Reshaping Research From the Ground Up

Walking to her office in the morning, Ruth Stark often stops to observe a large construction site on the south campus of City College. Over the last few years, she has seen it grow from a yawning pit of earth and rocks to a gleaming glass structure well on its way toward completion.

After nearly a decade of science expansion and planning, CUNY is now less than a year away from opening its much-anticipated Advanced Science Research Center. Along with colleagues in assorted fields of science at CUNY campuses across the city, Stark, a structural biologist, played a major role in refining the vision and design of the center. Over the course of more than two years, they spent many hours around a conference table, poring over blueprints and plans. So unlike most passersby, Stark knows, for instance, that the building is embedded with special shielding materials that will protect the research center’s sensitive instruments from even the slightest vibrations from nearby subway lines.

The ASRC, scheduled to open in the fall of 2014, will feature  an open central stairway connecting the five research initiatives housed on separate floors. The center  will have a critical core of state-of-the-art facilities never before available at CUNY. It  will serve the needs of advanced scientific exploration for the next few decades.

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 the five flagship areas.

“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 a center could be most useful to faculty across the University and how it could encourage scientists to interact.

“You put these teams together and they incubate,” says Charles Vörösmarty, the director of the  Environmental CrossRoads Initiative. In tackling complex problems, Vörösmarty’s team will mingle interdisciplinary science experts, from environmental chemists to nanotechnologists, with economists and social policy experts. “It’s opening up a new dialogue, mixing the social and physical sciences together.”

Among those eager to use the ASRC’s cleanroom is Queens College’s Vinod Menon, whose specialty is photonics, the science and technology of manipulating light. Menon, a member of the ASRC’s advisory committee, 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.”

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. 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.

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 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.”

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.

“I see the center enabling CUNY scientists to take their work experiences to a different level,” says Small. “They will be able to form partnerships with each other, with other facilities and other institutions in New York and even beyond.”