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Creating Synergy

The future of research at WPI

Grant McGimpsey (BEI), Alex DiIorio (BBT), Kristin Wobbe (CBC), Yitzhak Mendelson (BME), Eric Overström (BBT), and Kristen Billiar (BME), are just some of the faculty who will do research in WPI’s new facility at Gateway Park.

By Michael W. Dorsey
Photography by Patrick O’Connor

The new WPI Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center is designed to encourage collaboration across key disciplines and produce the kind of synergy—and even serendipity—that can lead to innovative areas of research and development.

While the image of the lone scientist lives on in Hollywood movies, science now is almost exclusively a team effort. The challenges that today’s scientists tackle are highly complex and multidimensional. More often than not, expertise, ideas, and technology from an array of disciplines are needed to find answers; it takes other players, from engineers to entrepreneurs, to translate those answers into life-changing products and processes.

On a parcel of former industrial land near downtown Worcester, the university is putting this new scientific paradigm into practice with the WPI Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center, a 124,600-square-foot, $40 million complex. Scheduled to open in early 2007, the four-story structure is the embodiment of two strategies for the future: investing in the development of WPI’s home city, and fostering the growth of life sciences education and research at the university. On the economic front, the center is the first new structure to rise within the larger Gateway Park complex, an 11-acre life sciences–based campus that WPI is building with the Worcester Business Development Corporation (see page 23).

The new building “is a significant step forward for WPI, for our partnership with the WBDC, and for the city,” President Dennis Berkey said in June 2005, as ground was broken for the new facility. “Locating our life sciences and bioengineering research and graduate education programs here in state-of-the-art facilities will bring an important scientific core to this development, which will enrich WPI’s educational efforts and attract potential collaborators to the site, both academic and corporate.”

On the academic side, the center will give WPI an enhanced presence in a field that promises to drive the future of education, business, research, and innovation. “Next to defense, the life sciences represents the biggest chunk of money the government awards for research,” says W. Grant McGimpsey, director of WPI’s Bioengineering Institute (BEI). “Its importance can only grow, driven by an aging population and ever-increasing requirements for new therapies, new treatments, and new medical devices.”

“We’ve got the people, we’ve got the enthusiasm, and we’ve got the expertise,” adds Carol Simpson, WPI’s provost and senior vice president. “As an institution, we can’t sit back and let that wave of research sweep by us.”

To catch the wave, many universities have invested in life sciences and medical research centers in recent years. WPI’s approach to creating such a center should set it apart, Simpson says. “We will have a true life sciences and engineering group with strengths that most life sciences programs don’t have,” she notes. “Most research-intensive universities have biologists and biochemists, but they don’t have many researchers who think about the engineering side of the life sciences—about making products, and about the innovation and entrepreneurship involved in getting those products to market.

“The WPI experience that we instill in our students— to recognize the social component of our work, to take our research and apply it in some way—is also part of the faculty culture,” Simpson adds. “That transition between the pure and the applied is something we do very well. There aren’t many universities, honestly, that can do this.”

The faculty who will call the new center home will come from four departments: Biology and Biotechnology, Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Chemical Engineering. They will bring with them a wide array of interdisciplinary research programs, many of which bridge fundamental investigation and practical application.

The center will also house the Bioprocess Laboratory—which conducts applied research for biotechnology companies —and BEI, an interdisciplinary research and development organization. With its seven centers, comprising faculty from nine science and engineering departments, BEI is dedicated to developing cutting-edge life sciences–based technology, and finding ways to turn it into new products and enterprises.

“Putting the researchers who are developing the technologies in the same building with BEI will give us the opportunity to match new ideas, even before they are fully formed, with entrepreneurs and investors who may have the interest and ability to bring them to market,” McGimpsey says. “That’s very exciting.”

Some of those new ventures, he notes, may become tenants in the new building, or in the three other structures that will eventually be built at Gateway Park. They’ll join other companies that will choose to locate at Gateway to be close to WPI’s life sciences research group and BEI. “We see this new center as the signature building for Gateway Park,” Simpson says, “a facility that will attract related companies and interests to the area.”

For the departments that will transplant their graduate research programs, the new building offers a host of advantages. First is the lure of new space, expressly designed and outfitted for modern research in the life sciences. A new facility dedicated to research will give departments added leverage as they search for new faculty members, notes Eric Overström, head of the Biology and Biotechnology Department. “We are seeking to hire mid-career faculty who already have resources and support,” he says. “They will bring immediate presence and prestige, but you can only attract them if you can show them a facility like this.”

New recruits and existing faculty researchers will benefit from sharing a building with researchers from multiple disciplines. “Putting a significant number of people together under one roof to work on the same general theme creates opportunities to develop new projects and new areas of research, and an enormous opportunity to go after major funding,” McGimpsey says. “In fact, almost all of the projects currently funded by major federal agencies are multidisciplinary projects.”

The Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center is expressly designed for collaboration. The center is actually two buildings linked by a connecting structure. A former industrial building will house faculty offices, with space available on the first floor for tenants. A new building will have laboratories, shared research facilities, and some tenant space. Conference and break rooms will be located in the connector.

The lab space of open bays with rows of benches will be allocated based not on department affiliation but according to research interest area. Researchers and graduate students will work side by side with others who are tackling similar problems, but from different directions or with different techniques.

In addition to lab benches, each wing will have small offices for graduate students, shared equipment, and specialized facilities, such as warm and cold rooms, tissue culture rooms, a microscopy suite, and facilities for laboratory animals. Space in the lower level has been allocated for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) research laboratory.

Planning is already under way to determine how best to reuse the space that will be left vacant by the move. Goddard Hall is likely to house an undergraduate life sciences education center—with teaching labs in biology, biochemistry, biomedical engineering, and biotechnology—while space in Salisbury Labs may be used for new classrooms and offices—both in short supply on campus.

What is not lacking at WPI these days is enthusiasm for the Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center and for the statement it makes about WPI’s future. “It’s a very focused point that we can look to,” Simpson says. “The building, the commitment of WPI to put money into it, the commitment of the faculty to pick up and move their labs there—all that is a reflection of the fact that we are moving ahead in an area that will really bring a great deal of recognition to the university.”

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Last modified: Apr 17, 2006, 15:12 EDT
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