Guest Viewpoint: UO science building is far greater than its parts

Oct. 25, 2012, The Register-Guard

UO science building is far greater than its parts

By Kimberly Andrews Espy
This week, the University of Oregon will celebrate a scientific milestone with the opening of the new Robert and Beverly Lewis Integrative Science Building. This sustainably built, ingeniously conceived space is designed to bring researchers from different disciplines together to spark fresh collaborations, inspire new research and yield innovative solutions to the grand challenges of tomorrow, today.

The Lewis Building has already contributed substantially to our local and state economy through jobs in the construction and trades sector. The contributions will continue as more sponsored research projects come to Oregon as a result of the facility, bringing dollars to Oregon from elsewhere.

In fact, last year, UO-sponsored research activity was a $120 million enterprise. Through these activities, UO research contributed millions of dollars to the Oregon economy, supporting jobs for the people who live in our communities. They pay state taxes and send their children to our schools.

The Lewis Building was designed for “integrative science,” which involves bringing down the walls that separate biologists from chemists or psychologists. The lab spaces within this new type of science building are shared. There are fewer private offices and more common spaces. In short, the whole building, from the basement to the fourth floor, is constructed around the idea that science is an open, collaborative process — not something to be conducted in isolation behind closed doors. When the Lewis Building opens officially this week, it will mark the latest chapter in a proud tradition of interdisciplinary science at the University of Oregon. Starting decades ago, with the founding of the Institute of Molecular Biology and the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, the UO has long been a place where researchers of different stripes come together to foster discovery.

Years ago, when the ink was barely dry on the discovery of DNA and scientists still had very little understanding of what the breakthrough could mean for human health, UO researchers, inspired by professor George Streisinger, began putting together some unusual collaborations.

Oregon was one of the first places where biologists and chemists joined forces to better understand human genes. By examining zebrafish — now a standard means for scientists to study development and gene function — these researchers used innovative and collaborative methods to initiate the process of cracking the genetic code of health and disease.

Michael Posner, now an emeritus professor of psychology, was a pioneer in another avenue of interdisciplinary research, linking the biology of the brain to the psychology of how we think, feel and act. The UO’s culture of collaboration allowed Dr. Posner and other scientists to integrate work spanning colonies of cells to communities of people.

Until today, there’s never been an entire building — a headquarters of sorts — for integrative science in Oregon.

The UO is classified as a top-tier research university by the Carnegie Foundation and is a member of the American Association of Universities. It is nationally recognized for translating basic research discoveries into practical applications. The Lewis Building will create a pipeline from basic science to application to integration in the community. By bringing scientists together at the outset and conceptualizing projects with an integrated research design — and, for some, an eye to translation — we will create opportunities for innovation to flourish.

There is specific space dedicated to incubate small businesses that result from application of UO’s strong basic science research. Indeed, UO research innovations added nearly $7.9 million in licensing revenue to the Oregon economy in 2011-12. Undoubtedly, the result will be scientific solutions that better address the fundamental challenges of society.

Not only will cutting-edge research be taking place inside the Lewis Building, but highperformance learning will also be happening. Students will be gaining critical thinking skills and gaining unprecedented access to interdisciplinary labs and high-tech tools and equipment.

Contrary to popular belief, our data indicate that approximately half of our graduate students, many of whom are attracted to the university from out of state, stay in Oregon after they complete their degrees, contributing strongly to our local communities.

For all this, we have the late Robert Lewis and his wife, Beverly, to thank. Both UO alums, they saw the wisdom in creating such a space and have been supportive from the moment this project was first envisioned nearly a decade ago. We can thank our other major benefactors — Lorry Lokey, William Swindells Jr., and Rosaria Haugland — for their generous financial support.

Finally, this building would not be here without the support of the governor, the Oregon Legislature and delegation, the chancellor of higher education and the state Board of Higher Education.

They recognized the inevitable rippling benefits of this project and helped finance the Lewis Integrative Science Building through grants and bonds. On behalf of the UO and our community, thank you.

— Kimberly Andrews Espy is vice president for research and innovation at the University of Oregon, and dean of the university’s graduate school.