A person walking around the construction site of the new Life Sciences Initiative may find it hard to imagine that by this time next year, part of it will be in the final stages of completion.
But five days a week, approximately 400 construction workers visit the site, located at the bend across from Palmer Field where Washtenaw Avenue becomes Huron Street. From 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., electricians, carpenters, engineers and other workers toil away on the buildings that comprise the Initiative, launched in 1999 under former University President Lee Bollinger.
Construction on two buildings – the six-story Life Science Institute and the 99,000 square-foot Commons Building – is already underway. Work on another building, the four-story Undergraduate Science Instruction Center adjacent to the Institute, cannot begin until the center’s parking structure is finished.
An overpass will connect the Commons Building to the Hill Area and an open meeting area called the Pedestrian Plaza will lead students to the Dental School.
“It’s a physical and intellectual bridge,” LSI spokesman Karl Bates said.
The area used to be the home of the North University Building, which was demolished before the project began.
“The idea was to bring it there to bridge the gap. The space is pretty cramped,” said Alan Saltiel, the Institute’s associate director. “If you just wanted to put a building up, you would have looked at a space on North Campus. It is an architectural feat just to get it up there.”
But the Initiative, which will be based around genomics, chemical and structural biology, cognitive neuroscience and bioinformatics, is not simply a compilation of research buildings and faculty.
It is also a series of undergraduate and graduate courses, which are already being offered; the Values and Society Program, which looks at the moral and ethical implications of scientific advancements; and a project that officials hope will increase interaction between various campus departments and schools, like the philosophy, medicine, law, business and arts programs.
Saltiel said there are many ways the Institute and the Initiative can interact with other departments. The ideas include working with the Business School on ways to advertise discoveries and commissioning the School of Art and Design for artwork to add to the walls.
“A lot of artists look toward the natural world for inspiration for their art. Why not have them come in and look through microscopes and work with scientists to provide inspiration for their art?” he added. “The Institute can bring science to art and art to science.”
The undergraduate courses – which include University Courses “Law, Ethics and the Life Sciences,” “Brain, Learning and Memory” and “Evolutionary Biology and Human Disease” – are all focused around multi-disciplinary study and interaction, said Jill Becker, chair of the Undergraduate Life Science Initiative committee.
“The faculty were all very excited about the classes, and that is going to make them exciting for students,” Becker said, adding that she believes undergraduate education is a large part of the Initiative. “The undergraduates need to be taught by the scientists who are doing this really dynamic research. That’s what gives the undergraduates an advantage when they get out of there, is that they are trained by the best.”
A large part of the undergraduate education will exist in the Undergraduate Science Instruction Center, which has an expected completion date of Fall 2005.
The $61 million L-shaped center will house the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, Women in Science and Engineering and the Life Sciences Values and Society Program, as well as classroom, computer labs, teaching labs and a lecture hall.
“The intent of this is to … make this undergraduate science center diverse and welcoming to groups that are not necessarily associated with science and technology,” said Cell and Molecular Biology Prof. Pamela Raymond. “This will allow an environment where students will not only be in classrooms, but also engaged in other academic activities.”
C urrently, the site is covered in dust, wooden boards and two-by-fours. A temporary rickety wooden staircase leads to the second floor of the Life Science Institute, dubbed the Mechanical Room, where pipes for heat and ventilation fill up much of the room’s space. Later, workers will add the machines that will heat and cool the 240,000 square-foot building.
The roof already holds the building’s main electrical equipment, which Plant Extension Project Engineer Ken Silverman said is “ready to roll.”
A blue freight elevator with wire walls carries construction workers from floor to floor, where office walls and laboratory and equipment spaces are being constructed on floors four, five and six.
Though there are walls around the outside now, there is no glass in the windows and few areas are constructed with the six types of stone that will eventually give the building its finished appearance. On several floors there are no or few separations between rooms, and those visiting must use their imaginations, or the site plan, to figure out where the offices will be.
Mice will eventually live in the building’s basement, which has animal facilities specifically designed for the rodents.
When asked about the facilities, LSI spokesman Karl Bates was quick to add that there no plans to do any other animal research.
“We will not be doing dogs or chimps or anything like that,” he said. “Just mice and maybe fish.”
Bates said a lot of thought has gone into the building so far – not only with its general location between the medical and central campuses, but on the interior as well.
There will be four labs on each floor, for a total of 12, and each lab will fit 30 to 35 researchers. Instead of being separated from one another, the labs will be positioned next to each other, and scientists will use shared equipment, all in an effort to encourage as much communication and interaction as possible.
Office spaces will be located on the short ends of the building, next to each other instead of being connected directly to the labs.
“This is the new approach to doing labs. We are not the only ones doing this,” Bates said. “People who are building laboratory space around the country are doing this.”
T he competing universities are part of the Initiative’s number one challenge: Recruitment of the best scientists and researchers in the country.
Though few University officials say they believe the LSI will have a problem convincing researchers to move to Michigan, they all acknowledge that recruitment is the top priority and many say the competition will defer the best from accepting positions here.
“To be a really great university in the next century, the University of Michigan will have to be great in the life sciences. The Institute will be one part of making Michigan great for science,” said Liz Barry, the Institute’s managing director. “Our focus in the next few years is going to be recruiting the best scientists we can find and then supporting them well so that they can do their research.”
“Like Michigan, other leading universities recognize that to be truly great in the next century, they will have to be great in the sciences,” she added. “All of the usual suspects are trying to make great strides in these areas.”
Harvard University, the University of California at San Francisco and at Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Stanford University and Duke University are all launching or building initiatives in the Life Sciences.
“Competition for talent is atrocious. Everybody we’ve talked to has had feelers from other schools as well,” Bates said. “We’re all recruiting a lot of the same scientists.”
Also, the University has already lost two key people to the University of California at San Diego – Jack Dixon and Scott Emr, the Institute’s original co-directors.
Scott Emr, who would have come to Michigan from San Diego, announced in January that he had changed his mind, citing Bollinger’s departure as one of his reasons.
Jack Dixon, who had directed the Institute since July 2001, made his announcement this summer. He left for California, where he did his undergraduate and Ph.D. studies, to become San Diego’s Health Sciences Dean for Scientific Affairs.
“We’re going to lose out on some of those people, of course. We are competing against those schools,” Saltiel said.
But Saltiel said Michigan has several benefits that other schools don’t have, including the quality of life in Ann Arbor and the University’s reputation in the life sciences, which he said is strong because of the Medical School and discoveries, such as the polio vaccine that was developed in 1955 by University scientists Jonas Salk and Thomas Francis.
He added that the University is also known for its genetics work. It started the nation’s first human genetics program, directed by James Neel, in 1940.
But, he and others, including Barry and University President Mary Sue Coleman, said the best attraction the University has to offer scientists is the strength of its other departments.
“Berkeley doesn’t have a medical school. … (The University of California at San Francisco) is really mainly a medical school. They don’t have undergraduates, they don’t have engineering, they don’t have chemistry,” Saltiel said. “(Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has a famous institute called the Whitehead Institute, and it’s an outstanding place but it also doesn’t have a medical school.”
The commitment to the life sciences made by the University will also attract attention this way, Barry said.
To date, the University has set aside $700 million toward life sciences facilities, recruiting and hiring – the Institute itself is a $100 million building.
Also, the State of Michigan has pledged support for the Life Sciences Corridor through its tobacco settlement for the next 20 years. The corridor is a billion-dollar initiative largely supported by the state, Pfizer Inc. and Pharmacia Corp. that assists in collaboration between Michigan universities and companies.
“The commitment that the University has made to this area is really staggering. Both the funds and the institutional pledge are significant,” Barry said.
Despite the competition, Barry said she sees great things in the Institute’s future.
“Five to 10 years from now, what we will have is a very bustling building,” she said. “The joint will be jumping with the best scientists in the country, all working on scientific problems and making great progress in understanding life.”
And Barry said she’s not just being optimistic.
“I think it’s quite realistic,” she added.