Science Labs: Design to Influence Recruitment, Retention

Science educators continue to refine their curriculums, teaching tools and research capabilities, as they keep pace with changes and breakthroughs in science itself. In the same way, corporate, governmental and industrial researchers are continually searching for better ways to accomplish their scientific goals as colleagues in their own fields, and others, keep pushing the envelope on what science can achieve.

Generating a valuable and concerted successful effort in research or science teaching requires, among other things, the commitment of scientists and researchers over a long period. By recruiting and retaining top scientists, researchers and faculty, an institution can be well on its way to scientific advancement as well as reputation enhancement. While organizations use many strategies for hiring and holding on to the best — money, benefits, advancement, leadership, responsibility, professional development, personnel support, job security — a clear incentive is providing sophisticated physical facilities.

Increasingly, scientists see the planning and design of new or renovated science facilities as a key feature of the institution and of their ability to grow within that organization. Some of the trends that appeal to scientists involve cutting-edge technology, but surprisingly, many are principles related to enhancing the relationships between people, learning and environment. Here are some of the most significant trends related to recruitment and retention of top-quality scientists, science faculty and (if applicable) science students.

Create Excellent Infrastructure
The building behind the scenes must provide a framework to accommodate scientific change and technological growth. For instance, information technology has become a vital part of virtually every lab currently being designed. The trend is being driven, in part, by new scientific disciplines such as bioinformatics, combinatorial chemistry and cybernetic cell stimulation. Institutions must provide access to web-based research, interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge transfer as minimum requirements for recruiting and retention.

The lungs and heart of the laboratory — its building mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems — must also incorporate systems technologies that support the needs of today’s researchers. Carefully regulated temperature and humidity control, ever-growing power requirements with redundancy for expanding equipment types, easy access to high-purity water and specialty gases and vibration control are all important to scientists and their work. Facilities that fall short in these basic services will not be viewed favorably by either current or potential employees. Users want to know that their research or teaching can progress smoothly, without constantly being impeded by problems with IT and/or MEP infrastructure.

A state-of-the-art laboratory building can preserve researchers’ time for actual research, teaching, grant writing rather than dealing with the issues of lab safety, obsolete equipment, overcrowding or access to support, as in many older facilities.

Share Core Facilities
As the costs and physical requirements of specific research equipment continue to rise, the benefits of sharing these dedicated core support functions makes financial as well as scientific sense. To afford multi-million-dollar electron microscopy technology, for example, several research teams may agree to share the usage of these scopes and their prep facilities.

This strategy allows the institution to provide highly specialized equipment to current researchers, as well as to attract new staffs who wants access to such equipment. From a collaborative perspective, diverse scientists sharing equipment may discover ways in which their research can be combined, finding new avenues for addressing current challenges.

Depending on the institution’s focus, shared core facilities that provide a rich environment may include:

  • Vivaria
  • High-end imaging/microscopy and image processing
  • High-speed computing facilities for computational, biostatistics and bioinformatics applications
  • Genomics/proteomics facilities
  • High-end analytical equipment and required reagents
  • BSL-3 and other specialized containment rooms
  • Environmental rooms
  • A library

Support Interaction and Collaboration
The sense of collegiality and community within a lab building, series of buildings or even a large research campus can promote strong beliefs regarding the benefits of joining a specific corporation, university, medical center or governmental agency.

That sense of community can be enhanced through the planning and design of informal and social spaces, where people can meet outside a lab or other work area. Casual spaces create a pleasant and positive work environment and can be as simple as a coffee cart off the lobby, a seating area near the elevator, or a cafeteria with comfortable tables and chairs available at all hours. Interdisciplinary interaction — a real-world goal for all types of scientific institutions today — can be reinforced with nondepartmental lab assignments, as well as collaboration with other institutions to enhance core competencies. By providing visiting scientists with access to “hoteling suites” for offices and research labs for experimentation, the building, by design, can actually encourage this type of collaboration as does the planned relationship of labs to offices, provisions for lab support and office support, the accessibility to whiteboards in corridors for impromptu discussions and the opportunities for “chance meetings” through use of inviting stairs.

Reinforce Quality of Life
Scientific buildings are often occupied round-the-clock. While the professional work of each scientist, researcher or educator is paramount, the way the building “lives” creates a quality of life that often sells the institution to a prospect. It certainly plays a big role in retaining staff. Some examples that reinforce quality of life include:

  • Access to outdoor spaces
  • Daylighting: windows in every lab and office (if the science allows)
  • Materials and finishes that are easily maintained so they look fresh and clean for a long time
  • Ease and secure access, from parking to building to lab and office
  • Incorporation of art within the science setting (Increasingly, science buildings include sculptures or other pieces of artwork that harmonize with the institutional focus.)

Plan for Flexibility
Scientific exploration is all about change. Planning for that change requires flexible thinking as well as flexible facilities.

  • Allow for future research shifts, such as wet bench to dry bench conversion, bench height adjustment, shifting floor space requirements, expansion or contraction, mobile casework and carts.
  • Offer a mixture of lab support spaces. (The trend is toward fewer traditional dark rooms and more/larger common and special procedure rooms.)
  • Make sure the space is adaptable to a variety of uses, courses or investigative approaches.

Anticipate Commercialization
If appropriate to your mission, provide space for translational research, whether moving from bench to clinical applications, or from classroom to incubator to pilot plant. Proximity to clinical services and relationships with industry give institutions and researchers applications beyond the bench. For instance, in a recent project for the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, researchers stressed the need for external support and the ability to move the work off campus as end-stage discovery products become successful.

Convey Institutional Priorities
The planning and design of cutting-edge buildings does more than provide researchers with top-notch labs. This kind of commitment also offers dramatic proof that your organization is on the upswing as far as research activity is concerned. The building confirms your commitment to the ongoing importance of research. It also indicates the continued level of support that research and science is likely to receive.

Greater success in obtaining grants for research, curriculum and faculty development, and equipment followed the opening of a new facility at the University of Oregon, while at Xavier University in Louisiana, lab renovations enhanced the ability to conduct student-faculty research. This, in turn, led to more institutional support for science buildings.

Create a Focus
Building the Donald Danforth Plant Science Research Center in St. Louis created a physical focus for scientists on a global basis to collaborate on important plant research, working to solve world hunger among other issues. The Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City, was purpose-built to recruit and retain high-quality cancer and immunology researchers. In both cases, the building was a key to creating an exciting scientific institution from the ground up.

The University of Kentucky-Lexington is planning and designing a Biological Biomedical Sciences Research Building where the focus is interdisciplinary research rather than a departmental approach. This is only one of the many academic science facilities now in the works that aim to shake up existing compartmentalized approaches. Such buildings will undoubtedly attract faculty who appreciate how they transcend previous boundaries.

Boost Morale
Morale is another intangible that gets a big boost with the announcement of a new lab building. This effect can not only attract new researchers, but also convince existing staff that it’s a good idea to stick around.

For current scientists, researchers, and faculty involvement in the planning process can be a great incentive. A Project Kaleidoscope study of eight new science facilities confirmed that projects appeared more successful and faculty were happier with the final outcome when faculty had been consulted and involved in the planning. (See for details about Project Kaleidoscope, an initiative to improve undergraduate-level science learning environments.) The most successful projects incorporated a faculty or administrative “shepherd,” who had release time to monitor and move the project along.

For prospective students, researchers, and faculty, state-of-the-facilities and quality of resources on campus are a key driver in selecting an institution.

Stay Focused on Your Goals
Though fast-tracking is bringing some facilities online at breakneck speed, conventional science facility projects can easily take seven to 10 years from the initial planning, to funding and through construction. It is important to keep your organization focused on the benefits of the process. Keep your eyes on the specific facility and equipment goals that will provide the biggest advantage to your particular institution and the scientists, researchers, and faculty engaged in the development of their new home.

Cutting-edge design trends that help your organization recruit and retain the best and the brightest scientists include technologically advanced infrastructure for labs as well as sophisticated support equipment like laser technology, nanofabrication suites and electron microscopy. However, don’t lose sight of the human factor. The collaborative synergy that supports the whole process as science moves forward may be just as important to attracting and nurturing your next generation of scientists.

Laurie A. Sperling, M.Arch, CPSM, is co-founder of HERA (, a nationally-known laboratory facilities planning firm. Laurie has extensive experience in master planning and programming. Her project experience includes university teaching and research labs, forensic/medical examiner facilities, K-12 STEM science labs, R&D facilities and clinical core laboratories. She is actively involved in understanding and analyzing client needs, strategic planning, and project management. A frequent speaker at conferences and workshops and an author, Laurie also is a LEED-AP.