Explore Magazine Volume 4 Issue 1


Scientific Super Structure

From its earliest days, the University of Florida has employed an architectural style known as Collegiate Gothic for its buildings.

But the only thing gothic about the more than $100 million in new scientific buildings recently completed or under construction at UF is the red brick and white trim. Beyond their looks, these high-tech buildings bear little resemblance to the original campus buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

With a combined price tag of nearly $100 million, the UF Brain Institute, the Physics Building and the Particle Science and Technology Building cost 200 times the combined cost of those 11 stately campus buildings constructed early this century.

And while many of those original buildings have been or are scheduled to be renovated, none can match the technological superiority of today's facilities.

The dedications in the last year of the Physics Building in April, the Particle Science and Technology Building in September and the Brain Institute in October highlight the greatest building boom in the university's history. They are a reflection of the university's stature in the national scientific community, and of the ways in which science and education are changing on the brink of the 21st century.

The buzzword of these new buildings is "synergy." As one of the nation's most comprehensive universities, UF has long relied on its ability to bring scientists from many fields together to form cutting-edge interdisciplinary teams.

But historically those teams have been scattered all over campus, limiting their ability to share ideas and resources. For example, the more than 250 faculty researchers affiliated with the UF Brain Institute (UFBI) were spread across 50 campus departments. Now, at least 75 of those researchers will work in the new building, all with easy access to colleagues in other parts of the Health Science Center and Shands Hospital via a "skybridge" from the institute. The UFBI's extensive research and education core facilities will be open to all UFBI faculty and their students, as well as their collaborators in academia, government and industry around the world.

"The most important promise of the UF Brain Institute is our commitment to promoting a spirit of campuswide collaboration and, in doing so, to harness the true power of a comprehensive research university," says Brain Institute Director William Luttge.

Before the new Physics Building opened, the physics department occupied parts of four campus buildings, with scholarly journals and expensive laboratory equipment lining the hallways of each.

Now, faculty, graduate students and undergraduates have 215,000 state-of-the-art square feet in which to learn and do research.

"It was our dream to design a facility that not only provides adequate space for teaching and research but maximizes resources to launch the department into the forefront of tomorrow's science," says physics Chair Neil Sullivan.

So it was also for faculty in the Engineering Research Center for Particle Science and Technology. There, in particular, researchers were limited in their ability to conduct scaled-up tests of theories they had constructed in their laboratories.

The Bleeding Edge

As Dr. Albert Rhoton, chair of UF's Department of Neurosurgery, welcomed guests into the Brain Institute's Surgical Research and Training Laboratory (SRTL) prior during dedication ceremonies last October, the reality of the facility became apparent to everyone.

Tastefully draped at workstations throughout the room were human heads in various stages of dissection. Views into the deepest regions of the brain were magnified and broadcast onto high-resolution monitors above each work station.

Finally, after years of anticipation, research into the human brain was taking place in the new Brain Institute.

The SRTL typifies the promise of the Brain Institute, says Luttge, adding that many already have proclaimed it the world's finest advanced surgical research and training facility, with equipment that easily rivals the best hospital operating rooms.

Here, doctors from around the world will come for training in the latest neurosurgical techniques. The multi-media equipment at each station allows an instructor to demonstrate a new surgical technique to as many as 16 surgeons at a time, and even to broadcast that demonstration around the world via satellite or the Internet. Conversely, one instructor can easily monitor 16 students' progress by observing their work on the overhead monitors.

But any neurosurgeon will tell you that invasive surgery is the last resort when it comes to the brain, so much of the Brain Institute is devoted to the development of non-invasive diagnostic and treatment tools.

Nowhere is that more apparent than on the ground floor of the institute.

Here, the university has built an unparalleled magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and spectroscopy facility to house five research magnets. Magnetic resonance imaging has always been one of UF's major contributions to the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, and Luttge calls this facility the national laboratory's "biological arm."

Magnets hundreds of thousands of times stronger than the Earth's gravity will allow researchers to image biological functions as they occur in mice, primates and other animals. The insights gained from this research then can be applied to humans in some of the world's most powerful human MRI machines, located a block away between Shands Hospital and the Gainesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Among the machines planned for the facility is the world's most powerful MRI for animals. Standing nine feet tall and weighing 48,400 pounds, this giant machine is big enough to accommodate primates and will generate a magnetic field more than 234,000 times greater than the Earth's. A smaller, but even more powerful, machine to image living mice also will be a world's first and an international resource.

Down the hall from the magnet wing is another unique facility, the Radio Surgery/Biology Laboratory, dedicated to advancing UF's international reputation in radiosurgery.

This one-of-a-kind facility for radiosurgery and radiobiology is equipped with a computer-controlled, 6-million electron volt linear accelerator housed in a specially designed chamber shielded by six-foot-thick walls and ceiling.

The system will enable researchers to continue studies aimed at improving detection and radiation treatment of obscure brain and spinal lesions. The researchers also will explore potential applications of this technology in other parts of the body. UF already holds a patent on a device called the LINAC Scalpel that has become one of the most popular radiosurgical systems worldwide. The scalpel uses multiple arcing beams of X-rays to deliver a high dose of radiation to tumors deep within the brain while sparing normal brain tissue.

Luttge says completion of the Brain Institute building is a major step in UF's long-range commitment to addressing brain and central nervous system disorders that afflict one in five Americans.

Quantum Leap

Looking back on the days not long ago when the UF physics department was housed in 40-year-old Williamson Hall and numerous other locations around campus, department Chair Neil Sullivan wonders how the faculty ever got any research done at all.

"We were accomplishing very little when we were spread out all over the place," Sullivan says. "We had research programs that could not expand. We had approved faculty positions that we could not fill. Bright young people left because their opportunities were limited."

But, with the opening of the $32 million Physics Building in January 1998, all that changed.

Research funding has more than doubled over the last two years to $6 million in 1997-98, and UF has won important roles in such ambitious international scientific projects as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO.

"We're finding that the university gets called into leadership roles in a way it didn't used to," Sullivan says.

A Florida Board of Regents review in 1989 helped the department more clearly define its place within the university, within the State University System and within the national and international physics community. That review and subsequent discussions made it clear, Sullivan says, that UF needed a new facility if its physics department was to remain first-class.

"A second-class physics department at a university of our size and prestige was totally unacceptable," he says.

So, preparations began for a new physics building, a rarity in academia, where today's emphasis is on applied sciences - cancer centers and, yes, brain institutes. But Sullivan maintains it is basic science discoveries - things like X-rays and nuclear magnetic resonance - that make applied science possible.

"Basic science discoveries change our whole way of life," he says.

Sullivan admits the rapid pace of technological development presented great challenges to designing a building that would be scientifically relevant 20 years in the future, but he says the faculty involved in the design process relied on some tenets of physics.

"Physics explores the limits of the parameters of space," Sullivan says. "Pressure, temperature, dimension - they're the frontiers of physics and they always will be. It may be quantum problems this year and genome sequencing next year, but all involve parameters of pressure, temperature and dimension."

In practical terms, those parameters require facilities where samples can be isolated, without the slightest vibration or electrical surge.

Sullivan says these "global constraints" were the top priority in the new building. The research areas were deliberately placed underground, on individual concrete slabs, so activities in one wing would not create vibrations in another.

That made nanoscale physics, where scientists are looking at structures just a handful of atoms wide, possible.

"Before, we just did not have the quality of building to do much nanoscale work," Sullivan says. "There was just too much vibration."

Similarly, independent grounding of electrical systems shields experiments seeking very weak electrical signals from outside interference.

The result, Sullivan says, is a building that is adaptable to the changes that will undoubtedly occur in science.

While planning for the basic shell of the building began nearly a decade ago, modifications continued even as construction began.

"As plans for the new building progressed, we were able to attract top people by custom-designing space for them," Sullivan says.

UF's contract to build the optics for the LIGO project - a series of massive observatories to detect ripples in the fabric of space and time produced by violent events in the distant universe - is an example of a building-driven opportunity.

"We could not build the optics for LIGO in our old facility," Sullivan says as he walks through a massive, two-story bay in the new building. "We simply didn't have the room."

Particle Science

"Until recently, characterizing just 30 particles at a time to see what conditions cause them to lump together or remain separate was considered very good science," says Brij Moudgil, director of the Engineering Research Center for Particle Science and Technology. "But, thanks to simulation techniques like we're developing here, we now can consider a million particles at a time."

But once those simulations are complete, Moudgil says, industrial partners the center serves want to see them working in real-world scenarios. The new Particle Science and Technology Building facilitates such testing.

"The sophistication of today's scientific tools are creating a strain for industry," Moudgil says. "Few companies have a need for this equipment every day, but collectively they can keep a facility like ours busy much more efficiently."

Industry also is looking for a collection of intellectual firepower, Moudgil adds.

"It's much easier to solve a problem if other people with expertise are right down the hall than it is if they are across the country," he says.

Much of the building is devoted to the 5,000-square-foot Characterization, Research Instrumentation & Testbed (CRIT) area, where theory meets reality. Here, approaches that worked on a computer monitor or scale model are put to the test in industrial-scale machinery.

Educational Infrastructure

Unlike the private sector, where scientific infrastructure is built strictly for research and development, infrastructure at the university has a strong educational element to it.

Chalkboards and erasers are being replaced with video "cannons" and high-speed Internet connections at every desk. Professors can now upload their notes from electronic whiteboards directly to students' laptop computers or to web sites.

"Students have the tools to learn more efficiently," says Sullivan. "They accomplish twice as much in the same amount of time, and they like it."

Moudgil adds that industry representatives who are attracted to campus by facilities like the particle science building often participate in educational activities while they are visiting.

"If we didn't have something to contribute," Moudgil says, "there would be less incentive for people from industry to come to campus and teach a class or mentor a student."

And, the opportunity to work on the newest equipment helps UF attract the brightest students and place the best-prepared graduates.

"We are involved in fierce recruiting battles for the best graduate students," Sullivan says. "How do we recruit students now? We bring them down here so they can see these facilities."

And when they graduate, those students are highly sought by industry.

"Students have much better opportunities to get jobs when they have been educated in facilities that are like the facilities that industry uses," Sullivan adds.

UF President John Lombardi sums up the value of a healthy scientific infrastructure: "Space does not guarantee good science, but good science requires good space. We have the people at the University of Florida who do this good science. With new facilities like the Brain Institute, the Physics Building and the particle science building we are providing the good space."

William G. Luttge
Professor and Director, UF Brain Institute
(352) 392-0490, luttge@ufbi.ufl.edu

Brij Moudgil
Professor and Director, Engineering Research Center for Particle Science and Technology
(352) 846-1194, bmoud@eng.ufl.edu

Neil S. Sullivan
Professor and Chair, Department of Physics
(352) 392-0521, sullivan@phys.ufl.edu

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