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Microbial Sciences Building designed for discovery, collaboration

September 14, 2007 By Dennis Chaptman

As the doors swung open at the new Microbial Sciences Building at UW–Madison, students and researchers found a facility designed to spark exchanges of ideas aimed at answering biological questions of unprecedented complexity and importance.

"The environment created by this building encourages the cross-disciplinary work and discussion that can help solve problems and advance research," says Glenn Chambliss, professor and chair of the Department of Bacteriology, which will make its home in the $121.3 million building.

The 330,000-square-foot facility — the campus’ largest academic building — combines facilities for innovative instruction, "neighborhoods" of world-class research laboratories to stimulate collaboration, and features that recognize the lifestyles and shared needs of researchers.

"We’ve already found some new synergies," says Rod Welch, professor and chair of the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, which also occupies the building. "Rather than segregate the two departments on separate floors, we’ve mixed people up and broken down artificial barriers between us."

The building is part of the BioStar program rolled out by the state in the late 1990s to ensure Wisconsin maintained its pre-eminent place in biology and biotechnology.

The facility was funded with $50.3 million in state-supported borrowing and about $71 million in gifts, grants and program revenue.

The building features state-of-the-art classrooms and the 450-seat Ebling Symposium Center, which is capable of hosting national and international conferences and workshops on the microbial sciences.

It also has specialized instructional laboratories, including the Kikkoman Fermentations Laboratory, where students will learn the technology of large-scale production of micro-organisms — an essential process in the biotechnology industry, especially in the production of pharmaceuticals, antibiotics and biofuels.

One part of the laboratory will be a small-scale pilot brewery donated by the Miller Brewing Co.

Microbial Sciences Building By the Numbers

Square feet of space, making the Microbial Sciences Building the largest academic building on campus

Bricks used in construction

Tons of concrete

2.2 million
Feet of electrical wire

Square feet of window glass

Faculty-led research laboratories

$35 million
Value of research grants for 2007-08 held by faculty who will work in the building

Undergraduate students majoring in the two academic programs served by the new building

Students enrolled in the Microbiology Doctoral Training Program, one of the largest such programs in the nation

Academic departments at UW–Madison that have faculty who specialize in microbiology

Public areas in the building — notably the gathering area in the spectacular atrium overlooking historic Hiram Smith Hall — are designed to stimulate interaction and scientific shoptalk. Designed as the building’s "Main Street," the area features a cafe and seating areas equipped with rolling whiteboards on which scientists and students can brainstorm solutions to problems.

Welch says his department’s former quarters in the Medical Sciences Building — the former UW Hospital — were outdated and not conducive to collaboration.

"Many of our labs were in old hospital rooms, where walls had been knocked down to jury-rig laboratories. It was not a good use of space," Welch says. "Many times, people ate lunch in the hallways. It was our social area. I’m still pinching myself over the great facilities here."

Welch and Chambliss agree that the new facility will be crucial in attracting and retaining top researchers and educating new generations of scientists.

The new building’s research labs are organized in "neighborhoods" of research suites that promote idea-sharing and interaction among faculty and students. Common corridors running outside the suites are designed to accommodate noisy and shared equipment, and include environmental growth chambers for incubating and storing bacteria.

"It’s all connected to discourage isolation. We’re encouraging visiting within the laboratories, as well as outside of them," says Chambliss. "We designed a lot of shared space in this building for that very reason."

The building also includes eight biosafety laboratories, which have enhanced safety features — including their own air supply — and are used to study microbial and biological pathogens.

The building also recognizes that research is often a round-the-clock enterprise. It offers several sleeping/lactation rooms that can be reserved by researchers working long hours who need to catch a nap or shower.

The small rooms feature a sink, toilet, shower and a chair that folds out into a bed to accommodate tired researchers.

Jo Handelsman, a professor of bacteriology and plant pathology who will become chair of the Department of Bacteriology later this year, says the building’s design takes into account the lifestyles of researchers and the needs of students.

"Science is about people and the people who do it," she says. "The Microbial Sciences Building was built to accommodate diverse people. The student labs have wheelchair access. There overnight rooms to accommodate researchers doing lengthy experiments and lactation rooms to accommodate nursing mothers."