A Preview of UNC Chapel Hill's Carolina Physical Science Complex

The 460,000-gsf Complex Will Support Cross-cutting Science Disciplines
Published 9-19-2006
  • Caudill Labs

    Five UNC Chapel Hill academic departments and one institute collaborated to create the CPSC's integrated set of facilities. As a reflection of the way science is done today, researchers working in the new Caudill Labs come from several different disciplines.

    Photo courtesy of Wilson Architects.

  • Chapman Hall

    The lobby of the CPSC's Chapman Hall houses the control room for a powerful telescope in Chile, with remote viewing over a high-speed Internet connection.

    Photo courtesy of Wilson Architects.

  • Entire Complex

    With final completion scheduled for the end of the decade, the 460,000-gsf Carolina Physical Science Complex CPSC at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill provides the infrastructure to accommodate the changing face of science research, from nanomedicine to astrophysics.

    Photo courtesy of Wilson Architects.

For a snapshot of the changing face of academic science, look no further than the series of buildings going up on the campus of the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. Slated for final completion in 2010, the multi-phase, 460,000-sf Carolina Physical Science Complex (CPSC) will provide the infrastructure to support the latest directions in scientific research, whether nanomedicine or astrophysics.

Blurring traditional disciplinary boundaries, the CPSC embodies the new, collaborative approach emerging in the university research environment, where technology breakthroughs and changing funding models are pushing conventional science units out beyond traditional "silos." At Chapel Hill, a coalition of five academic departments (chemistry, physics and astronomy, computer science, marine sciences, and mathematics) and one other entity (the Institute for Advanced Materials) has been working on creating an integrated set of facilities, from planning and design to private fundraising, for the past six years.

"The culture of academic science is evolving from one of individual investigators to group activities, generating novel kinds of collaboration," observes H. Holden Thorp, Ph.D., an award-winning scholar and chair of UNC's chemistry department. "At many universities, individual units tend to get their own buildings and stay there, but by putting different departments in the same building or close by, we think that research incorporating multiple disciplines is more likely.

"We are trying to create a whole new environment that reflects the way we do science today," Thorp continues. "The CPSC is like the promised land for us."

A measure of the significance of the project is its location at the "absolute epicenter" of the sprawling campus, where it will stand as a visible reminder of UNC's research commitment and a constant inspiration for intellectual inquisitiveness.

"There is often a disconnect between the sciences and the other parts of a university, even though many science departments are often in a College of Arts and Sciences, as at UNC," Thorp points out. "Our complex is bordered by the school of journalism, the economics department, and the historic Wilson Library, not separated by a road, a river, or some other feature. In the end, all units are looking for students and faculty who are original and curious, so the closer they are, the better."

The New Face of Science

The largest construction project in UNC history, the CPSC, designed by Wilson Architects, Boston, Mass., encompasses demolition, new construction, and renovation. The first phase will provide four departments with new labs, offices, and lecture halls in approximately 260,000 gsf, divided between an addition to Chapman Hall and a new sciences building, Caudill Labs.

The second phase entails demolition and replacement of an existing science building, Venable Hall (which dates back to 1925), with a new 165,000-gsf structure housing additional chemistry space, the relocated marine sciences department (whose vacated premises in Phase I will afford growing room for mathematics and physics and astronomy), a new science library and classrooms, and an addition providing 35,000 gsf for computer science.

Thorp cites three current research areas to illustrate both the diversity and the convergence of the scientific investigations pursued by Chapel Hill faculty. For instance, physicists have used carbon nanotubes to generate medical-imaging X-rays that provide startling resolution.

"It requires careful control over carbon nanotubes and energizing them to make them X-ray sources. A low-vibration environment is critical for this line of discovery," he says.

Another colleague in the chemistry department, engaged in a broad web of interconnecting activities, is the epitome of "the modern brand of high-powered academic" who will occupy the CPSC. Not only does the scientist lead a research group of 30 people, he also heads up an institute and two major center grants and has two start-up companies. His current focus is a new way to print nanoparticles out of organic materials using a fluorinated polymer substrate. The net result is isolated nanoparticles, which are "much, much easier to functionalize than if they were made out of metallic elements," according to Thorp.

With such a wide scope, an academic like this "is likely to change his research direction two or three times during the course of construction," Thorp says. In fact, a low-dust nanoparticle foundry required by his work was recently inserted into the complex as a change order.

In a dramatic shift of gears, the complex also accommodates an astronomy facility linked to a shared 4.1 meter telescope at the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research (SOAR) in the Chilean Andes. A remote hook-up via the Internet allows researchers at Chapel Hill to observe events as they happen, such as those of September 4, 2005, when a professor and his undergraduate student detected the most distant, i.e., the most ancient, gamma ray burst.

Before gaining access to the high-powered telescope, UNC astronomers first pinpoint what they want to observe by scanning with six smaller networked telescopes, also at the SOAR site but controlled from Chapel Hill.

"Here, the need in the facility is for students to be able to access the area, and everything has to happen on a real-time basis," Thorp comments.

The control room for the telescope is situated in a high-profile location off the lobby of the Chapman building. Scientists working are on view to students arriving and exiting the lecture halls and undoubtedly pique the interest of passersby.

Changing Academic Practices

Single-investigator grants are becoming less and less common, and the NIH budget has flattened out, two major forces tilting traditional academic practices in new directions. According to Thorp, funding agencies are putting a greater emphasis on multi-investigator grants that address big problems, and the way universities train students has also moved into focus. In medicine, attention has shifted to translation—passing research findings on to the private sector to develop practical applications.

These trends are reflected in recent awards from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to fund six centers of cancer and nanotechnology excellence. The same UNC physicist making isolated nanoparticles also landed one of these grants, with $26.3 million in funding to be disbursed over five years.

"To do this research we need specialized facilities for making nanoparticles," Thorp says. "We also need facilities that are truly collaborative so that the people working on these projects can be together in the right environment."

At the same time, funding levels of such long-term projects are uncertain from year to year, so the university holds rigorous reviews every six months to determine whether planning will go forward.

Teamwork in Funding

As one of the guiding principles behind the new science, teamwork is also evident on the financial side of the project. Previously, says Thorp, the sciences at Chapel Hill were minimally involved in private fundraising, but the magnitude of the CPSC and the changing federal grant policies demanded new models of support.

UNC's strategy has been to constitute a strong core group, with representatives from the five science departments occupying the new facilities, to make the key project decisions on a "very decentralized" basis.

"The dean doesn't even actually vote. It is really this group that does everything," Thorp says.

The coalition works to cultivate multiple funding sources, from alumni to making sure the CPSC received its fair share of a $3 million state bond measure. These two initiatives took some time to develop. Representatives from the five science departments reviewed alumni lists and then began to renew school ties before soliciting financial contributions. Thorp personally campaigned for the public bond measure, showing pictures of the deteriorating infrastructure of Venable Hall on public TV. The advocacy generated $80 million in state funds for the CPSC, out of a $500 million total for the campus.

As of early June 2006, private donations totaled $16 million, including two $5 million naming gifts, against a goal of $22 million. Plotting outside funding for the Chemistry department over the last six years, Thorp noticed a dramatic upsurge in private contributions after federal and state funding enabled the site work to begin.

"I think the excitement of seeing these buildings go up and people move into them has played a big part in this huge growth," says Thorp. "Many donors want to know why it is preferable to give to buildings rather than programs, and my answer is always that you leverage funding growth by giving to buildings."

The fact that Thorp, a chemist, has actively raised money for physicists is "indicative of where science is going," he says.

"The core team selected the architect, approved all the funding decisions, and when we run over budget it is the core team that goes together to the administration asking them to add more to the project," Thorp explains. "When you have this huge fraction of the College of Arts and Sciences going together to ask for money, it is much stronger than if just a department chair makes the request. I think that is the big asset of this project. Especially considering the upward spiral of construction costs, we have had to do this on a number of occasions," he concludes.

By Nicole Zaro Stahl