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February 28, 2002 Biology will leave the Hall Building with no regrets



by Robert Scalia

Ignoring the faded biohazard sign, Technical Officer Sonia Ruiz unlocks the swinging doors tucked away in the Hall Building’s basement. Inside, huge pipes dangle from the ceiling. Aquariums sit without fish. Empty mason jars lie scattered along the wall.

Every reason she and the rest of the Biology Department look forward to moving into the new Science Complex at Loyola can be summed up in this one lab.

“It’s 14 floors down and full of plumbing. You can’t have some ecology or a molecular lab next to fish tanks and troughs on the floor,” explains Ruiz, now sitting next to Department Chair Claire Cupples in her office.

“I think everybody will be happy with more usable space.”

Yet with subdued excitement, both agree that hauling the department’s equipment and chemicals “from one side of town to the other” without disrupting research — and ultimately trying to please everyone once it’s all said and done — is no easy task.

Cupples compares the planning process to a “three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle,” one in which the pieces — her department’s allotted rooms — are constantly resized and reshuffled as the complex is built. Sacrifices are inevitable. “It’s always a toss-up,” she says serenely.

Still, she insists Biology has been dealt a great hand. Spread over three floors, they will occupy five teaching labs and 22 research labs, various instrument rooms and a modern aquatic facility and greenhouse.

To simplify matters, certain faculty members from both the ecology and cell and molecular units were asked to submit basic lab designs, outlining only necessities like benches and gas outlets. “We can’t afford to design the labs around one person’s specifications,” she adds, pointing out that this is building for the future, including professors not yet hired.

Cupples admits there have been complaints about the new, smaller labs. However, she insists that they only reflect current trends that favour moving heavy equipment and desks out of research labs.

It’s also a safe alternative for grad students, Ruiz points out. “You can imagine if you’re eating a sandwich [in the lab] and you get chemicals on it. It wouldn’t be very healthy.”

Offices will allow graduates to kick up their feet after research and mark student papers without being disturbed.

New equipment

Specialized instrument rooms, meanwhile, will be furnished with cutting-edge equipment. “We’ve already started replacing aging equipment and purchasing new pieces that can easily be moved to the new building. We’re doing this now, while the money is still there,” explains Ruiz during a brief tour of Biology’s facilities.

She shows off a brand new centrifuge, which bears an uncanny resemblance to a washing machine. Spinning at approximately 16,000 rotations per minute, it separates the molecules of a given strain by size.

The complex will include several portable and walk-in growth chambers that optimize plant and insect growth by controlling temperature, lighting and humidity. A room for autoclaves will be shared with the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department. These oven-like machines combine 120 C heat and 15 pounds per square inch of steam to completely sterilize containers. “Twenty minutes, and you nuke everything,” Ruiz says.

Most importantly, the new complex will be able to house up to 12 deep freezers that chill to - 80 C. These will store the various strains that are the life’s work of Concordia researchers.

“This is very precious stuff. When these fail, you have a crisis.” Ruiz emphasizes the last word as she pulls one professor’s samples from what looks like a CD tower covered in dry ice. In the new complex, the freezers and the air conditioning system cooling the room where these machines are located will run on emergency power, linked to an alarm system should anything go wrong.

The point of acquiring all this state-of-the-art equipment goes beyond competing with commercial labs, Cupples says.

“A lot of research [here] focuses on involving student learning. We’re teaching people to think more globally: not only how to use equipment, but how to plan experiments that utilize that equipment.”

Cupples also hopes that sharing floors with other departments in the complex will fuel future collaborations, and points out that researchers at the Centre for Studies in Behavioural Neurobiology have begun using biological techniques in their work. The department hopes to introduce a new diploma program in biotechnology and genomics, which would incorporate faculty from the Departments of Chemistry/Biochemistry, Biology, and Computer Science.

“We’re all very excited about it,” she concludes. “I think once we are in the new building, no one will regret having left this one.”