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Medical School Opens New Research Space, Closes Chapter on Storm Recovery
Six-story structure features open and shared space meant to inspire collaboration
Marking the final phase of recovery from the damage caused by Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, The University of Texas Medical School at Houston opened the doors of its new $80.5-million research facility in mid-December.
The new research space will be home to prominent scientists studying infectious diseases, stem cells and regenerative medicine, neurosciences and genetic disorders, along with other areas of research.
The six-story structure, which is connected to the medical school, features open and shared research space designed to inspire collaboration. Another unique aspect of the research addition is the vivarium, which was custom-made to replace what was lost during Tropical Storm Allison and meet the evolving needs of modern research. Hanging on its walls is distinctive art created by UT Medical School scientists as a testament to the building's purpose.
"The opening of this building is a great day in the history of The University of Texas Medical School at Houston as it signifies the important role our faculty, staff and students play in medical research," said Giuseppe Colasurdo, M.D., dean of the medical school. "Last year, our research expenditures were nearly $115 million, a six percent increase over the previous year - and an incredible feat given the state of national belt-tightening when it comes to federal research dollars. With this new building, we are showing the community and the nation that we are committed to solving the riddles of disease and improving people's lives. This additional research space affords us the opportunity to add to our talented pool of research faculty and provides us room to grow."
"We are very proud to be able to add and open this very important new research space devoted to discovering basic mechanisms of human diseases toward their prevention and cure, and the furthering of ‘Personalized Medicine' at our medical school," said James T. Willerson, M.D., president of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. "We are very grateful to the Texas Legislature, the Houston community and the UT System Board of Regents and UT System for their support of this new research space. Our medical school is really on a very sharp trajectory in its rise to national prominence."
The new research space stems from Tropical Storm Allison, whose floodwaters invaded the medical school on June 9, 2001, and caused more than $66 million in damage, including the loss of laboratory animals that were housed in the basement. Irreplaceable research, the gross anatomy facility, imaging machines and other equipment and space essential to the school's research endeavors also were lost below the surface of 10 million gallons of floodwater.
What UT Medical School Researchers Are Saying About the New Research Space
" It's absolutely beautiful space specifically designed for the type of research that neuroscientists do. This is a great boost for us. The new research space is going to be a terrific benefit to the basic science research programs, including neuroscience research." - John H. Byrne, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy and a consultant on the design of neuroscience research space on the fourth floor of the new facility.
"The centralized and enhanced animal facilities will be a tremendous benefit, especially to those who are studying mouse models of human conditions. In the secure, controlled environment, we'll be able to get more reproducible research results." - Rodney E. Kellems, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
"You never forget Tropical Storm Allison and what it did. Every time a storm rolls in and the sky becomes dark, you remember. It set us back by at least two to three years - but I think we are now stronger, and we learned a lot of lessons. This new research space will help us become even stronger." - Ponnada Narayana, Ph.D., professor of diagnostic and interventional imaging and director of Magnetic Resonance Research. Narayana, who studies spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis, will move much of his research to the new facility's first floor, freeing up laboratory space on the sixth floor of the main building for research expansion in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
"The research space is very well designed, and it will be exciting to be sharing the space and exchanging ideas with people from other departments who have an interest in neuroscience research." - Michael Beierlein, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy and one of the newest faculty recruits who will conduct research on the inner workings of the brain's cortex on the fourth floor of the new research facility.
"The microbiology research labs are state-of-the-art, and my hope is that they will be used to the fullest extent." - Samuel Kaplan, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. Kaplan consulted on the design of the research addition's second floor, which includes a Biosafety Level 3 facility, electron microscopy, fluorescent microscopy, a bacterial growth laboratory and sterile transfer rooms.
"The architects did a great job using everything we have learned about how to create open working spaces that are conducive to team work and a cooperative creative spirit. All four sides have access to natural light. It is a natural extension of the old school. The architects did a great job at making something new look like an integral part of one school. But, great institutions are not made of ‘mortar and brick' alone. The next challenge is to fill those empty labs and empty offices with the best and the brightest. The building is an enabler in our aspiration to rank among the very best in biomedical discovery and education." - Stanley Schultz, M.D., former dean of the Medical School
Immediately, university officials determined that animal models, which are crucial to research and discovery, would never again be housed in the basement. L. Maximilian Buja, M.D., the dean of the medical school from 1996 to 2003, vowed to "bring the medical school back stronger and better than ever before." Protective measures were taken to secure the existing part of the medical school against future flooding. This included the installation of submarine doors, floodgates, berms and back-up power.
Under the leadership of Stanley Schultz, M.D., who was interim dean and then dean from 2003 to 2005, a plan was made to demolish the John H. Freeman Building, the original 55,000 square-foot part of the medical school. The building, which was dedicated in October 1972 by former President George H. W. Bush when he was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, would be replaced with a state-of-the-art research facility featuring open-style laboratories.
Willerson and others worked to secure tuition revenue bonds, insurance reimbursements, grants and Permanent University Funds to finance the $80.5 million construction project. WHR Architects, working with university officials, researchers and experts from the Center for Laboratory Animal Medicine and Care, came up with a six-story design that would seamlessly connect the addition to the main building and include a lobby that would be named for Freeman, one of the founders of the Texas Medical Center. Afterward, Vaughn Construction went to work.
Workers built out a secure vivarium on upper floors of the new addition, out of the way of any future floodwaters. Bradford S. Goodwin, Jr., D.V.M., executive director of the Center for Laboratory Animal Medicine and Care (CLAMC), helped design the vivarium to have its own power and ventilation systems separate from systems used to operate research space on the lower levels. Those systems, allowing for precise control of the vivarium's environment, also were positioned so that they could be serviced without disrupting laboratory animals or studies.
Additional vivarium features include individually ventilated caging systems and infection-proof barrier facilities that are essential for stem cell investigations and other types of research.
"After six and a half years of functioning out of nine different buildings, one of the most exciting things is that the whole team will be back together in a single vivarium," Goodwin said. "This will allow us to be more efficient and provide the best possible care for the animals. I am proud of our dedicated staff. They've been through so much, and through it all, we've continued our accreditation with the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International."
In addition to the vivarium, Peter Davies, M.D., Ph.D., executive vice president for research at The University of Texas Health Science Center, said the new research space will house genetics, microarray, quantitative genomics and proteomics core laboratories that support investigations, including research supported by the Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences. It also will be the home for the Gulf Coast Consortium's John S. Dunn GCC for Chemical Genomics' high throughput screening lab.
"This new research space marks a new era in our medical school research program, giving us the opportunity to expand the state-of-the-art facilities available for outstanding research programs and recruit new research leaders," Davies said. "Our goal is to provide researchers with easy access to state-of-the-art cellular and molecular technology. The housing of the core labs in new research facilities will make this eminently possible."
Schultz, now associate dean for institutional advancement, described the new research space as "a great shot in the arm." "This is a symbol of progress, and it will be a healthy addition for the UT Health Science Center and the Texas Medical Center," said Schultz, professor and Fondren Family Chair in Cellular Signaling in the Department of Integrative Biology and Pharmacology. "It gives us a tremendous opportunity to develop and expand research programs. We are currently planning to house a program in developmental neurobiology in some of the newly designed space."
Jerry S. Wolinsky, M.D., the Bartles Family Professor and Opal C. Rankin Professor in Neurology, said the new research space will provide a permanent home to researchers, especially those in the Division of Infectious Diseases, who were displaced and had to be moved to temporary locations after the 2001 storm.
"Because of Tropical Storm Allison, 30 percent of our medical school disappeared overnight," said Wolinsky, who served as interim dean of the medical school during much of the research facility's construction. "This became an opportunity for us to replace what disappeared, add additional research space and also redesign the research space in the main building. We've made decisions based on what is best for the way we function as investigators in both parts of the building so that when we cut the ribbon and open our early Christmas present we're doing the best thing in the long run for the institution."
By Meredith Raine, Institutional Advancement