Science departments look forward to advanced lab space

Media Credit: Sam Hardgrove | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Simon Wentworth, a research assistant, observes an experiment on the reproduction cycle of Killifish, a fish that can lay its eggs and allow them to completely dry out before hatching. Wentworth and other biology researchers will move into a new, more advanced lab in the basement of the Science and Engineering Hall this December.

Simon Wentworth spends 18 hours a week in a Lisner Hall lab, studying the genome of fathead minnows.

Wentworth, a research assistant, said it’s difficult to work in the labs, which were not built to house marine animals, but he will soon move his research into a new building.

“More space with more fish will help us to diversify the research we do. The new facilities are going to feel more professional. It’ll give me the ability to acclimatize to the type of location before I graduate,” Wentworth said.

This winter, Wentworth, and other researchers and faculty within the biology department, will move into the Science and Engineering Hall, taking over an aquatic lab and imaging suite in the basement of the $275 million building.

That lab, which will allow faculty to separate freshwater and saltwater labs for the first time, will offer professors more control over treatments and variables when conducting research, said Randall Packer, the chair of the department.

In the department’s Lisner Hall labs, researchers don’t have enough control over the room and water temperature, Packer said. That control is essential for studying the effects of climate change on fish.

“We’re stuck in a really old, really unsuitable space. It really does keep us from doing our best work,” he said.

Packer, who was an associate dean from 2008 until 2012, said he worked with faculty in science departments and the building’s architects to design the lab, which will feature drains in the floors so researchers can more easily dispose of used water.

As an associate dean, Packer led discussions among the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences’ science departments about what types of facilities they would have in the new space. The University budgeted for the lab when making the building’s overall plan.

The lab will also have space for new, larger equipment, Packer said, which could help the department land research grants in the future.

Courtney Smith, a professor of biology, said she will use the lab to work with sea urchins, researching their immune systems and genealogy.

“My current space for marine systems is small,” she said. “The aquarium room that I have will expand my abilities to work on animals, it’ll expand the number of aquariums that I’ll have space for, which means it’ll expand the types of experiments that we can do and research projects we can do.”

By growing the number and scope of experiments within the department, faculty can engage more students in their work, Smith added.

The space could also show grant funders that researchers have the ability to take on larger projects.

“The availability of the aquarium suite and the new building will make it clear to the reviewers and program officers that it will be easier to us to conduct the kinds of research that we want to do. It will be easier for us to expand the kinds of questions that we want to address,” Smith said.

Many colleges with aquatic labs, such as the University of California at Santa Barbara and North Carolina State University, house marine biology departments. GW’s department will look to add two new faculty positions to focus on marine ecology once the lab is set up, Smith said.

That floor will also house an imaging suite that the biology department will share with chemistry and physics faculty. The lab will hold a nuclear magnetic resonance, which will allow professors to view animals or nanofabrics as individual molecules.

Together, the departments are applying for a $800,000 grant to purchase a micro CT scanner for the imaging suite.

“This building will allow us to compete more effectively for research grants. More importantly, it’ll able us to train our undergraduate graduate students in research and in a facility that will be like the one they’re going to go out to after they finish up,” Packer said.

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