New molecular biology building opens today

by Dan Haugen

University officials will formally unite key research departments when they open the new Molecular and Cellular Biology Building at 11 a.m. today.

The seven-story, $88 million structure will be home to three joint departments of the College of Biological Science and the Medical School, whose research subjects have increasingly overlapped during the past two decades. Officials hope the new building can capitalize on that relationship by providing a space where researchers from different disciplines can share expensive equipment and cross-pollinate ideas.

“I see more faculty per day than I ever did before,” said David Bernlohr, a professor and researcher who spent 17 years working on the St. Paul campus before moving into the new building this fall. He attributed the increased interaction not just to the fact that researchers share much of the building’s large and expensive equipment but also to the informal sharing of space like break rooms.

“There is a lot more opportunity to bump into each other in the hallway, to have discussions that might cross-fertilize ideas,” Bernlohr said.

Bernlohr and other faculty also praised the building’s flexibility. Because research areas are more open with fewer walls dividing individual research stations, projects can shrink and swell with less hassle.

“We have everything here we were looking for,” Bernlohr said. “We have connections. We’ve got collaborations. We have opportunity for expansion.”

The new building’s classroom space – like other recently constructed University buildings – is high-tech.

Each student’s seat is wired with a high-speed Internet connection, although computers are not yet included. Digital projectors hang from the ceiling. Instructors can write on the projection screen using a digital pen. And it’s all controlled by wired lecture podiums in the front of the room.

Sophomore Jennifer Anderson said the new classrooms are a big improvement over the Science Classroom Building where many of her classes met last year.

“It’s really nice. They have good equipment and its set up really well,” she said.

The building’s security is also high-tech. It houses thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Each of its 262 microscopes cost more than $3,000 to replace. A system of keycard and combination locks keep visitors out of nonpublic areas.

“It’s very secure,” building manager David Lee said. It’s also designed so students with a reason to be in the building have no problem getting where they need to be. Students can access faculty offices anytime during business hours, and those who need access during evening or weekend hours can have their U Cards programmed to work as keycards.

New building as “center of excellence”

when former University President Mark Yudof arrived in 1997, he quickly made molecular and cellular biology one of his top priorities. He identified the area as one of five “centers of excellence” in which the school could achieve national prominence in a relatively short amount of time.

In 1998, then-governor Arne Carlson – who plans to attend today’s ribbon-cutting ceremony – authorized the building’s construction. The demolition of Lyon Laboratories, Millard Hall and Owre Hall took place in fall of 1999, and MA Mortenson began construction immediately after their destruction. Carlson’s successor, Gov. Jesse Ventura, approved additional bonds in 2000 to complete the project.

The building’s opening late this summer came as a relief to hundreds of faculty members who had been tucked away in temporary spaces since the old buildings were demolished.

University officials insist the new building does nothing to change the need for more research space, such as the Translational Research Facility, for which they’ll try to secure funding in the next legislative session.

“People need to understand that this Molecular and Cellular Biology Building is replacement space. It’s not new space,” said Frank Cerra, Senior Vice President for the Academic Health Center, in an interview this summer.

In addition, Bernlohr said the building will largely be used for basic science. He said the University still needs more space to translate basic research into clinical applications.

Though students and faculty began using the building in August, workers are still putting on the finishing touches.

“It’s mostly minor cosmetic work,” said Bruce Corzine, onsite architect for Perkins & Will. “We’re very close.”

One piece that won’t be finished for at least one more year is an installation by Ohio artist Ann Hamilton, who beat out more than 400 others for a $391,000 grant to design and construct a piece of art for the building.

Hamilton will propose her idea to a committee of faculty and staff Thursday.

Shelley Willis, the University’s coordinator for public art, said the proposal will be for a light piece on the facade of the building that would react to stimuli such as sound, light and air velocity. It is intended to simulate the exterior of a cell.

Dan Haugen welcomes comments at [email protected]