Competition and ownership

The University of Wyoming’s planned Science Initiative facility — slotted to be the largest, most visible sign of UW’s commitment to improving science education and research — will take some design cues from a set of buildings on the Stanford University campus in California.

Research in Stanford’s James A. Clark Center was responsible for breakthroughs in a wide range of fields, including medicine, genome sequencing and chemistry.

During a meeting Wednesday, UW Board of Trustees members said — as designs for UW’s next facility are being crafted — they want to mimic the interdisciplinary nature of the Clark Center that made those breakthroughs possible.

“This is really an exciting project and perhaps I can find a way to share a little of the excitement with you,” Trustee Kermit Brown said to the board. “I think science is accelerating at an accelerating rate.”

Gov. Matt Mead and the State Legislature kicked off the Science Initiative in 2014, challenging UW to ramp up science instruction and research by addressing the university’s outdated laboratories.

Brown toured the Stanford science labs recently with a UW delegation that also included Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Kate Miller, Vice President for Administration Bill Mai and some faculty members.

The trustee reported major takeaways from his campus visit, such as the benefits of bringing together disciplines under the same roof and the value of competition between researchers for limited lab space.

“They have a three-tier process where people who want to make use of that facility compete,” Brown said. “They make presentations, and they’re screened — and they go back, and they’re refined, and they screen and screen — until they finally get down to the few who are permitted to go into that facility with their project.”

The spirit of competition continues to motivate faculty as they conduct their research, Brown said.

“It’s constant competition and constant tension from those that are on the inside and those that are on the outside,” he said. “The ones on the outside are trying to get in; the ones on the inside are trying to stay in.”

While this competition can lead to improved research, Brown said UW should find a dedicated researcher to “own” the building — a faculty member with some stake in the success of the facility, who subsequently oversees all aspects of its construction. Having such a person on-board makes sure the facility is constructed with the research in mind, and is something Stanford failed to do.

The failure reminded Brown of a mistake UW made in 2010 when constructing the Biosafety Level 3 laboratory, he said.

“There was a lot of legislative tinkering in it, so I don’t blame it all on the university,” said Brown, who was a state representative at the time. “But, it was a facility that we built when there really wasn’t anybody that took ownership of it ... And the one thing I remember is the keypads ended up being on the wrong side of the doors.”

Associate Professor Mohammad Piri’s close relationship with the construction of the High Bay Research Facility was a better example to follow, Board Treasurer John McKinley said.

Piri’s research — pertaining to flow through porous media — is the main tenant in High Bay, which celebrated its grand opening in August.

“Dr. Piri probably could tell you the location and size of every nut and bolt in the place and why it was there and the functionality of it, and it was one of the reasons that that facility went so smooth(ly) as far as completion and operations,” McKinley said. “I would encourage finding the same type of person of some sort as early as possible for the Science Initiative.”

If UW hopes to host pioneering, interdisciplinary research, it should be thorough when finding this person and instilling them with a sense of ownership, Trustee Michelle Sullivan said.

“I think it’s important to recognize not all folks are going to have the skill(set) and ability to envision a facility that is going to be working on things that we don’t know exist yet,” she said.

Brown also noted the visible presence of corporations in Sanford’s science labs.

“They are shameless about involving industry and we’ve — I think — started to do that in the High Bay, but what we’re doing in the High Bay pales beside what they’re doing at Stanford,” Brown said. “Industry has got its fingerprints all over everything that’s in there, and I don’t know what that does to the university’s position on intellectual property.”

The Science Initiative has helped launch a number of other programs at UW.

“The programmatic pieces of it have actually been underway for a while now,” said Chad Baldwin, UW director of institutional communications. “Those include the Wyoming Research Scholars program, which brought students to campus to study science and participate in research.”

Large-Scale Active Learning is another UW effort supported by the Science Initiative.

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