Reshaping Research - From the Ground Up

BRAINSTORMING: Seated at ASRC planning session are, from left, architect Rich Zottala; City College lab technician Tom Legbandt; architect David Halpern; David Salmon, assistant director of CUNY's department of design, construction and management; City College associate professor Fred Moshary; architect Chuck Gantt. Standing next to rendering of the building are Graduate Center professor Ted Brown and University Vice Chancellor for Research Gillian Small.

Faculty ideas helped mold the University's unique Advanced Science Research Center, soon starting construction uptown.

Walking to her office in the morning, Ruth Stark often stops to observe a large construction site on the South Campus of City College. To many passersby, the site is just a yawning pit of earth and rocks. But to Stark, a distinguished professor of chemistry, it represents something much more - a groundbreaking vision for 21st century science to which she has contributed many ideas.

After years of planning, the University's Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) has emerged as a bold, much-anticipated initiative that will link scientists in radically innovative ways - mixing disciplines like chemistry and biology, as well as promoting interaction among five exploding interdisciplinary areas, such as nanotechnology. The building itself will provide an unusual design to encourage formal and informal collaboration, with features like an open central stairway connecting research areas on separate floors - literally, a "vertical" integration of the "horizontal" blend of many disciplines. The center also will house a critical core of state-of-the-art facilities never before available at CUNY, including a "clean room" for the fabrication of tiny, sensitive scientific devices. Ultimately, the ASRC reflects an unprecedented University-wide effort to create a facility that not only serves the needs of cutting-edge research today, but envisages the demands and direction of scientific exploration for the next few decades.

By all accounts, the planning process itself stressed a high level of collaboration across the University. Led by Vice Chancellor for Research Gillian Small, a diverse advisory group of faculty, University officials and consultants took on the task of establishing "flagship" areas of scientific research. Stark, along with many of her colleagues from various fields of science, played a major role in refining the vision and design of the center.

"We had a whole series of meetings with people who would be using the building," says David Salmon, assistant director for CUNY's department of design, construction and management. "All the players were in the room. A lot of questions were asked of the scientists, in terms of making sure this facility was properly designed to support their work. Gillian was such a force in this effort," Salmon says.

"We talked about what our strengths should be to build national and international recognition," Small recalls. "We wanted to take advantage of strengths we already had," she notes, such as the neurosciences, which already had a network of 55 laboratories throughout CUNY campuses. "But we also wanted to consider what areas were important to the future of the country."

The areas that emerged were more thematic than discipline-based - nanotechnology, for example, often involves a complex integration of chemistry, physics, biology and engineering. It was also important that these research areas not become "distinct silos," says Small. The faculty focus groups questioned how could a center be most useful to faculty across the University? How could they encourage ways for scientists to interact? And if they wanted to support these areas, what would CUNY faculty need?

Among those eager to test the clean room is Queens College assistant professor Vinod Menon, whose specialty is photonics, the science and technology of manipulating light. Menon, who is also a focus group member, says he expects to collaborate with nanoscientists in creating devices with new applications in areas like telecommunications, data processing, biology and medicine. "I see great advantages in bringing people together from different campuses," he says. "You can get much better ideas than working individually."

"It's opening up a new dialogue, mixing the social and physical sciences together," says Charles Vörösmarty, the newly appointed director of the CUNY Environmental Crossroads Initiative, one of the program areas to be housed at the center. In tackling complex problems, Vörösmarty's team will mingle interdisciplinary science experts, from environmental chemists to nanotechnologists, with economists and social policy experts, he says. "You put these teams together and they incubate," he says. "I don't know what's going to come out of it - but it's going to be wonderful."

The defining principles behind ASRC began germinating several years ago, says Small, when Chancellor Mathew Goldstein "understood that in order to be a great university, we needed great sciences." And to support all the sciences the University needed a substantial, state-of-the-art science facility.

With about 200,000 square feet, the five-story science center will provide flexible space for laboratories, meeting rooms and offices for 75 professionals, including 20 new faculty members. Each floor will essentially be devoted to one of the five program areas - which, besides nanotechnology and environmental crossroads, include neurosciences, photonics, and structural biology. There will be a rooftop observatory for measuring and analyzing environmental data; electron microscopes and other sophisticated imaging equipment; a high-tech "visualization room"; a 100-seat auditorium for scientific symposia; a public education center where visitors can learn what's going on at the center; and a café.

"It's really creating a science park," says Small.

One of the center's high-impact facilities will be its clean room, a large, highly controlled, filtered environment located in the basement, which can be used to fabricate tiny "nanostructures" for a host of complex research problems. When completed, this clean room will likely be the only one in New York City with "this level of refinement," Small says.

Stark envisions working with nanotechnology experts at the ASRC to help advance her research in molecular biophysics at City College. For example, by examining how scientists engineer nanostructures for the delivery of drugs into patients, Stark says she could discover techniques that could help "get a molecular view" of how melanin pigments develop - and under what conditions they become malignant. "A lot of times it's a matter of making connections, just getting people in a room and asking how they attacked similar research problems," says Stark, who is also director of the CUNY Institute for Macromolecular Assemblies, which includes faculty across several campuses. "Nothing really substitutes for face-to-face contact."

Indeed, the science center was designed specifically to promote collaboration while preserving privacy and flexibility for unanticipated changes in research needs, says David Halpern, a senior associate at Flad Architects, a Wisconsin-based firm recognized for its planning and design of high-tech buildings. The center offers an abundance of space conducive to informal discussion among researchers. Example: the easily accessible conference rooms and numerous open areas - the so-called "tea rooms"- near stairways, notes Halpern, who worked closely with CUNY faculty and officials in creating the facility. "A lot of science happens on stair landings," he says.

Vörösmarty, the environmental crossroads director, has already embraced the collaborative philosophy of the science center - even while housed at his temporary quarters at City College.

"What I'm excited about is moving into that new building where I will have on other floors experts on nanotechnology, photonics, chemistry, structural biochemistry," he says. "I would love to have a dialogue about how their technologies can be brought to bear on some of the big environmental questions … I could walk down the stairs and pose them a challenge of how we could produce miniaturized sensing systems that would allow us to better understand the chemistry and quantities of water distributed in many parts of the developing world."

When completed, the ASRC will be a "LEED-certified" building - meeting high environmental standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council. The center's design also had to meet a demanding set of requirements for maintaining its high-end equipment and instrumentation, notes Halpern. Such facilities, like the clean room, are "technically complex spaces" that require the ability to contain hazardous substances while being protected from vibrations and other interference pervasive in a busy metropolitan area. At the same time, "we need the building as a whole to function collaboratively," Halpern says.

The center is going up next to another major facility, a new science building for City College. Together, the projects will cost about $700 million in construction, furniture and initial equipment costs, according to Salmon. (A second advanced science facility, ASRC II is still in the planning stage.)

Mingling the science - and the scientists - among the five research areas "has a lot of potential," says Small, who is also an expert in molecular and cellular biology. "I see it [the center] enabling CUNY scientists to take their work experiences to a different level and form partnerships with other facilities and New York institutions.

Vörösmarty and Stark see the center as nothing less than "an intellectual crossroads" for science in the coming years. Pointing to New York City as one of the world's great cultural and financial crossroads, Vörösmarty says he plans to bring "this notion of crossroads dialogue" to environmental research at the Advanced Science Research Center.

By their very nature, problems like hunger alleviation and environmental sustainability are questions that cross many disciplinary boundaries, Vörösmarty says, so decisions made in one arena, like the use of agricultural nutrients to grow crops, can no longer be viewed through a narrow local lens. "These questions are not just agronomy issues," he says. "They reverberate in the chemistry of the earth, the hydrology of the earth, its atmosphere and coastal zones," he says. "That's the kind of dialogue we're trying to catalyze.