New biologies: Life Sciences building will bring problem-solvers together

Nature is an interconnected web of life. A new Life Sciences building captures that — promoting collaboration among scientists and students who are tackling our most pressing problems.

In 1967 , the Department of Biology at the University of Washington needed a new home. Instead of presenting a completed sketch of a building, the architects brought pages of blank floor plans. Each member of the faculty was given a pencil and the opportunity to fill in the blanks as he or she saw fit. Need a sink or a lab bench? A fume hood? A side office or two? Draw them in wherever you want!

“To have such freedom was remarkable at the time,” says Toby Bradshaw, biology professor and department chair. The resulting building, which was eventually named Kincaid Hall, would be intimately tailored to each faculty member’s desires. But the tailoring spoke to the monastic and inward-looking way of most science departments at the time, with individual faculty and their graduate minions (I use this term affectionately, having been one myself) toiling in relative isolation. You might run into a colleague in the hall or at a seminar and possibly share ideas or discuss an interesting finding. Mostly, though, you focused on your own research.

But what worked for biologists in the 1960s and 70s does not work so well anymore, in spirit or practice. In spirit, the field is nowhere near as constrained by the rigid disciplinary lines that once defined it. The questions biologists seek to answer are now much more complex and multidisciplinary, and can have significant social and environmental impacts.

The entire field of biology is at a turning point. The last 30 years have brought astounding advances in our understanding of the genome, neurobiology and ecology. As we grow ever closer to understanding how the parts of living systems operate together in organisms and in ecosystems, our very future—whether it is producing enough food, preventing and curing disease, meeting energy needs, or preserving our planet’s varieties and species for future generations—depends on it.

The research model has likewise changed from one of solitary, if dignified, labor to one that depends on connection and collaboration. Now, it’s as rare for faculty not to work together on projects as it is for them to be shoehorned into a single line of inquiry. Everything, in other words, obligates engagement.

The problem is that buildings are largely static creations, and even with the occasional remodel, Kincaid Hall has not been able to accommodate all these developments. “It has become an object lesson in what not to do in modern science,” Bradshaw says. And so the department recently found itself once again in need of a new home—a building to usher in this new era of new biology, and help everyone it houses go out and, as one of my professors used to say, “discover what needs to be discovered.”

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It is a sunny Wednesday a little after 9 a.m., and Bradshaw is giving me an object lesson in what to do in modern science—architecturally at least—and it rises up right next to Kincaid Hall. This, the new Life Sciences Building, will open this month. With us is Robert Goff, the department’s assistant director of operations. He and Bradshaw are about to embark on their weekly walk-through, so we don hard-hats, safety vests, goggles—the required couture of an active construction site.

Bradshaw is boisterous and chipper as he surveys the progress. “The Life Sciences Building is really exciting, just a great place,” he says. It has been a mammoth project, years in the offing, costing $171 million. Once finished, the state-of-the-art complex will cover some 187,000 square feet, with an attached 20,000-square-foot greenhouse for the department’s substantial collection of flora.

But for all that massiveness, as we approach the building from Stevens Way, I am most struck by the subtlety with which it blends into its surroundings. The wooded pillars of the five-story façade that faces the road merge with the trunks of the towering deodar cedars that shade the sidewalk. The glass interstices between the pillars both reflect light and let it shine through from within. The effect recalls the sun filtering through a forest, and is restated inside, Bradshaw tells me. “This building will be defined by natural light,” he says. “It won’t be all gloomy and dark like Kincaid.”

We walk into the first floor—which will be devoted to undergraduate teaching labs allowing the faculty to shift from a strict lecture approach to more a active and interactive learning experience where students will be able to engage in research.

But for now, wires hang above our heads and the floor buzzes with activity, as builders hammer and saw and measure, giving the building its finishing touches. This will be the structure’s most public space, with a café and coffee shop called Evolutionary Grounds. Students will have an airy lounge along with several classrooms and teaching labs where they can do hands-on research. All around the floor are great windows, and the ceilings are high. “The design concept here is ‘Science on Display,’” Bradshaw says. “People walking outside will be able to look in and see what our students are up to, what we do here.”

I hustle to keep pace with Bradshaw as he continues on, now stepping out of the way of someone hauling two-by-fours, now stopping to point out the elevators, or rather, their chimes. “They’re birds,” says Bradshaw, a birder himself. Goff and Sievert Rowher, a professor emeritus, assigned each call to the floor that roughly corresponds to the height at which the species forages in the forest canopy. The first floor is the haunting wail of a varied thrush, the second floor the nasal honks of a red-breasted nuthatch, all the way up to an olive-sided flycatcher on the fifth floor, its loud hic-three-bears! letting riders know they have reached the very top.

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As fabulous as the Life Sciences Building will be, Bradshaw is quick to say that the reach of the Biology Department has never been limited to its physical home. With nearly 1,200 undergraduate majors, and more than 600 undergraduate degrees awarded between 2016 and 2017, Biology is both the largest undergraduate program on campus and the largest science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degree program in Washington state. About half of the department’s graduates end up working in health care, whether medicine or dentistry or pharmacy. Another 35 percent become teachers. The remaining 15 percent go on to graduate school, or are scattered throughout biotechnology; biomedical services; local or state or the federal government; non-governmental organizations; or other fields entirely.

Then there are nearly 60 faculty, more than 100 graduate students and postdoctoral scientists at any one time, and other researchers and staff. They bring in millions of dollars in federal and state funding. They are tackling some of the world’s most pressing issues including the effects of climate change on plant species distribution and the ability of vegetation to modify climate as well as the complex interplay between organisms and their environment. And so much more. The topics are so varied and diverse that Bradshaw says it is impossible for anyone to describe their research area with a one- or two-word description. “We aren’t split here along the traditional lines of old biologies,” he says.

In this, the department continues its long history of blurring boundaries between disciplines, or ignoring them alltogether—a key feature of the new biology. Biologists on the whole often work now across multiple levels of complexity, from cells to ecosystems. They make use of information and tools from a range of disciplines to study biological systems. In addition to their departmental colleagues, biology faculty at UW regularly work with the physicists housed in the Physics-Astronomy Building next door, or the chemists across the street, or the computer scientists just up the road. “At UW, biology faculty have access to top researchers in so many fields,” Bradshaw says. “That’s one of our work’s strengths.”

We are now on the second floor of the Life Sciences Building. This is the guts of the building—or, rather, the brains. Floors two through five all have the same layout: private (albeit glass-encased) faculty offices ring the outer walls, interspersed with open tables for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, while the inner spaces are open, with 10 long lab benches. Researchers can use the benches for pretty much any procedure, can move around the large room, can yell across it to someone working on another project. The words that come up repeatedly are “flexible” and “modular” and “open.”

For Sharlene Santana, an associate professor in Biology and the Curator of Mammals at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, the flexibility and openness of the new building represents the best possible arrangement. Her current office is on the fifth floor of Kincaid Hall. “Ah, you found it,” she says with a wry smile when I walk in. “Sometimes I think this building was designed to make you walk as far as possible between any two points.”

We’re going to have five floors of rich, collaborative cross-pollinations.

Jeff Riffell, UW neuroecologist

Santana, who has been with the department since 2012, studies bats: the differences in their phenotypes and lineage diversity, how the evolution of their morphology and behavior influences their performance. These questions touch on bat natural history, biomechanics, evolutionary biology and feeding ecology. In fact, Santana studies so much about bats that it would probably be easier to list the one- or two-word phrases that she doesn’t touch in some way. But her questions used to run up against the limitations of her old lab, both in terms of space and equipment. In the Life Sciences Building, all the tools she needs will be just outside her door, or at least within a floor or two.

Jeff Riffell, a neuroecologist who often works with Santana, agrees. “We’ll be embedded, we’ll be intermixed,” he says. “We’re going to have five floors of rich, collaborative cross-pollinations,” he says. Riffell’s choice of metaphor is intentional. He studies chemosensation and the neuroecology of plant-pollinator interactions—essentially, the role that a plant’s smell plays in attracting its pollinators. His current lodgings actually anticipate what he will have in the new building, the third floor of Kincaid having been housed with faculty in small offices, while graduate students and post-docs share a more open space. “In the new building,” he says, “we’ll take what’s in Kincaid and turn it up to 11.”

For Bradshaw, Santana and Riffell’s enthusiasm underscores one of the Life Science Building’s most critical roles, that of being a lure for future faculty. “Even with the constraints of public funding, we have been successful in the past when competing with other large public universities, and surprisingly competitive even with private universities with huge endowments,” he says.

Thanks to recent support from donors like Ben and Margaret Hall, and Jodi Green and Mike Halperin (who created an endowed professorship in the name of Halperin’s father, Walt Halperin, a professor emeritus of biology), and to a $3 million grant from the Washington Research Foundation, the department has been able bring in three new young faculty members, and will begin a search for a fourth next year. (Over 1,000 scientists applied for these positions.) Joining the ranks of new faculty this fall is Julie Theriot, a 2004 MacArthur Fellow microbiologist and cell biologist, who will be the Benjamin D. Hall endowed chair in basic life sciences.

But UW’s ability to compete still hangs in the balance. “Without world-class faculty,” Bradshaw says, “we can’t recruit world-class postdocs and graduate students, can’t be competitive for federal grant funding, and can’t provide the innovation that Washington needs to grow its knowledge and health care economies.”

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Seeing the new Life Sciences Building, hearing of all of its promise in such rich detail and the changes the field as a whole is going through, I turn my thoughts back to Kincaid Hall, where I spent several years as a graduate student about a decade ago. My office on the fourth floor faced west, toward the University and Ship Canal bridges. My desk was next to the room’s only window, a narrow opening that ran the length of the wall. On clear evenings, when the falling sun was angled just right, the office was filled with a warm, rosy light. I used to live for those moments before the sunset.

Kincaid Hall was named for Trevor Kincaid, an early faculty member in what was then the Department of Zoology. Kincaid was known for his wide-ranging interests, or as we might call it these days, a penchant for working across disciplines. He had a reputation for that even before he earned his master’s degree from UW in 1901. Although he was principally trained as an entomologist—he described hundreds of species of insect—he would call himself an “omniologist.” But equally bound with his broad curiosity was his drive to put it to use for the good of others. These days, he is probably best remembered for helping to create the world-renowned Friday Harbor Labs on San Juan Island, as well as reviving our region’s flagging oyster industry. While the biology department is leaving the building that bears his name, the new home is infused with his spirit.