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Science Corridor

The ASRC will anchor an emerging research corridor in Upper Manhattan

A New Era of Science at CUNY

The Advanced Science Research Center has brought CUNY to a landmark moment in its multi-billion-dollar commitment to becoming a national leader in visionary scientific research of vital, real-world consequence.

Located on the south end of the City College campus in Upper Manhattan, the striking, 200,000-square-foot ASRC building embodies a bold vision of 21st Century discovery. At the center’s core is a world-class facility designed to inspire an innovative approach to the scientific method itself, one that links a new wave of talented scientists with hundreds of top researchers from CUNY campuses across the city.

The ASRC focuses CUNY initiatives in five of the most energized areas of global research: Nanoscience. Photonics. Structural Biology. Neuroscience. Environmental Sciences.

These are diverse and seemingly distinct fields, but they intersect in many of the most significant research quests of our time. It was the opportunity for myriad collaborations—particularly between labs in areas that are already in CUNY’s spheres of strength—that guided the center’s planners. Led by Vice Chancellor for Research Gillian Small, what they have conceived is the DNA of a distinctive research culture—creative, collaborative, convergent—to take on scientific challenges ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to the future of the global water supply.

Architecture that Promotes Collaboration

“This is not a standard science building that lays out a biology floor and a chemistry floor and a physics floor, each in its own world. “Each of our five flagship initiatives was carefully selected for its interdisciplinary nature, and the people who work at the ASRC embrace that concept,” says Vice Chancellor Small, who also serves as the Center’s executive director. “Structural biologists, for example, may want to work with the nanotech people, while researchers in photonics may want to collaborate with those in the neurosciences. That’s what creates transformational science.”

The five flagship initiatives do, indeed, have their own floors in the ASRC, but they are linked by design. With its flowing floor plans and wide-open central stairway, the glass-encased building will promotes intellectual cross-pollination and partnerships between labs—a literal vertical integration of big ideas. And researchers from every corner of the five initiatives are working side by side in ASRC’s core facilities, sharing equipment that is among the most advanced of its kind.

The ground floor, for instance, features a Nanoscience Facility that includes a 5,000-square-foot cleanroom where faculty and students throughout CUNY, as well as researchers from government and industry, will be able to design and fabricate a wide range of micro and nano structures. The ASRC also offers state-of-the-art nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, and a data analytic center that includes a wall of screens for visualization. And a rooftop observatory uses advanced environmental-sensing equipment to collect and analyze earth and atmospheric data from satellites.

Creating an Integrated Science Network

The ASRC operates as the nucleus of a University-wide science enterprise, fostering the development of an integrated research network that brings together faculty, students and post-doctoral fellows from CUNY’s colleges across the five boroughs. Twenty new faculty, including directors for each of the five initiatives, form the Center’s core faculty. Each has an appointment at a senior college and is being joined by current CUNY faculty who are using the center’s facilities to advance the scope and scale of their work.

Additional faculty will continue to arrive over the next few years, bringing specialized research pursuits that will not only help energize and define the ASRC, but the next generation of science in New York City. Like many of the CUNY researchers who are already part of the center, these new faculty are being drawn by the opportunity to work in an innovative, entrepreneurial research environment. Here’s how a ground-breaking collaboration might work:

On the neuroscience floor, researchers are engaged in mapping the brain’s biochemical circuitry to solve complex puzzles such as Alzheimer’s disease. These neuroscientists then join forces with their colleagues on the nanoscience floor, who are working with matter on a molecular scale to make advances that might lead to new medical treatments. The nanoscientists, in turn, discover collaborations on the photonics floor, where researchers are developing methods of using light to detect bioterror bacteria—or diagnosing cancer without a biopsy. Furthermore, researchers throughout the center might find opportunities for partnership on the structural biology floor, where biologists, chemists, physicists and engineers come together to push the frontiers of applied research in all life sciences.

To make this ambitious concept work, Vice Chancellor Small has focused her ongoing recruitment of directors on a special breed of scientist. “We seek individuals who are both scientists and leaders—people who are doing their own research at a very high level and also have the talent to bring faculty together,” she said. “We expect the directors to develop collaborations within CUNY, but we want that spirit to extend to research partnerships with peer institutions in New York and across the country.”

So far, three such exceptional scientist-leaders have accepted this challenge: Charles J. Vörösmarty, an internationally renowned expert in global water issues who leads the ASRC’s Environmental CrossRoads Initiative; Kevin H. Gardner, a prominent biophysicist who directs the Structural Biology Initiative; and Rein Ulijn, a pioneering chemist who oversees the Nanoscience Initiative. “They are our models for ASRC directors,” says Dr. Small. “Each has an international reputation for excellence in his primary area, but also for thinking broadly and collaboratively across disciplines to solve the most challenging questions in their fields.”

The team that Dr. Vörösmarty has assembled is exploring the most diffuse threats to human health—worldwide air and water issues, climate and weather, and the physical world’s role in spreading disease. The initiative includes a rooftop observatory where sophisticated sensing devices collect and analyze earth and atmospheric data from satellites. And the environmental team is working on an array of research related to the biomedical interests of the center’s four other teams.

Dr. Gardner, meanwhile, brings together several labs working at the intersection of biology, chemistry and physics to examine the large molecules that drive most of the functions of cells. Dr. Gardner is an expert in the use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to study how cells sense and adapt to the environments around them—research that can lead to applications from drug discovery to bioengineering.

And Dr. Ulijn, a rising young scientist with an international reputation for inventiveness, is leading a dynamic research team that studies matter on a molecular scale from 1 to 100 billioniths of a meter. Nanoscience is a major source of important scientific developments, creating extraordinary new materials and devices with a broad range of applications in fields ranging from biomedicine to food science and green energy.

Continuing a Legacy of Great Science

The ASRC is the culmination of years of ambitious strategic planning and investment. Renowned research is part of the University’s legacy—13 graduates of CUNY colleges won Nobel Prizes—and in 2001 the University pledged a recommitment to science for the new century. To be a great modern university, CUNY had to have great science.

The University continues to seek out the best and brightest science faculty, building state-of-the-art facilities and competing with the nation’s top institutions for government and foundation research dollars. In 2005, the University declared the next 10 years CUNY’s “Decade of Science.” Elevating research and education in advanced disciplines and emerging technologies—being an exemplar of science in the public interest—has since become elemental to CUNY’s mission.

There are now 1,000 more research faculty on CUNY campuses than in 1998. Many have been part of a “cluster hiring” initiative that has turned specialized corners of biomedicine and biomedical engineering, physics and chemistry into flagship disciplines for the University. Meanwhile, construction of new and upgraded science buildings—nearly $2 billion of capital commitment by New York State—has become a common sight on CUNY campuses across the city. The massive investment in faculty and facilities has helped lead to a near doubling of external grants and contracts since 2000, to more than $400 million.

“The goal from the start was to build a center that focused sharply on the most compelling emerging areas of science for the modern world,” says Vice Chancellor Small. “We identified areas of great importance to the future of the country, and also took advantage of strengths we already had.” For instance, CUNY’s network of 55 neuroscience laboratories now form a natural relationship with the ASRC.

The Advanced Science Research Center is the crowning symbol of CUNY’s commitment to innovation in science, and owes its conceptual design to the very spirit of collaboration that will define it. More than 50 faculty researchers from throughout the University helped plan the center, meeting with architects and facility specialists during a two-year process that produced a research center whose design is as inventive as the research to be pursued.

“The goal from the start was to build a center that focused sharply on the most compelling emerging areas of science for the modern world,” says Vice Chancellor Small. “We identified areas of great importance to the future of the country, and also took advantage of strengths we already had.” For instance, CUNY’s network of 55 neuroscience laboratories will form a natural relationship with the ASRC.

The ultimate mission of the ASRC is to foster expansive new research yielding practical benefits for society, including the commercialization of intellectual property and emerging technologies that boost the city and regional economies. CUNY research in the flagship initiatives has already begun bearing fruit, and a new office —the CUNY Hub for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, opening soon near the ASRC—will fast-track new technologies out of the laboratory and into the marketplace.

Cognizant of CUNY’s role in public education, the ASRC’s faculty provides students from throughout CUNY with opportunities to work with them on cutting-edge research projects. Like most high-end research institutions, the ASRC has post-doctoral fellows and graduate students in its labs, but it also is a unique resource of enrichment and science literacy for exceptional undergraduates.

The notion of science in the public interest extends to CUNY’s vital role in the life of New York City and its opportunity to improve science literacy. The ground floor of the ASRC features a Science Discovery and Education Center where middle and high school students and other visitors will soon have a hands-on introduction to the work being pursued on the floors above. Interactive media will showcase the five flagship initiatives, and the center will present informal public talks by researchers in the center’s auditorium.

Building the Advanced Science Research Center, Vice Chancellor Small says, “is really like creating a science park”: a vital part of an emerging research corridor on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that marks a new era of science in New York City.

The CUNY Advanced Science Research Center

brings the nation’s leading urban public university to a landmark moment in its multibillion-dollar commitment to innovative science.

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Charles J. Vörösmarty
Director, ASRC Environmental
CrossRoads Initiative
Professor of Civil Engineering
City College

Environmental CrossRoads:
Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

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