A New Era of Science at CUNY
When it opens in the fall of 2014, the Advanced Science Research Center will bring CUNY to a landmark moment in its decade-long, multi-billion-dollar commitment to becoming a national leader in visionary scientific research of vital, real-world consequence.
A decade in the planning, the first phase of the ASRC is rapidly taking shape on the south end of the City College campus in Upper Manhattan: a striking glass-encased structure that will be at the center of CUNY’s expanding universe of science and embody a bold vision of 21st Century discovery.
The construction of a $350 million building with 200,000 square feet of world-class facilities would be big news for any institution, public or private. But sophistication and scale are only part of the ASRC story. At the center’s core will be an innovative approach to the scientific method itself, one that seeks to break down some of the walls between disparate but increasingly inter-related disciplines of applied science.
The ASRC will focus CUNY initiatives in five of the most energized areas of global research: Nanotechnology. 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 to the five initiatives. 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.
“This is not going to be a standard science building that’s got a biology floor and a chemistry floor and a physics floor, each in its own world,” says Vice Chancellor Small, who will also serve as the Center’s executive director. “Each of our five flagship initiatives was carefully considered and selected for its interdisciplinary nature, and the people who work at the ASRC will embrace that. For example, structural biologists who want to work with the nanotech people. People who will use the facilities to bring the capabilities of photonics to the neurosciences. That’s what is exciting about this center.”
The five flagship initiatives will indeed have their own floors in the ASRC, but they will be linked by design. With its flowing floor plans and wide-open central stairway, the building itself will promote intellectual cross-pollination and partnerships between labs—a literal vertical integration of big ideas. And researchers from every corner of the five initiatives will work side-by-side in the ASRC’s core facilities, sharing equipment that will be among the most advanced of its kind.
The ground floor will feature labs equipped with high-end nuclear and functional imaging devices and an array of electron and fluorescent microscopes. There will be a “clean room” that researchers from throughout CUNY will use for nanofabrication and other work that must be done in an environment free of particles in the air too small to see. A visualization room resembling a small theater will have a wall of screens displaying predicted outcomes in high-resolution, 3D graphics.
The ASRC will operate 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, will form the Center’s core faculty. Each will have an appointment at a senior college and be joined by current CUNY faculty who will use the center’s facilities to advance the scope and scale of their work.
The new faculty will arrive over the next few years, bringing specialized research pursuits that will help energize and define not only the ASRC but the next generation of science in New York City. Like many of the CUNY researchers who will become part of the ASRC, the new wave of faculty will be drawn by the opportunity to work in an innovative, entrepreneurial research environment.
It will look something like this:
On the neuroscience floor, researchers will be mapping the brain’s biochemical circuitry to solve unconnected puzzles, from Alzheimer’s to spinal cord injury. The neuroscientists will join forces with their colleagues on the nanotechnology floor who work with matter on a molecular scale to make the tiniest electronic circuits—thousands of times smaller than even microcircuits—that might lead to new medical treatments. The nanotech scientists will in turn find collaborations on the photonics floor, where researchers will be developing methods of using light to detect bioterror bacteria—or to diagnose cancer without a biopsy. And researchers throughout the center might find opportunities for partnership on the structural biology floor, where biologists, chemists, physicists and engineers will come together to push the frontiers of applied research in all the life sciences.
To make this ambitious concept work, Vice Chancellor Small has focused her recruitment of directors on a special breed of scientist. “We’re conducting nationwide searches and seeking individuals who are both scientists and leaders,” she said. “People with national reputations who are doing their own research at a very high level and also have the talent and determination to bring faculty together. We expect the directors to develop collaborations within the ASRC and CUNY. But we want that spirit to extend beyond our own campuses. We’ll look for opportunities to form integrated research partnerships with peer institutions in New York and across the country.”
Two such exceptional scientist-leaders are already in place: Charles J. Vörösmarty, an internationally renowned expert in global water issues who leads the ASRC’s Environmental CrossRoads Initiative, and Kevin H. Gardner, a leading biophysicist who will direct the Structural Biology 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 assembles at the ASRC will explore 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 will include a rooftop observatory where sophisticated sensing devices will collect and analyze earth and atmospheric data from satellites. And the environmental team will work on an array of research related to the biomedical interests of the center’s four other teams.
Dr. Gardner, meanwhile, will bring 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.
The ASRC’s approaching launch is the culmination of a decade of ambitious strategic planning and investment—and a bridge between CUNY’s past and future. Renowned research is part of the University’s legacy—10 graduates of CUNY colleges won Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine between 1959 and 1988—and in 2001 Chancellor Matthew Goldstein pledged a resurgence for the new century. To be a great modern university, he asserted, CUNY had to have great science.
The Chancellor and Board of Trustees set in motion a long-term commitment to attracting and retaining 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 chancellor 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 as the nation’s largest urban public university.
The data: 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 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—scientific as well as economic. A stated goal of CUNY’s decade of science expansion is to nurture the commercialization of intellectual property and emerging technologies, thus boosting 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 planners conceived a center whose faculty will provide students from throughout CUNY with opportunities to work with them on cutting-edge research projects. Like most high-end research institutions, there will be post-doctoral fellows and graduate students in its labs, but the ASRC will also be 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 will feature a Science Discovery and Education Center where middle and high school students and other visitors will 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 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”—one that will be 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.
What do chronic water shortages mean in a volatile and nuclearized region like South Asia? Or in our country when farmers, industry and city dwellers argue over finite water supplies? >