Successful Planning of Interdisciplinary Science Facilities

Think Big Picture Early On; Bricks-and-Mortar Decisions Can Wait
Published 4-27-2016
  • Vanderbilt University

    An early cross-disciplinary project at Vanderbilt, Biological Sciences/Medical Research Building III, was designed to act as both a physical and intellectual bridge between the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Medicine, to catalyze the intermixing of ideas.

    Courtesy of Wilson Architects

  • UMass Amherst

    After industry and funding agency feedback, the University of Massachusetts Amherst dedicated the second half of its new interdisciplinary Life Science Laboratories (LSL) building to the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS), with three research centers: Personalized Healthcare Monitoring, Models to Medicine, and Bioactive Drug Delivery.

    Photo by Anton Grassl/Esto, courtesy of Wilson Architects

At the inception of a new interdisciplinary science building, bricks-and-mortar considerations must take a back seat to a big-picture view of issues related to organization, funding, governance, and the long-range vision of the institution. The resolution of these issues early on leads to projects that are more successful—not necessarily in terms of cost savings, but in the essential criterion of aligning a new facility with specific academic strengths and the broader institutional mission. A retrospective of facilities at four major institutions yields a longitudinal look at how early planning decisions produce the desired outcomes in growth and recruiting while simultaneously reflecting the specific culture and vision of each institution.

“It can be an enormous satisfaction to watch an institution’s leaders, with their hand on the tiller, plot a course for a series of capital projects, renovations, and new construction over 10 or 15 years,” says Bill Wilson, FAIA, principal of Wilson Architects.

Four main questions are pivotal in shaping science facility plans for the future, says Wilson: 

  • What capital projects best leverage an institution’s strengths?
  • Which trans-institutional initiatives align with the core mission?
  • How does a school’s vision connect with pressing societal issues?
  • What drives change in teaching and research?

Wilson and colleague Jeff Puleo, along with Jim Staros, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and former provost at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, have applied these questions to multi-phased academic projects in both the public and private arenas: physics and engineering at Harvard University; physical sciences at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill; engineering, biological sciences, and medical research at Vanderbilt University; and life sciences at UMass Amherst.

Continuum of Tenancy Models

The explosive growth of multidisciplinary and translational research in academia has opened a Pandora’s box of planning issues related to facility organization, ownership, and governance. It’s not just a matter of designing buildings or generic labs for unknown future occupants. For long-term success, it’s also critical to focus on research themes and determine which disciplines and groups to collocate for maximum synergy, or “interfacials,” as Staros describes these interdisciplinary relationships. 

Wilson explains that on the academic campus, buildings for research and teaching can be organized in several different ways across a continuum of occupancy models, ranging from territorial to highly integrated.

The most traditional approach is tenancy by department, essentially a siloed arrangement in which nothing is shared, and there is little overlap or interaction among departments. The next point along the continuum is a mix of departmental and shared space, for instance, two tenants with a shared agenda. Beyond that is the “cluster,” an assemblage of research groups that get together for interdisciplinary projects and collocate to populate a building. A cluster can also refer to an interdisciplinary research group, at a more granular scale. Finally, there is the institute model, which unites multiple disciplines in a single home with its own governance. It often includes some degree of autonomy in determining research directions, hiring faculty, obtaining funding, and governance.

Harvard: Leveraging Strengths

The success of Harvard’s new John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) is a prime example of leveraging an institution’s strengths.

Recognizing “the growing preeminence of engineering and applied sciences,” Harvard embarked on a concerted effort to grow its material science capabilities. A multitude of initiatives enabled the university to elevate its existing Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences into a new school, SEAS, in 2007.

As described by Harvard officials, SEAS was envisioned as a “connector and integrator,” encouraging researchers and students “to cross boundaries and collaborate.”

“When you offer engineering in a liberal arts setting, you can build bridges to other disciplines, like business, law, and public policy, and physically connect specifically with physics, chemistry, biology, and computer science,” says Wilson. “These are very strong interfacial connections.”

From 1999 on, Wilson’s firm was engaged as architects for a succession of capital projects as part of Harvard transitioning engineering from a “division” to a separate engineering school. A series of early renovation projects assisted in the recruitment of new faculty, followed by a large capital project—the 140,000-gsf Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering (LISE). Sponsored by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, LISE features five floors above grade, housing public space, offices, and laboratories; and two levels below grade, housing a shared cleanroom, facilities for materials synthesis, and a microscopy suite. It has physical links to three neighboring research and science teaching facilities and is adjacent to the law school. 

A highlight of the building is the Center for Nanoscale Systems, which garnered widespread support from faculty in many disciplines eager to collaborate in the areas of nanoscale science and nanoscale systems research. It occupies public space at the ground level, with a café.

LISE’s 9,400-sf class-100/1000 cleanroom sits above a core imaging facility. The services of both are available not only to researchers across the university but also to other academic institutions and corporate users.  

“The facility has become extremely popular,” says Wilson. “Student use of the cleanroom really took off. From a funding perspective, it has run in the black almost since day one. Corporate users subsidize the student fee.”

In addition to generating revenue, LISE has proven instrumental in the success of more than two dozen faculty campaigns.

“Harvard was competing with Stanford and Berkeley in some very high-level recruiting situations, and their campaigns succeeded,” says Wilson. “When you look at the top institutions, it was not just material science but Harvard’s strength across all the sciences that attracted these recruits. LISE in general, and the cleanroom and imaging facilities specifically, played a large role in this success.”

Vanderbilt University: Connecting to Societal Issues

Coming online in August 2016, Vanderbilt’s 248,000-nsf Engineering and Science Building (ESB) will not only boost growth and elevate the competitive position of the School of Engineering, but, dedicated to interdisciplinary research, it will also provide the setting for innovative, entrepreneurial collaborations that address pressing societal needs in the areas of medicine and health, security, and energy and natural resources.

“In the last five years, there has been an explosion at Vanderbilt, where faculty are launching small startup companies focusing on technology and biomedical devices, mechanical devices, robotics, and advanced prosthetics,” says Puleo. “These initiatives don’t necessarily fall into the typical silos we are familiar with, such as civil, electrical, or mechanical engineering.”

The eight-story ESB combines many different types of spaces that welcome researchers and students from exising departments across the campus, as well as outside entities. A Student Commons is designed to give undergraduates a presence. An Innovation Center invites “students and faculty to bring ideas in research and in education to market, and allows public and private partnerships to meet and develop strategies to advance those areas,” according to Puleo. The building includes high-precision instrumentation space, a cleanroom, and research floors to support trans-institutional programs. The research floors themselves are not departmentally owned. Rather, they are home to “Intellectual Neighborhoods,” such as rehabilitation engineering, which is a collaboration among mechanical engineers, physicists, and medical school researchers. Scheduled to become operational in the ESB’s first phase is a neighborhood focusing on devices for medical implants and surgery tools.

“I like the word ‘neighborhood,’ because it doesn’t prescribe how it will be organized,” says Philippe M. Fauchet, dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering. “Researchers can organize however they want, and we don’t force a model that everyone needs to fit into.

“It is important, particularly for undergraduate teaching, to maintain the traditional departments,” explains Fauchet. “But at the research level, faculty need the ability to cross multiple disciplinary boundaries in order to solve the big societal issues.”

As currently envisioned, all new faculty will be appointed to a department, but they will be hired because their research fits into one of the identified neighborhoods, he says. For example, a computer scientist would need to fit into the in the cyber-physical systems neighborhood; a chemical engineer may specialize in water purity to fit into the energy and natural resources neighborhood.

The ESB is not the first Vanderbilt interdisciplinary project “to catalyze the intermixing of ideas,” says Staros, who was serving as chair of Vanderbilt’s department of biological sciences during construction of the Biological Sciences/Medical Research Building III, a 2002 facility designed to act “as both a physical and intellectual bridge” between the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Medicine.

Projects organized like ESB and BioSci/MRB III present a new set of challenges in leadership and governance.

“Faculty in an environment where traditional department structures and lines are erased need to know that they still have a connection back to their home departments,” notes Puleo.

By the same token, it is important not to allow the neighborhoods to become their own interdisciplinary silos, cautions Fauchet.

For example, researchers in the energy and natural resources neighborhood may be working on the Smart Grid; the people doing cyber-physical systems need to interface with them because the Smart Grid is a cyber-physical system. And the risk and reliability neighborhood deals with the tradeoffs of having a Smart Grid that can be hacked. “You can make connections between neighborhoods,” he says.

“In my generation, we were not talking about solving big societal issues,” concludes Fauchet. “We were trying to build a faster rocket. Now students see engineering as a tool to solve bigger problems; you can build a better rocket, but not for the rocket’s sake.”

UMass Amherst: Change Drivers

The Life Science Laboratories (LSL) building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is a project that began with one vision and morphed into another.

Initially, in 2008, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts appropriated $100 million for a much-needed life sciences building. The complex planning process paralleled a time of administrative turnover, and the new chancellor, Robert Holub, made two critical decisions that influenced the final project outcome: First, he decided that the building would house interdisciplinary research. Second, $57 million in campus money would be used to double the footprint, to 310,000 gsf, adding “a warm shell” of equal size, says Staros. The decision to add onto the state-funded project with campus funds required the collaboration of two quite distinct state agencies—the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, which carries out major capital projects funded centrally by the Commonwealth, and the UMass Building Authority, which carries out major capital projects funded by the University. “This was the first large-scale collaborative project between these state agencies,” says Staros.

An interdisciplinary group competition was launched for occupancy of LSL1, creating four research clusters: plant and microbial genomics, cellular engineering, protein misfolding, and environment in health and disease. These four clusters included faculty members from the College of Natural Sciences, the College of Engineering, and the School of Public Health and Health Sciences.

On each floor of LSL1 is an open-lab module designed to house four or five PIs and their research groups. Since each cluster is made up of faculty members from two or more departments or colleges, this design promotes interdisciplinary collaboration.

Governance issues arise as faculty move into LSL clusters from their home departments, especially in the support and development of junior members as they progress on the tenure track, says Staros.

“In an environment where they are not in the department, who is going to evaluate their advancement?” he asks.

The UMass response was “a structure to describe a new-hire position in a memorandum of understanding, an MOU, with approvals throughout the academic hierarchy,” explains Staros. “The incoming faculty members understand their role. The MOU becomes part of the personnel file that must be considered by the evaluators who assess performance against very specific goals, rather than other items that are normally criteria for success in that department. It is very important to do these things to protect junior faculty.”  

Another state entity, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, entered the picture by providing, beginning in 2013, $95 million in economic development funds for an institute for pharma-, biotech-, and biomedical device-related research in the LSL2 shell space. Housing state-of-the-art life sciences equipment, the facility could be shared between the academic community and industry.

As a result of a statewide campaign of meetings with leaders of industry to “pressure-test” ideas for LSL focus and occupancy, UMass decided to dedicate the second half of the building, LSL2, to the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS), with three research centers: Personalized Healthcare Monitoring, Models to Medicine, and Bioactive Drug Delivery. A new director for IALS was recruited in a national search, and the buildout of IALS and its three research centers was begun.  Important elements of the buildout design are a few closed lab spaces for industry/academic partnerships carrying out proprietary research and considerable space devoted to core laboratories with high-end shared equipment.

UNC Chapel Hill: Trans-Institutional Change Drivers

A 10-year campaign at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill to expand its physical sciences complex and further interdisciplinary collaboration created a home for five departments—chemistry, marine science, physics, math, and computer science—in four buildings totaling 378,000 gsf, and eventually resulted in the creation of an entirely new department.

While there are many shared facilities among the interconnected buildings—including classrooms, teaching labs, advanced microscopy and high-field and low-field NMR suites, and a successful 15,000-sf core facility—space ownership remains primarily along departmental lines.

A new department of Applied Physical Sciences was created in 2013, because the engineering-oriented faculty desired for interdisciplinary research could not be accommodated in the existing traditional departments, even with dual appointments. This is the first new department in the College of Arts and Sciences in nearly half a century. With it, the university is able to attract translationally-oriented scientists who foster interdisciplinary collaborations with the traditional sciences and medical sciences. Moreover, it has the potential to increase interactions with nearby North Carolina State for engineering collaborations. The goal is to bring on 20 new hires by 2020.

“There is no engineering school in UNC,” explains Edward T. Samulski, chair of UNC’s Applied Physical Sciences Department, and Cary C. Boshamer Professor of Chemistry. “The ulterior motive for doing this was that we don’t want to launch an engineering school, but we want to hire faculty with that flavor. These faculty need their primary appointment to be either in an institute or in a new department, because we are looking for people who don’t fit into the traditional departments.”

The new department, which subsumed the core facility, aligns with the university’s preference for “creating a group of faculty who can interact with faculty in each of the extant units and feel empowered to make decisions about space and hiring,” says Wilson. It also reflects the vision of “interactive research groups, multidisciplinary, nimble, and capable of adapting and reconfiguring to tackle new problems and go after different grants.”

The ultimate goal, says Samulski, is to build a new building for materials science.

By Nicole Zaro Stahl