Upgrading Labs to Keep Pace with Science

A Brooklyn College lab before, above, and after renovations and upgrades, below.

On the 13th floor of the North Building at Hunter College, in the back of a laboratory that is humming and spinning with the sound of high-tech scientific research equipment, Cliff Soll sits at his computer analyzing data compiled by a quadrupole time-of-flight high-resolution mass spectrometer. The spectrometer, which converts molecules to ions so that they can be manipulated by electric and magnetic fields, is so advanced that it is in demand by hospitals, colleges and drug companies outside the CUNY system.

Soll, the director of the mass spectrometry facility at Hunter, remembers the day the equipment was installed three years ago. "Instantly, it revolutionized everything," Soll says. "It was mind-boggling the data you could get out of this thing, and it put us on the playing field with all the power players. Scripps has this instrumentation, MIT has it, and CUNY is right there."

Outside institutions such as a pharmaceutical company that recently needed a drug impurity analyzed as part of the FDA registration process are even paying a small fee for Soll, an organic chemistry Ph.D., to run their samples.

CUNY is raising its science profile. Spurred by Chancellor Matthew Goldstein's Decade of Science initiative, announced in 2005, new laboratories and state-of-the art instrumentation including mass spectrometers are being installed and construction is underway or near completion on facilities such as the University-wide Advanced Science Research Center at City College. New science buildings at City, Lehman and Medgar Evers Colleges are underway, as well as a major addition at Queens College. Also planned are new science buildings at Hunter and Brooklyn Colleges. At the same time, Vice Chancellor for Facilities Planning, Construction and Management Iris Weinshall has pushed ahead with an aggressive program to renovate and upgrade out-of-date college laboratories.

"We are projecting to spend more than $1 billion over the next five to eight years on new science buildings," explains Vice Chancellor for Research Gillian Small, "but these take time, so a decision has been made to renovate certain teaching and research labs at some of the colleges."

Since January, five teaching labs at Hunter, City, Lehman, Queens and Brooklyn have been completed. Research labs at Hunter's North Building and Thomas Hunter Hall are in the design or construction phase, as are several labs at City's Steinman and Marshak Buildings. Ten new teaching labs are slated for Queens, City, Hunter, Lehman, York, Brooklyn, New York City College of Technology and LaGuardia Community College. All of the labs are expected to be completed next year.

The University's science facilities have been neglected for years due to the high cost of building and renovating laboratories and science buildings. But, says Vice Chancellor Small, "Chancellor Goldstein recognizes that to be a great university, CUNY needs to have high-quality science facilities."

David Salmon, assistant director of the department of design, construction and management, says 36 labs - some complete, some under construction and some in design - have been slated for renovation at an estimated cost of  $55 million to $60 million. "It's a real challenge, because some of the buildings are from the 1940s," he says. "The visual part is really easy. You put in new floors and lights, but what's hard is the mechanical and infrastructure changes that you need to make for a modern lab."

he most critical infrastructure upgrades involve ventilation. New codes differ from how older buildings were designed, requiring significant air changes, as well as barring recirculated air, now standard for a modern laboratory.Another important upgrade is to strengthen emergency power systems. Salmon says that during renovations, it was discovered that emergency power in some labs was inadequate. "Often a scientist's research is stored in special freezers, or is dependent on animal colonies," Salmon says. "Emergency power is needed to sustain those facilities during a blackout. New buildings are designed with systems to address potential loss of power. We are also starting to retrofit older buildings that house significant research with emergency systems where none currently exist."

In addition to renovations, about $10 million has been given to the senior and community colleges to buy new equipment, with Vice Chancellor for Finance Ernesto Malave working with Vice Chancellor Small to make the funds available for the new instrumentation.

The money has been paying for, among other things, solar panels and a water purification system at Queensborough Community College, a Perkin Elmer Infrared MicroSpectrometer at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and a 400 MHz NMR and Neuroscience eye trackers at Hunter College.