A space odyssey: New building to transform sciences at IU
by Kate Gleeson
It sounds almost like a joke: A researcher collects PCB-contaminated samples from the Great Lakes and brings them back to his laboratory in landlocked Bloomington, Ind. He tries to measure the level of contamination, only to discover that the PCBs contaminating his lab building, at levels 3,000 percent higher than in the original samples, drown out his data.
But it’s no joke. It really happened to Ron Hites, Distinguished Professor of environmental and analytical chemistry (with a joint appointment in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the Department of Chemistry). Even after he moved to a lab in the newer SPEA building, which postdates the heyday of PCB use in construction, he still ran into the same problem. The university renovated the laboratory, draining transformers and changing ballasts, but to no avail. Hites still cannot do his research with any degree of accuracy on the IUB campus.
Unfortunately, Hites’s problem is not an isolated experience. The science departments at IUB have had a long-standing problem finding adequate lab space. This problem has reached acute levels, with current faculty not able to take on new projects and no space for potential new faculty.
Lisa Pratt, associate dean for science and research and professor of geology, notes that many scientists at IUB have experienced multiple problems with their research because conditions in their labs preclude accurate, well-calibrated results.
When the National Institutes of Health approached biology professors Peter Cherbas and Thom Kaufman with a large grant to support supplying genomic materials to research committees throughout the United States, they could not say yes. The limitations of the current facilities simply do not allow such a project. As in Hites’s case, though, the problem is as much the quality as the quantity of available space.
Geographer Sue Grimmond uses a 46-meter tower in Morgan-Monroe State Forest to measure the concentration and fluxes of greenhouse gases. To measure these gases accurately, Grimmond needs a lab where the humidity and temperature are controlled and the instruments well-calibrated. "We don't have the facilities to make the measurements," she says.
These critical problems have serious consequences. "The departments can't do what they want to do," says Pratt. "They can't apply for grants and do research because of these limits." Departments have difficulty attracting the faculty and students that are key to maintaining IU’s record of achievement in the sciences . For example, Professor David Williams notes that his department, chemistry, had 42 faculty members in 1980; now it has 28. "We couldn't get back to 42," he says. "New faculty want state-of-the-art facilities that we don't have. Substandard facilities bar us from entering the forefront sciences of tomorrow." Hites concurs. "We are hemorrhaging quality science people because of a long-standing lack of science emphasis."
The problems are serious. But the university is serious about solving them. A grass-roots request from faculty across the sciences has developed, with the wholehearted support of the administration, into a proposal for a new, multidisciplinary science building on the Bloomington campus. With a cost estimated at $90 million, the new facility is IU’s No. 1 building priority statewide.
The building will have high-quality labs and state-of-the-art instrumentation. But its real draw is what it can offer beyond simply space. It will provide a place for a new culture of multidisciplinary science, which is increasingly important as new technologies and discoveries break through the old lines dividing one field from the next. More and more scientists are working with scientists from outside their own discipline. The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Kumble Subbaswamy, himself a professor of physics, anticipates a "new vitality" in the sciences with "opportunities to do research in new areas that require collaborative research." In the words of the building proposal, "Modern scientific inquiry is performed by teams of scientists from different disciplines working on similar or related problems. This is clearly reflected in a proliferation of hybrid sciences, e.g., biochemistry, biophysics, geochemistry, chemical informatics, and a host of others." At IUB, cognitive scince and neural science already bring together scientists from psychology (in the psychology building on 10th Street), medical science and biology (in Jordan Hall), computer science (in Lindley Hall), and linguistics (in Memorial Hall) to study brain functions and simulations. Microbiologists, chemists, and biologists join together in the study of the limits and evolution of life from prebiotic conditions. To work effectively, it is critical that these scientists have a facility where they can interact.
The new building will provide interactive space and highly controlled lab environments. It will also allow researchers to share instruments, making it easier for the university to afford to replace those that are outdated. Plans call for areas where scientists can construct new instruments out of existing components and where manufacturers can test new instruments.
Even more exciting are the opportunities to bring in researchers from other universities, research institutions, industries, and government research centers. According to the proposal, this will help "expose faculty and students to the ‘cutting edge’ in their fields." By bringing in grant money to the university and increasing its reputation in the sciences, this investment has the potential to be “fruitful both intellectually and financially."
Investing in the sciences will benefit not only IU, but Bloomington and all of Indiana as well, with new industries and research centers coming into the area. As it is now, the best scientists trained at IU are leaving Indiana because the state cannot offer challenging and competitive jobs in scientific fields.
The location of the new building (absent insurmountable engineering difficulties) will be south of the Chemistry Building behind Myers Hall. Even with the united efforts of faculty and administration, major challenges lie ahead before the proposed building becomes a reality. To finance the new building, the university is asking the state of Indiana for $60 million, $30 million in each of the next two bienniums. The additional $30 million needed will be raised privately through gifts and grants. Pratt notes that this is “a scale of building fund raising never attempted before here, but it is an important investment in our future."
"We're in a critical moment," adds Williams. "This will tell us whether we will be in it for the future, or out."