Conceiving a different kind of science building and a different approach to science

CUNY Vice Chancellor Gillian Small

CUNY Vice Chancellor for Research Dr. Gillian Small

Dr. Gillian Small, CUNY’s Vice Chancellor for Research, recalls coming to the United States from her native Britain in 1985 to work as a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of a Nobel laureate cell biologist at Rockefeller University. There were elite labs with brilliant scientists down every corridor, she recalls, but their work was largely sequestered behind closed doors.

“What happens at many  institutions where there’s high-end science going on is that everyone’s shut away in their labs most of the time,” she says. “But then perhaps on Friday afternoons people go to the faculty club and have a beer. And some of the best science happens over that beer.”

In leading the team that has spent several years planning and designing the Advanced Science Research Center, Dr. Small envisions a different kind of science building—one where researchers mingle and ideas flow freely not only on Friday afternoons at the faculty club but as a matter of course. A research center where collaborations, even unlikely ones, form between scientists with divergent expertise but complimentary interests. “It will be a place for people in different disciplines who want to work together on a common research pursuit,” she says. “That’s the kind of scientist we want to bring in.”

Dr. Small herself is a cell biologist who has published widely on organelle biogenesis—how the internal compartments of cells are formed—and the molecular mechanisms of how cells break down fats. She came to CUNY in 2001 from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, where she ran her own lab and also directed an interdisciplinary graduate program in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology. She joined CUNY as associate university dean for research and quickly emerged as a leader in the resurgence of science Chancellor Matthew Goldstein set in motion soon after his own arrival two years earlier. Dr. Small was promoted to the university’s top research position in 2003 and named CUNY’s first  vice chancellor for research five years later. As the chief architect of CUNY’s explosive growth in research faculty and facilities, Dr. Small has shepherded the ASRC from concept to construction.

Much of the research at the ASRC will be defined by the directors of the five initiatives and the staffs they assemble. But in recruiting the directors, Dr. Small says she is less focused on the specifics of their research interests than on how creative and collaborative they are by nature.

“It doesn’t really matter if a neuroscientist is looking at Alzheimer’s or autism,” she says. “What matters is how they fit with the kind of science building we’re creating. You can have the best scientist in the world, but if what makes them happy is to burrow away in their lab and come up with a science paper every year—that’s fabulous but we’re looking for something different. We want people who are not only doing their own high-end science but who are outgoing and have the personality and skill to bring teams together. People who appreciate how the most complex problems can’t be solved by any one component alone.”

This is especially critical because the ASRC will be a University-wide center that taps into the depth and diversity of CUNY’s research talent. Apart from the 20 researchers now being recruited as the ASRC’s resident scientists, faculty researchers already working in the flagship initiatives at CUNY’s colleges will be a major presence.

“There will be a lot of coming and going,” Dr. Small said. “We’ll have faculty from the colleges coming to the ASRC to use the nuclear imaging facilities or the cryo-electron microscopes. There is no local state-of-the-art clean room for nanotechnology so our faculty have had to travel to places like  Brookhaven National Laboratory, some 65 miles away. Now they will have a clean room right here at CUNY, and it will  probably be the largest and most advanced in the city. The visualization room, meanwhile, will help many of our faculty to take their work to the next level. It will have a wall of screens and its own data-analysis center, so a structural biologist will get a look at crystal structures in 3D. A neuroscientist will see electrophysiological brain studies.”

The directors of the five initiatives will program most of  their respective floors, but some space will be flexible. So besides using the core facilities and forming collaborations with other researchers, faculty researchers from around CUNY will be able to apply for space on a project basis. “This will create so many exciting opportunities,” says Dr. Small.

“A faculty member from one of the CUNY colleges might spend the month between semesters at the ASRC, or take sabbatical and do a project there. A post-doc could apply to be housed at the ASRC for a period of time to use the facilities or to collaborate with someone. Though it won’t be a teaching building per se, there will be many opportunities for students to work there on projects  with faculty.”

As the center of science at a great public university, the ASRC’s spirit of education extends beyond the University. It will have a Science Discovery and Education Center featuring interactive displays of the work going on inside the building. One idea being contemplated is a live video feed of the clean room. “We’re excited about exposing high school students to this level of science and being a resource for teachers,” Dr. Small says. Other outreach activities, including talks for the general public by ASRC scientists, are also planned.

Dr. Small is passionate about how the ASRC will open up the scientific process. “The whole building has been designed to encourage interaction and sharing ideas,” she said. “Flowing floor plans, lots of communal spaces and that open central stairway connecting everyone in the building. That’s the kind of research environment we’re creating, and we’re bringing in people who want to be part of it.”