Regents approve St. Paul biotech precinct to enhance research

Joanna Dornfeld

Groundbreaking began last week for the first building of what will become an entire section of biotechnology buildings on the St. Paul campus.

The Board of Regents approved last week construction of the biotech campus. Within 10 to 15 years, approximately 12 buildings will neighbor the Cargill Microbial and Plant Genomics Building that was just started.

The buildings are the fruition of a plan Bob Elde brought to the College of Biological Sciences when he was named dean of the college. For years, the University lagged behind Big Ten rivals such as the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan. At times, heralded professors courted by the University chose other schools because of the University’s outdated facilities.

Now, the University ranks third among the nation’s leading research universities. The College of Biological Sciences hope the biotechnology precinct on the St. Paul campus will provide cutting-edge research and teaching facilities.

The precinct is the first of its kind among universities. It will be located on the corner of Gortner and Buford avenues across from the biological sciences buildings. The animal barns currently housed there will be moved farther east. The precinct is still in its planning stages, and funds for additional buildings have not yet been approved.

The first building constructed will house the University’s genomics program, a discipline the biology department decided to focus on in 1998.

“This part of biology, this is becoming extremely important and we had fallen behind,” said Elde. He said the college selected genomics because it felt it was an area in which the University showed potential and could grow.

University officials said the new facilities will draw faculty and students to the University’s biology program.

When the College of Biological Sciences began to reorganize, it combined some departments with the Medical School and another with the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences. The consolidation eliminated overlapping positions, allowing the departments to hire new faculty members.

Because of the way many of the departments were structured, new faculty members had not been hired for years.

“Even with no new money and tough economic times … you ought to be able to hire new faculty every year,” Elde said.

New faculty have the most up-to-date training and are able to keep research on the cutting edge, he said.

For example, bioinformatics utilizes the mapped genomes of animals and plants and tries to discover what the code means. The process involves not only scientists but also computer scientists and statisticians.

“All those things now need to be brought in to understand the new biology,” said Brian Van Ness, genetics, cell biology and development department head. The department is part of the College of Biological Sciences and the Medical School.

The partnerships help translate the department’s research into application, Van Ness said.

In addition to internally reorganizing departments, the college collected research services throughout the campus and brought them under one roof.

The Biodale facility houses research support services for University faculty, students and outside industries.

Biodale is a cornerstone for the changes in the college because it provides faculty and students with access to technology too complex for most laboratories, said Marc von Keitz, biotechnology services program director.

Biodale provides its services for a fee. It sustains itself and is able to purchase state-of-the-art equipment that would otherwise not be available for most student and faculty research. It opened last February in the basements of Snyder Hall and the Gortner Laboratory.

The University is focusing its support on the sciences to improve recruitment of students and faculty.

“We have to be a little protectionist,” Elde said. Students who attend universities in other states seldom return to Minnesota to further their careers.

Students who go to the University tend to remain in Minnesota and develop new research.

“There needs to be the birth of another Medtronic and make a difference in Minnesota’s economy and the world,” Elde said.

 

Joanna Dornfeld covers the St. Paul
campus and welcomes comments at
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