NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Engineering, Creativity Hub

IDEAS Abound in NIBIB Lab

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This story is part of an ongoing series on NIH Makers.

Imagine you’re an NIH scientist who needs a specific instrument or software program for an unconventional experiment or method, but that laboratory ‘tool’ doesn’t exist yet. Luckily, the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) has a resource that can help.

Dr. Tom Pohida
NIBIB's Dr. Tom Pohida

The Instrumentation Development and Engineering Application Solutions (IDEAS) lab is the central, on-campus engineering resource within the Intramural Research Program (IRP). Established in 1995 by lab chief and electrical engineer Tom Pohida, IDEAS is a go-to resource for NIH researchers looking to develop novel biomedical laboratory and clinical research enabling systems, instrumentation and methodologies. The lab has collaborated, truly hand-in-hand, with investigators to build and test first-of-a-kind technologies, many leading to NIH Director funding awards, patents, publications and other means of sharing innovations.

How did IDEAS begin? “It’s kind of an interesting story,” said Pohida. He started at NIH in the former National Center for Research Resources Biomedical Engineering and Instrumentation Program’s electrical engineering group in 1992, but the group was disbanded several years later. A subcommittee of scientific directors expressed their dismay, saying “the loss of in-house [engineering] capability has adversely affected intramural research.”

Pohida, center, with members of the IDEAS lab around him
Pohida (front, c) with other members of the IDEAS lab.

Photo:  Credit NIBIB

Pohida set up shop in his home garage and got to work (with young daughters in tow) designing and building novel instruments and developing software on a volunteer basis, after his NIH hours working in other disciplines. Several scientific directors learned of his evening and weekend efforts and gave him permission to set up an on-campus engineering lab, and thus, IDEAS was born.

“[The lab] has grown organically over the years” to meet technology development needs as NIH IRP scientists propose collaborations, Pohida said. “We stay up to date on modern engineering design and prototyping methods, and try to foresee how these capabilities can be applied to facilitate research at NIH.”

Square device with multiple color-coded layers
Custom histology microscopy slide assembly prototype associated with NIH IRP patents on automated tissue microdissection methods (NICHD, NCI, NIBIB, NIMH, NIDA).

IDEAS has collaborated with nearly all institutes and centers on hundreds of IRP advances, and they often foster multiple ICs working on projects together. The number of IDEAS/IRP collaborations continues to increase every year.

Pohida also wanted to emphasize that the value or impact of an IDEAS’ innovation is far more than just patentability. “We consider an engineering development a success if the work enables an IRP investigator to further their laboratory or clinical research in ways otherwise not possible,” he explained.

Back device with gold, silver, and blue components.
In-house designed and fabricated radiofrequency printed circuit board for electron paramagnetic resonance imaging technology development on the Bethesda campus (NCI, NIBIB).

IDEAS also has a robust intern program. “Many of our full-time staff began their NIH careers as student trainees,” Pohida said. “Most years, our IDEAS full-time staff are outnumbered by trainees.”

Appreciating his talented IDEAS staff, he said, “I point [them] in a general direction, and then they do wonders in engineering design, prototyping and research in labs all over campus.”

What draws so many people to the lab? “The opportunities and available resources to be creative, explore new ideas and contribute to impactful research are almost unlimited,” said Pohida. “I think this is one reason why I have not had an employee leave my group since 1995.” 

Explore more innovations across NIH in our NIH Makers series.

Components of monitoring device separated out to show each layer.
System components developed to enable automated machine-vision monitoring of fruit fly behavior in high-throughput drug efficacy, phenotyping, and toxicology studies (NIBIB, NIDDK, NIEHS, NHLBI). The latest version uses a custom plastic injection-molded 24-well plate to house the flies during monitoring.

Photo:  NIBIB

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