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Interdisciplinary by Design: A Physical Presence Reflects a New Scientific Vision

Interdisciplinary by Design: A Physical Presence Reflects a New Scientific Vision

The City University of New York

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It is rising like an emblem of the quest for knowledge, perched on an elevated rock outcropping along St. Nicholas Park in upper Manhattan, its undulating curved glass facade enclosing laboratories, office space, and no less than a new vision for science in New York City.

The $350 million Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) at The City University of New York, adjacent to CUNY's City College, is the capstone of CUNY's "Decade of Science." Launched in 2005, the initiative has expanded science education and expanded the pipeline of students who graduate and enter the workforce with degrees or backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, helping to address threats to the nation's decades-long leadership in cutting-edge research and technology innovation.

In recent years, American students have lagged behind their international peers in science and math proficiency, a trend that saps the nation's economic strength and, because of the lack of STEM talent at home, has caused American businesses to export hundreds of thousands of jobs. In New York State, there are nearly two open science-related jobs for every unemployed person in the state. Some three-quarters of CUNY's students remain in New York and enter the local job market after graduation. That gives the university a critical role in the city and state's economy, another key factor in its commitment to providing students with greater access to STEM programs and opportunities.

"No great university can truly claim to be at the forefront of knowledge unless it takes seriously its involvement with science" says CUNY Interim Chancellor William P. Kelly. The Decade of Science initiative has increased CUNY's full-time and part-time faculty in STEM disciplines by 25% since 2006, attracted talented graduate and doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers from around the world, brought hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in new or upgraded science buildings and laboratories, and spurred a near doubling of research funding, to more than $400 million, since 2000. Perhaps most importantly, it has stirred a rebirth of CUNY's legacy as a university renowned for great science: ten CUNY graduates won Nobel Prizes in science between 1959 and 1988.

"When we designated 2005 to 2015 the 'Decade of Science'," says CUNY Chancellor Emeritus Matthew Goldstein, "our goal was to elevate the importance of science across the University. It was a commitment to the future and a renewal of CUNY's legacy of world-class science." The ASRC is the most visible expression of CUNY's science push. To be completed in 2014, it is not the usual "here's some lab space, tell us what you want to study" research facility. It is mission-driven, focusing on five of the most exciting and promising areas of research: nanoscience, photonics, structural biology, neuroscience, and environmental sciences.

"The ASRC will recruit scientists who appreciate how the most complex problems can't be solved by any one component alone."

Though seemingly distinct, the fields intersect in many of the most significant research quests of our time, ranging from treating Alzheimer's disease (neuroscience and structural biology) to securing the future of the global water supply (nanoscience and environmental sciences), and will enable CUNY to attract researchers working in biology, physics, neurology, and many other scientific fields.

Each of the five areas of focus will occupy a floor of the center and be linked with the others by open floor plans and a central stairway that encourages informal exchanges of ideas. Researchers from the five areas will also work side-by-side in the core facilities, reflecting the ASRC's goal of breaking down traditional disciplinary walls in science and embedding a culture of collaboration. The ASRC, says Charles J. Vörösmarty, an expert in global water issues who directs the center's Environmental CrossRoads Initiative, will serve as "an incubation vessel for ideas, for the gee-whiz stuff that we can turn on its ear and apply to the environment." Typically, research is siloed and conducted behind lab doors, says Gillian Small, CUNY's vice Interdisciplinary by Design: A Physical Presence Reflects a New Scientific Vision 18 chancellor for research and a driving force behind the ASRC: "The very architecture of the ASRC will facilitate an informal exchange of ideas, with communal break rooms positioned to catch the eyes of passing scientists and entice them in to mingle, ideally fostering collaborations between scientists with divergent expertise but complementary interests." The ASRC, says Small, will recruit scientists "who appreciate how the most complex problems can't be solved by any one component alone." The ASRC will operate as the nucleus of a University-wide science enterprise. Twenty new researchers, including directors for each of the five initiatives, will form the Center's core faculty. They will be joined by faculty, students, and postdoctoral fellows from CUNY's colleges who will use the center's facilities to advance their work.

Unprecedented in scope and concept, the ASRC will be a beacon of science in the public interest, pursuing discoveries that benefit society and inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers, and technicians.

Led by Vice Chancellor Small, the ASRC will position the nation's largest urban public university at the vanguard of 21st century scientific exploration and education. It will raise CUNY's profile as a major American research university, helping it compete for research dollars and science talent, and will be CUNY's most high-profile effort to encourage young people in the City to pursue STEM educations.

The ASRC will also anchor an emerging research corridor in Upper Manhattan. The neighborhood is already home to the five-year-old CUNY Energy Institute, the new CUNY Hub for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and a new City College science building that will bookend the ASRC. A block away is the New York Structural Biology Center, a partnership of institutions that includes CUNY. The center will fortify CUNY's ties with industry, promote entrepreneurial activity, and expand CUNY's capacity to commercialize its intellectual property, thereby spreading its influence far beyond campus and city boundaries.

Photo: The Advanced Science Research Center at The City University of New York boasts an impressive facade—a visual reflection CUNY's ambitious "Decade of Science" goals.