To The Lab!

College research labs used to be“fortresses of solitude.” Professors tenaciously guarded their work and their grad students from even their closest colleagues. That model has crumbled as today’s colleges tear down the walls between professors and disciplines. College Planning & Management looks at three very different labs and how they inject sharing and excitement into the curriculum.

Manchester Interdisciplinary Biocentre

The Manchester Interdisciplinary Biocentre (MIB) at The University of Manchester in England remains a shining example of interaction. Embracing the trend of sharing, this building is the vision of about seven university leaders who realized that new scientific discovery would only come after walls were breached and boundaries blurred.“The old model of a big, classical building that says ‘Chemistry’ and another across the quad that says ‘Physics’ is over,” reported David Martin, AIA, principal, Anshen + Allen Architects. “To unravel questions on a micro level, you need to work across disciplines.”

While older faculty members may balk at giving up their secrets and their corner offices, the new guard welcomes the change and facilities like MIB. “This building innovates in two ways,” explained Martin. “Its lab space is entirely flexible and nimble, allowing different research styles and specialties to work side by side without infrastructure changes. Secondly, its circulation doesn’t just allow interaction, it promotes interaction.”

Martin and the team at Anshen + Allen used many strategies to accomplish this. The building’s grand atrium feels like a great civic space where occupants meet and discuss work. Offices no longer sit directly outside of the labs. Instead, the two are grouped into separate large blocks, forcing researchers to walk around and bump into each other. “We did a study and found natural ‘collision areas’ where people would usually walk in their daily life in this building and then we maximized them,” said Martin. Post-doc write up areas were whisked from the lab and placed outside the research areas overlooking the atrium, further adding to the excitement.

Just as parties always end up in the kitchen, the MIB has its own hotspot: a full-service canteen. Set up in a visible part of the atrium, this restaurant allows researchers to gather, eat, and interact in a congenial manner. But even if individuals choose to eat at their desks, they can’t hide away. The architects used lots of internal glazing — as much as the budget would allow — to further break down those ivory towers.

Interaction in the corridors is one thing, but interaction in the lab demands flexibility. To accommodate ever-changing needs, the architects employed a “lab loft” idea. Instead of being fixed in the center of the room, benches sit on casters, allowing them to navigate throughout the space. Power and other services are delivered from a support spine situated in the open ceiling. “This building has become a successful recruiting tool for the university,” reported Martin. “I even noticed a law firm used the space to film a television advertisement.”

Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center

Television has played a big role in the development of the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center at California State University in Los Angeles. Because of the popularity of the CSI shows, interest in forensic analysis has spiked. However, popular culture is not the only driver in the creation of this new lab.

“Over the last eight years, forensic science has changed greatly,” explained Ken Mohr, forensic laboratory planner, Crime Lab Design, Health, Education + Research Associates (HERA). “Instrumentation has gotten smaller and faster. The science has grown more sophisticated. And the nature of crime has changed. A crime scene used to have one gun and one bullet casing. Now there may be 20 guns discharging hundreds of shells. That translates into the need for more storage, more computers, and more staff.”

Unlike academia, where grants are competed for, forensics funds are tied strictly to demographics. The bigger the area served, the more budget is allocated. Because of this, collaboration has always been a part of the field. The nature of forensics also demands working closely with colleagues. “Forensics is a blend of earth science, physics, chemistry, and biology,” said Mohr. “It’s not about ‘publish or perish,’ It’s about finding the answers for the greater good.”

This lab is also about training the new guard. Along with being a working facility for both the Los Angeles Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office, about 350 students from the university take class here, sometimes working on actual cases and other times conducting double-blind studies. While their findings would never be used in a trial, the students benefit from conducting research in a real lab with real evidence.

However, this meant creating two distinct areas of the 209,000-sq.-ft. building. The front, which faces the university, presents a public façade for students and visitors. This group is limited to the first floor lobby, bookstore, classrooms, and teaching labs. The back entrance is for evidence entry and removal. A secure zone separates the two. Only authorized lab workers and law enforcement can enter and work in the upper floors.

As in the MIB, flexibility played an important role in designing the labs. Modules where bench depth is the same and power and supplies are delivered overhead allows for flexibility. Yet, Mohr never suggests a one-size-fits-all solution. “Different sciences require different benches,” he observed. “Some research requires a light, butcher block top, others benefit from a dark marble.”

Jordan Hall of Science

Not all research leads to earth-shattering discovery or truth-defining breakthroughs. Sometimes a college student just needs a few science credits to graduate. Often these classes don’t even come with a lab, a sad state of affairs for Steven Ansel, principal, The S/L/A/M Collaborative. So when his group designed Notre Dame’s Jordan Hall of Science, he made sure that the non-science majors who were to use the building got the same treatment as science majors.

Strictly intended as a teaching space, as opposed to research space, Jordan Hall caters to undergraduates. The building’s Galleria sets the structure apart, with 26-ft. windows and medallions representing the sciences embedded in the terrazzo floor. “We wanted to encourage students to walk through the Galleria, relax in one of the seating areas, and generally get excited about taking a science class,” said Ansel. “Jordan Hall is meant to be fun, not forbidding.”

Yet it is still a place for serious science. Twin 250-seat auditoriums offer a state-of-the-art learning experience. Students can interact with their peers, answer quiz questions in real time, and see experiments being conducted under a hood via a video camera and feeds. Forty laboratories throughout the building allow for cutting-edge instruction not usually found on the undergraduate level. Lab adjacencies encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. Breakout spaces outside foster further collaboration.

A digital visualization theater, museum of biodiversity, observatory, and greenhouse round out Jordan Hall. Intended to attract students to Notre Dame and the sciences, it’s still too early to see if the Hall accomplishes all its goals. But it does say “Science is Cool,” loud and clear.