Toppling disciplinary walls


Centers’ designs, philosophies foster collaboration

By Sarah Fister Gale

The $58 million Birck Nanotechnology Center at Purdue University brims with novelty. The facility features more than 22,000 square feet of laboratory space, including special low vibration, temperature-controlled rooms for nanostructures research. Its 25,000-square-foot Class 10-100-1000 nanofabrication cleanroom holds a biomolecular lab with separate entry and gowning areas and isolated air flow. It is the first such blended cleanroom design of its kind.

But what is perhaps its most advanced concept has nothing to do with equipment and labs. Purdue uses its showcase facility in West Lafayette, Ind., to bring researchers of various backgrounds together in revolutionary ways through its design and requirements.

“If you are going to work on the cutting edge of nano research, it has to be multidisciplinary,” said George Adams, research development manager for Discovery Park, which houses the Birck center. “The Birck center makes that connection. It increases opportunities for interaction among all of the disciplines.”

The Birck Nanotechnology Center draws researchers from multiple scientific and engineering backgrounds, enabling - or forcing - them to share equipment, lab space and opportunities for collaboration. It is a strategy that nanotech leaders around the globe say is imperative for advancing nanotechnology.

While only open a few months, the Birck center already supports several projects, including a combined bioMEMS and nanobiotechnology effort to create a micro-integrated system for the detection of Listeria monocytogenes.

The $58 million Birck Nanotechnology Center at Purdue University is a 187,000-square-foot facility designed to bring experts from different disciplines together under one roof to collaborate, share ideas and make innovations. Photos courtesy of Purdue University
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“Before we had the Birck center, this research was done in three different buildings,” said Raschid Bashir, a nanobiologist at Purdue who is working on the project. “This building is a dramatic improvement, not just because it speeds things up but because it enhances our understanding.”

Most scientists who work at Birck are similarly excited about the opportunities for interaction, although to ensure the teamwork philosophy is embraced, everyone who uses the facility must first complete a custom training course that covers operating procedures, equipment use expectations, protocol for how and when to use the lab space, and the center’s philosophy of shared space.

“This is not an optional course,” said John Weaver, facility manager for the Birck center. Weaver, who was in charge of developing the course, insists that everyone from senior staff to housekeeping complete it. “Everyone who uses the facility takes the training, and they don’t get their office keys until they finish.”

That approach, in which grad students train side by side with department deans, helps ease the potential for conflict among researchers from different disciplines who might think they deserve special treatment. “We are breaking down the behavior that leads to siloing,” Weaver said. “If you don’t embrace that philosophy, you can’t work in this center.”

To support the culture of cooperation once they get inside the doors, scientists are expected to share any equipment they bring into the facility. Labs are allocated to projects, not people, and the building’s open air design, communal office spaces, glass walls and white boards in the sitting areas encourage communication among researchers and students. “All scientists need white boards when they talk to each other,” joked Weaver.

The center also offers a full administrative staff who help manage paperwork and other “task interference items” that can slow projects down. “Our faculty are most valuable when they stay focused on their area of expertise,” Adams said. “The administrative support makes it easier for them to get big projects proposed and managed.”

There are still obstacles to creating seamless working relationships among different scientists, such as developing common terms and process strategies. But experts such as Jackie Ying, executive director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) in Singapore, believe that giving them the space and technology to further their research goes a long way toward creating successful teams.

“We have found that people from different fields are able to learn the ‘language’ of other disciplines and share information with one another if they have a common work space,” she said.

For example, scientists at IBN working on a tissue engineering project can fabricate their devices in the cleanroom, deposit biomaterials in the chemistry lab next door, and then proceed to the adjacent cell culture room for in vitro experiments. IBN also holds regular joint group meetings and institute-wide research symposia for research staff and students to familiarize themselves with one another’s projects, exchange ideas and share expertise.

Like the Birck center, IBN adopted an open concept in the design of its laboratory and office spaces. All of the major equipment items are housed in shared equipment rooms, which are accessible to all researchers.

“We are very fortunate to have a first-rate research facility and a significant equipment budget, which allow us to provide our scientists, engineers and medical doctors with the various types of equipment to conduct their research,” she said, although she noted that creating physical spaces that accommodate the needs of all the researchers is tricky. The Nanos (IBN’s premises at a complex called Biopolis) features 96,000 square feet of lab space along with cleanrooms for microfabrication, and the staff faces ongoing challenges to find space for equipment and research that doesn’t conflict with the work of others.

“We have chemical fumehoods, which need to be separated from cell culture rooms. We also have special characterization facilities in the sub basement, such as high-resolution electron microscopes and nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers,” Ying said. “As scientists of different disciplines require different tools and facilities, it has been particularly challenging to optimize the laboratory space at the Nanos.”

Patrick Boisseau has spent the last few years making similar efforts to link far-flung nanobio scientists in the European Union. He still struggles to help scientists gain access to interdisciplinary facilities similar to the Birck center or IBN.

Boisseau is the coordinator of Nano2Life at the NanoBio Center in Grenoble, France. Nano2Life is the first European Network of Excellence in nanobiotechnology supported by the European Commission under the Sixth Framework Program. Its objective is to make Europe a leader in nanobiotechnology by merging existing European expertise and knowledge in nanobiotechnology.

“The EU Commission is beginning to realize that most nanotech activities in the EU are fragmented,” Boisseau said. “We believe if you put people together you will go higher, faster, than if they were working alone.”

The Birck center’s glass facade, shown here in early construction, contributes to an open design that is meant to help researchers interact.
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Through Nano2Life, Boisseau tries to foster relationships among people, organizations and disciplines that will jump start research and result in marketable products. “It has to go further than polite collaboration,” he said. “Real integration means cross-dependency of partners, and that takes a long time.”

Founded in 2004, the network acts as a European nanobio think tank supporting an exchange of knowledge, ideas and vision among its members through the incubation of joint research projects, the networking of intellectual and technical resources, new education and training courses, and the transferring of technology.

Boisseau believes that if the EU is going to succeed in becoming a source of cutting-edge nanobio research, its scientists need to get beyond the obstacles caused by distance and language barriers. “I don’t know any organization in the world that can implement a project and develop a nano device on its own. If we want to succeed we have to work together.”

Part of that ambitious goal is creating centers of excellence in the EU where scientists can perform complementary research in the same space and develop relationships that will result in successful projects. “There is a minimum period of time it takes for scientists to get used to each other and become a truly integrated team with a shared vision,” Boisseau said. “Creating centers where these relationships can develop is key to bringing products to market.”

Most researchers agree that creating multidisciplinary teams for nano research will be easier in the future. For now, they say that creating opportunities and facilities where scientists can connect must be a priority for bringing nanotech products to market.

“It’s our job to enable research that will speed our understanding of nanotechnology,” said Purdue’s Weaver. “It’s the only way we can benefit society through our work.”