An interdisciplinary future
By Tim Stoddard
When the Life Science and Engineering building officially opens on May 18, Jason Greenbaum’s Cummington Street commute will vanish. A doctoral candidate in the Bioinformatics Graduate Program, Greenbaum (GRS’05) has been shuttling between his two advisors’ laboratories, one at the Metcalf Center for Science and Engineering on Commonwealth Ave. and the other at the Engineering Research building at 44 Cummington St. But soon his mentors — Tom Tullius, a CAS professor of chemistry and department chairman, and Zhiping Weng, an ENG associate professor of biomedical engineering — will be neighbors, their adjacent labs in the new building separated by only a few feet.
“This is going to be great,” says Greenbaum, who’s spent the past six years based in Tullius’ laboratory in the Metcalf Center. “Before, I’d have to go back and forth, and just trying to get Tom and Zhiping together was always difficult because their schedules are so busy.
I didn’t really see Zhiping all that much, but now I’m going to be able to see her and interact with her other students every day. I wish it had happened earlier, but it will still be great.”
It’s an ideal arrangement for Tullius and Weng, both of whom study the structure of DNA, but use different techniques to investigate how proteins interact with the genetic material. They each have grants from the National Human Genome Research Institute to identify the specific areas on the genome that produce certain proteins or in some other way control cellular processes. They believe their similar research projects, and their shared graduate students, will benefit from the proximity of their labs.
Rising from the former site of the Nickelodeon Theatre at 24 Cummington St., the 10-story building is the first at the University, and one of few nationwide, designed according to researchers’ interests rather than their departmental affiliations. “The building will foster those types of spontaneous interactions that are so vital to scientific inquiry,” says Charles DeLisi, Arthur G. B. Metcalf Professor of Science and Engineering and senior associate provost for bioscience. “It will enable us to understand how our colleagues from different disciplines think about questions of science, helping researchers, graduate students, and undergraduates develop the flexibility of mind that is so valuable to scientists.”
About 300 faculty, students, and staff from the CAS departments of biology and chemistry, ENG’s department of biomedical engineering, and the University’s Bioinformatics Graduate Program recently began moving into the $83 million building, which features 187,000 square feet of space for 46 laboratories, 45 faculty offices, a 144-seat seminar room, and several shared conference rooms. It is the capstone of the University’s 20-year thrust to expand research in the life sciences. “It’s a cathedral to 21st-century interdisciplinary science,” says David Campbell, provost ad interim, a College of Engineering professor, and dean of the college. “It’s an exquisite facility with all the latest equipment, but it’s also elegantly utilitarian.”
The building is ahead of the curve, Campbell says, with a progressive design that anticipates the evolving needs of life science research. “Biology in the 21st century is going to look a lot more like how physics did in the 20th century,” he says, “with detailed quantitative experiments, analytic theory trying to understand them, and extensive computational modeling. The results of these studies will be engineered to produce new pharmaceuticals, new prostheses, even new organs.” All of this requires a mingling of expertise, he adds, and while many BU researchers are already involved in cross-disciplinary projects, the building will catalyze new collaborations and scientific cross-pollination.
Working with architects from Cannon Design, DeLisi and the chairmen of the three departments moving into the building organized the research spaces based on common interests. Kenneth Lutchen, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering and department chairman, says that one floor “will position several CAS neurobiology labs next to three BME faculty who work on neuroengineering.” The building will also house a biomedical engineering center, occupying about two floors of space, funded by the University’s 2001 $14 million Whitaker Leadership Development Award. “Completion of the building culminates part of BME’s astonishing growth linked to the Whitaker award,” Lutchen says. “It sets BU apart in reputation and potential regarding how biology, chemistry, BME, and bioinformatics can work toward a common goal.”
Many of the 15 biology faculty moving into the building will be located near colleagues in the bioinformatics program. “My lab is involved in experimental work in gene expression, and this will be greatly facilitated by proximity to our bioinformatics collaborators,” says Geoffrey Cooper, a CAS professor of biology and chairman of the department. “It’s a terrific building that’s going to encourage the continued expansion of research and teaching in biology.”
The chemistry department’s Center for Chemical Methodology and Library Development will double in size, expanding into the eighth floor of the building while retaining its current space at 590 Commonwealth Ave. The center is developing a vast library of molecules that biologists, pharmacologists, chemists, and other researchers can use to better understand biological processes and to develop new drugs. “These are the most beautiful labs I’ve ever seen,” says Tullius. “They’re spectacular.”
With seven faculty members moving into the building, the chemistry department is now ready to hire about six additional professors, Tullius says. “Most of the space that we’re going to leave behind will be in excellent shape and available for new faculty to move in,” he says. “We want to keep a very active and vigorous research program going on in Metcalf along with our efforts in the new building.”
The new building will also house a small ENG laboratory for fabricating silicon-based chips, which chemistry faculty use in a variety of applications.
All of the core faculty in the Bioinformatics Graduate Program, which DeLisi directs, will relocate to the building. “We’ll have a fertile mix of chemists, biologists, and biomedical engineers,” DeLisi says. “Everybody in the building has common interests, and some 60 bioinformatics Ph.D. students diffused throughout the building will provide additional glue for interactions between faculty. We’ll see a lot of networking and a lot of collaboration with students working with faculty members from different disciplines.”