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Science Gets a Front Door on Comm Ave

New center will bridge disciplines across sciences

This story was originally published on the BU Research website.

For decades, some of the most exciting research at Boston University has been unfolding in a row of buildings hidden on Cummington Mall, designed originally for making carriages instead of studying the life sciences.

Now University President Robert A. Brown is giving science a more prominent address on the University’s main thoroughfare. In late May or early summer 2015, at what is now a parking lot at 610 Commonwealth Avenue, BU will break ground for its new Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering (CILSE), a $140 million, state-of-the-art, nine-story research facility that will bring together life scientists, engineers, and physicians from the Medical and Charles River Campuses. The building will be dedicated to systems neuroscience, cognitive neuroimaging, and biological design. With shared, flexible lab spaces, meeting rooms, and other common areas, it is being designed to encourage the kind of collaborative, interdisciplinary research that will be the hallmark of 21st-century science.

“Today, many of the outstanding challenges in science lie at the boundaries between traditional disciplines or the unchartered spaces between them,” says Brown. These unchartered spaces will be explored at CILSE, a place he says will foster “major interdisciplinary research efforts led by faculty from many departments and schools, but with common interests.”

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CILSE will be built adjacent to historic Morse Auditorium and is expected to be finished in late 2016 or early 2017. It will contain lab space for approximately 160 researchers, postdoctoral students, and staff, 270 graduate students, and additional space for future faculty. The architects are from Payette, a Boston firm that has built prizewinning science buildings for major research universities and other institutions around the world.

The 170,000-square-foot building will house the Center for Systems Neuroscience, the Biological Design Center, the Center for Research in Sensory Communications & Emerging Neural Technology (CRESCENT), and the Cognitive Neuroimaging Center, with a 3 Tesla fMRI—a fundamental tool for studying the brain’s trillions of neural connections and how they relate to human behavior. The imaging technology will serve faculty from schools and departments across BU’s sprawling neuroscience community—and from other universities around Boston—who study brain topics from how we learn, think, and remember to traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease.

Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, professor of biomedical engineering, Boston University College of Engineering, ENG

Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, a College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering. Photo by Vernon Doucette

“In the life sciences and engineering, we have world-class faculty. We need facilities to match,” says Gloria Waters, vice president and associate provost for research. “We decided to invest in better lab space that would bring faculty together in a very unique and interdisciplinary environment.”

The new Center for Sensory Communication and Neuroengineering Technology will be directed by Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, a College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering, and will bring together neuroscientists and sensory physiologists who study hearing, speech, and language, as well as mathematicians who investigate neural coding. The center will connect scientists in these areas to enhance technological innovation and develop technologies such as neural prosthetics and brain-computer interfaces.

Chantal Stern, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of psychological and brain sciences and the director of the Brain, Behavior and Cognition program, will direct the Cognitive Neuroimaging Center. She says the building—and especially the new imaging technology—signals the administration’s commitment to first-class research at BU.

The University boasts one of the nation’s largest clusters of researchers in the emerging fields of systems neuroscience, which examines brain function at the cellular, molecular, and cognitive levels, and biological design, which seeks to build new biological systems with the tools and techniques of engineering. These interdisciplinary fields tackle some of the thorniest problems in science and medicine, like the detection and treatment of infectious diseases, treatments for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, how memory works, and the root causes of autism. These problems draw researchers from diverse fields who are currently spread across both campuses.

“One of the great things about BU is that we have spectacular faculty from many different disciplines,” says Waters. “This building will allow us to bring them together in ways that wouldn’t happen if they occupied space in their individual school or college. By placing new groups in proximity to one another, we are hoping to develop collaborations that would not happen otherwise, and ultimately some unique areas of excellence.”

It will contain lab space for approximately 160 researchers, postdoctoral students, and staff, 270 graduate students, and additional space for future faculty.

Like many scientists working across disciplines, Douglas Densmore, an ENG assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and of biomedical engineering and a primary investigator in the young field of biological design, has multiple offices and students scattered in buildings across campus. CILSE will allow him to gather his various research projects, and his students, under one roof. “I want students to be able to see each other,” says Densmore. “It will be great to be in a welcoming environment that facilitates collaboration.”

Ask other researchers what tops their wish list for the new building and many of them echo Densmore. Their number-one priority is simple: finally having a place to bring their colleagues together.

Douglas Densmore, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, Boston University College of Engineering, ENG

Douglas Densmore, an ENG assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and of biomedical engineering. Photo by Jessica Scranton

“You find neuroscientists and people who define themselves as neuroscientists on both campuses—in psychological and brain sciences, biomedical engineering, biology, at Sargent College, in mathematics, physics, radiology, psychiatry, anatomy, neurobiology, pharmacology—and they’re all in different buildings,” Stern says. She is looking forward to the collaborative projects these researchers might be inspired to undertake once they’re under the same roof.

So how do you encourage biologists to talk to engineers? One way to do that, says principal architect Charles Klee, is by creating lab spaces large enough—the plan for CILSE is 17,000 to 20,000 square feet per research floor—to put two or three principal investigators on each floor. “With people in the same space, you can say, ‘I’m having a problem with my protein sequencer; have you ever seen this?’ Another person can answer, ‘Sure—someone over here can help you with that,’” says Klee.

Scientists from different disciplines may also share lab space on the same floor in some instances. In addition to the abundance of other common spaces, there will be kitchenettes on each research floor and—one of Klee’s favorite ideas for promoting serendipitous, cross-disciplinary encounters—an inviting, open stairway connecting the kitchenettes.

“We understand you’ll talk to someone when you have to,” says Klee. “What we’re looking for is the chance discussion that happens just because you bump into someone. It jars something loose in your mind, causes you to think about something in a new way—that’s very much what this kind of a building is trying to do.”

As science has evolved, so has the design of science buildings. “When I was beginning my career, most buildings were designed to function within single disciplines,” says Brown. “I have seen this change dramatically over the last two decades. Now, almost all universities are focused on allocating quality space to strategically important interdisciplinary research.”

For modern research, quality space also means specific building capabilities, such as flexible lab space and testing centers, so scientists can configure different experiments.

“Whenever they ask if we want a wall or not, we say no wall,” says Densmore. “You need this flexibility or you’re going to paint yourself into a corner.” Densmore imagines a futuristic lab space for his work in biological design, with multiple microfluidic devices, 3-D printers creating custom equipment, and RFID-enabled name tags to track students’ experiments. “When people walk in, they’ll say, ‘Something different is going on here,’” he says.

Other scientists have different ambitions for the building, especially for the Cognitive Neuroimaging Center. “We want to have room to put in an exercise bike, in case we want to study exercise and the brain,” says Tyler Perrachione, a Sargent College assistant professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences and a Peter Paul Career Development Professor. “Or beds, so we can study sleep and the brain. We’ll have the ability to study the biology of the brain in action.”

Perrachione, who plans to use the Cognitive Neuroimaging Center primarily for pediatric imaging, has been working with the architect to make sure it will be welcoming for children. “It turns out when you set up a center that’s friendly for kids,” he says, “it’s friendly for adults, too.”

Perrachione notes that the neuroimaging facility will also include a “mock scanner” (“kind of like a scanner play set,” he says) that will allow special populations—children, people with autism or anxiety, the elderly—to become familiar with the MRI before entering the actual scanner.

Michael Hasselmo, Director, Center for Systems Neuroscience, Boston University College of Arts and Sciences, CAS

Michael Hasselmo, director of the Center for Systems Neuroscience and a CAS professor of psychological and brain sciences. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Another critically important feature for neuroscientists at CILSE will be the sophisticated testing rooms that will minimize vibrations and shield experiments from electrical noise and electromagnetic interference. These factors can hinder research, whether it involves interviewing human subjects or the painstaking work of recording signals from individual neurons. Some of the lab space will have special floors that minimize everyday vibrations—from, say, footsteps—that could get in the way of research.

“It’s very different than setting up an office building—it’s not just a computer and desk,” says Michael Hasselmo, director of the Center for Systems Neuroscience and a CAS professor of psychological and brain sciences. “A person walking past your lab can ruin your whole experiment.”

When it comes to the exterior, says Klee, the new science building will be “airy, transparent, beautiful.” He says his team is mindful that CILSE should not overshadow iconic Morse Auditorium, which is eligible for historic landmark status. “This will be a quiet building,” he says. “It won’t shout.”

And that, the architect says, seems to suit the researchers. They just want to get inside and do their work. “Research is much more than a job; it’s not a 9-to-5 activity,” he says. “There’s this kind of passion. They want a facility that will let them do what they want to do. Come hell or high water, it has to function.”

Brown has emphasized that the research inside the building be reflected in its exterior, says Klee. Just as EPIC (the new Engineering Product Innovation Center on Commonwealth Avenue) allows the public to see the hands-on nature of engineering, CILSE’s glass-walled exterior will provide a window onto basic science research at BU.

“This is not a building that wants to be ashamed that it’s a research building,” Klee says. “You’ll be able to see the exhaust fans on the roof, for example. It’s transparent. You can see life in it. A lot of buildings are opaque—you have no idea whether it’s a dorm, an office building, or a bank. We’re giving science a front door on Commonwealth Avenue.”

Sara Rimer can be reached at srimer@bu.edu. Barbara Moran can be reached at bmoran@bu.edu.

15 Comments

15 Comments on Science Gets a Front Door on Comm Ave

  • PrettyBoySwag on 10.22.2014 at 8:00 am

    Awesome! Great improvement to an already spectacular Science Department at BU!

  • Exterior Flaw on 10.22.2014 at 10:23 am

    Once again another new building that completely ignores the average pedestrian/ commuter. The new building facade on Comm Ave. has no sidewalk setback, no pedestrian cover, no benches , seats , signage or greenery.
    Are these the same architects that built the Kenmore Sq. Wind tunnel that supposed to be a bus shelter?

    Commonwealth Avenue ( aka The University’s main thoroughfare -as quoted in the article) is transforming into a sea of glass and concrete.
    This is not the same as EPIC. EPIC is bright windows on the Comm Ave side.. During the daytime hours, The public as you call us cannot see see what is going on inside from the Commonwealth Avenue perspective.
    While I am happy for the researchers who have a new beutiful building, I am sad for the rest of us who have to walk by this giant soul-less wall on a winters day.
    If I am luck enough to call someone for a ride . Can I stand outside on a day like today?
    I hope the buiding works out, but please consider the community outside the building too.

  • Karin Schon on 10.22.2014 at 10:50 am

    Thank you for a great article! As a cognitive neuroscientist who does research involving locations on both ends of the BU shuttle, I’m very excited about the CILSE, and especially about the new Center for Systems Neuroscience! I am disappointed though that no MED faculty were interviewed for this article, which, to me, is an indicator that “One BU” is more of a philosophy, than a strategy, but hopefully this will change.

  • Lindsay on 10.22.2014 at 11:02 am

    What about COM? Per PrettyBoySwag, the “Science Department”(?) at BU is already spectacular. While I don’t know which department he is specifically talking about, I have to agree that STEM buildings at BU are, by and large, in pretty great shape… not to mention that a new one was built fairly recently — or have you forgotten the Photonics building?

    What’s NOT in great shape is COM… you know, that building that is RIGHT next to the monstrosity that you’re proposing be built? The building had several issues when I was a student 10 years ago and, by the looks of it when I pass by on Comm Ave, not much has changed.

    As a COM ’04 graduate, this plan underlines the reasons I do not donate money to BU whenever a work study student calls me asking for funds.

    • Why I don't donate? on 10.22.2014 at 1:50 pm

      “As a COM ’04 graduate, this plan underlines the reasons I do not donate money to BU whenever a work study student calls me asking for funds.”

      Thus ensuring COM gets no money and other schools and colleges continue to make forward strides. Donors get to choose where their funds go to. If you want to see COM getting better, give to COM. Those who prioritize research and science gave to CILSE. That’s how that works.

  • CAS '11 on 10.22.2014 at 2:07 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree that this building seems to have been designed and approved without taking many seemingly obvious factors into account. It should be noted that this project was not a part of BU’s IMP that was submitted to the City of Boston very recently, further contributing to the case that the planning was probably undertaken in a rash manner.

    As was already pointed out by “Exterior Flaw” the entire height of this building abuts directly to the sidewalk on Commonwealth Avenue, leaving no room for any sort of green space or community-friendly infrastructure. What you cannot see in the rendering above (but what can be found on the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s website) is that this building also infringes greatly on the BRB and the COM building. This structure will effectively block most of the natural light for one entire side of the BRB, and for a portion of the east end of COM. Further it will block the morning daylight for the COM Lawn, one of the few green spaces on campus that is revered by students (and, in case you didn’t know, the west end of the COM Lawn will soon be replaced by a new wing for COM). Due to the misalignment of this new building with the alley between the BRB and COM, pedestrians will now have to travel through an “L” shaped corridor, which disrupts visibility and could pose security risks (something BU should really take into account with all of the armed robberies in the past few years).

    In this day and age, with sustainable design at the forefront for any new building, it seems like BU completely ignored many factors in the LEED guidelines – especially those related to the surrounding environment. This building would have been much better suited as a replacement for one of the dated, shorter buildings along Cummington Mall. Turn the eyesore of a parking lot in front of the BRB into an extension of the COM Lawn instead! Green space is much more inviting and contributes to human health and well-being. It seems like almost all of the green space on campus will soon be replaced with, or surrounded by, tall buildings (Granby Street Park may soon be blocked by a building in the lot next to Sargent and the small lawn next to Towers is slated to become yet another building). Beyond all of these implications, the façade of the building alone is nothing to marvel at. It seems to mimic the often-criticized look of Warren Towers and the Law Tower. Buildings on campus should not be designed as pop-up spaces needed for this or that, but rather as long-term investments that will contribute to the community.

    I am happy to see the science programs expanding at BU, but I think that much better options could have been explored for housing this expansion. This building, along with much of BU’s IMP, raises many red flags as to the University’s priorities for new infrastructure and the community.

    • Exterior Flaw on 10.22.2014 at 3:39 pm

      The computer rendering above also does not show the Blanford St MBTA stop or any of the trains on the tracks.

      This is a VERY congested area and a LEED building would have been a better design.

      Will the BU community be invited to future project meetings?

    • Smarter Child on 10.22.2014 at 4:06 pm

      Dear CAS ’11

      I read the entire IMP and I see that there is an emphasis on maintaining green space, adding pocket parks, and adding pedestrian malls.

  • Matt on 10.22.2014 at 4:24 pm

    I don’t really see how anyone can possibly view this as a negative thing. It is a state of the art building that will only add to the great research already being performed on campus. It will help attract better quality students for both undergraduate and graduate programs, specifically in the sciences.

    There will be no impact on COM from this building being built. They were never going to extend the COM lawn because that adds nothing of value to the university. I never met a person on campus who went to BU for the green grass and open fields. You go to BU to get the best education you can receive and this only adds to that education. This building could be where a cancer treatment is discovered someday yet people are complaining about their commute and the view lines…really makes no sense. Great move by BU

  • CAS '12 on 10.22.2014 at 7:34 pm

    Love it. As long as BU keeps growing and developing, I’ll keep giving.

    I do feel bad for COM though…

  • CAS '12 on 10.22.2014 at 10:21 pm

    Great news. This is where BU should keep focusing it’s resources. Not on spoiled COM kids who graduate and then go on to tweet professionally or work in Starbucks. S.T.E.M. is the future.

    • Eddie (SAR '11) on 10.23.2014 at 11:14 am

      “Not on spoiled COM kids who graduate and then go on to tweet professionally or work in Starbucks.”

      This was an unnecessary attack and grand generalization of COM students. There are plenty of COM alumni doing great work in their respective fields. Please be more respectful of your fellow classmates.

    • Jason K on 10.23.2014 at 11:33 am

      As a COM ’12er, I valued every minute of my education. Especially when we learned to treat the rest of the BU community with #respect.

  • CAS '12 on 10.22.2014 at 10:36 pm

    This is exciting news for BU and the surrounding communities. As a BU grad, it is disappointing to see my fellow grads placing more importance on COM’s physical visibility rather than on the potential advancements in impactful research that can occur in this state of the art facility. Isn’t our gained knowledge and treatment of Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injury (among the many areas being studied) more of a priority than a partial obstruction of another building? Our veterans and all those suffering from neurodegenerative disorders will certainly be grateful.

  • COM '08 on 10.29.2014 at 7:14 am

    What an ugly building. Such a shame! I’m not opposed to a building being build there, but can’t they get something that would be more architecturally stunning / unique? It looks like a bad 60s office building.

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