for company and customer should be a clear path to independence with some occasional technical help around complicated experiments or analysis. Don’t ignore the technical expertise of the company that is selling you the equipment, but don’t rely on it long-term either.

Going through this list reminds me of an article at HBR about character traits shared by top salespeople. One key trait was conscientiousness. Make sure expectations are clear on both sides. Don’t risk confusion after the sale because you don’t want to rock the boat during the sale. Rock the boat, make sure everything is in the open.

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