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Henry Willson for Spectator

Administrators have hailed the Northwest Corner Building, which officially opens this morning, as a boon for the science departments—a high-tech facility that will stimulate scientific research and attract top faculty to Columbia. But even as the building opens, some professors say the University's existing science facilities are, in the words of one professor, "hugely inadequate." The current science facilities are aging and outdated and lack many expensive instruments that are crucial to some research, some say, arguing that the new building will not do nearly enough to address these problems. "Remarkably, our departments may rank in the top 20, [but] I would say in general, if you ask most scientists here, they would say our facilities do not rank in the top 20," biology department chair Stuart Firestein said. "They've been ignored for many years." Aging infrastructure Columbia scientists identify problems across the Morningside Heights campus. Physics professor Charles Hailey called the University's science infrastructure "woefully neglected." In the Fairchild Center, built in 1977, some biology labs "haven't been significantly touched" in over 20 years, Firestein said. Fairchild also suffers from poor climate control—fluctuating temperatures often kill cells that biology professor Brent Stockwell uses. Another concern in the building is slow data transfers—ethernet connections run at 10 megabits, one one-thousandth the speed of those at peer institutions, Stockwell said. "The individual labs here would be competitive or better than any other institution, but the infrastructure is worse than probably any other peer institution," Stockwell said. Physics department chair Bill Zajc described the lab space in Pupin as "antiquated." For one, Zajc said, the building lacks sufficient electrical power to support additional lab and computing space. Pupin also suffers from poor temperature control—heating is erratic, and there is no central air conditioning. As a result, labs that need climate or moisture control require elaborate renovation. Mudd, built in 1966, has an insufficient number of fume hoods, which are necessary for all chemistry, and there are physical and financial obstacles to installing new ones. The building is also "cramped" and "outdated," mechanical engineering professor James Hone said. Provost Claude Steele said that the administration is concerned with these issues and intends to address them in the future. He said he plans to discuss with faculty next semester what steps need to be taken to improve Columbia's science facilities. But he also cited the Northwest Corner Building as a very significant investment. This is, he said, "an era when ... other places have not only deferred maintenance on their standard buildings but have also not built new ones." Executive Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks said that while the Northwest Corner Building is an important addition to the facilities, "of course we have issues in Fairchild and in Pupin and in Chandler that have to be addressed." He added that, "It's not that we're ignoring other things that relate to the home departments at all." Sharing space For many faculty, shared facilities are an even greater priority than basic infrastructure. Shared facilities usually house research equipment that is essential but too costly for individual researchers to purchase. Purchasing this equipment is generally funded by grants, rather than by universities. But to get grants, researchers must show that their universities are committed to providing significant funding for equipment maintenance, and professors say that Columbia has not provided the funds needed for that maintenance. "We've been shut out or handicapped going after major grants," biology professor John Hunt said. "Columbia has not done that [provided sufficient financial support], and because of that, shared institution facilities here are light-years behind those of peer institutions." Hunt said that an injection of $2 or $3 million would make Columbia labs competitive for these grants. As research has become more and more advanced, especially in the past decade, this kind of shared instrumentation "has become almost indispensible," Hunt said. Now, many Columbia researchers are forced to go to outside laboratories to use their instruments. But sometimes, this is not enough. For example, Stockwell's research on a drug molecule has ground to a halt due to his inability to access a specific instrument he needs. "We're at a complete roadblock because we don't have any way to measure these interactions," Stockwell said. "People keep asking us for this data and we can't get it because we don't have access to this instrument." Steele agreed that shared facilities are beneficial and expressed "real sympathy" with those who wish for more funding. According to Steele, science chairs and faculty members were invited to present their needs to the trustees last spring, and a working list of improvements was formulated, beginning with an effort underway to centralize departmental computing in the University Computing Center. "We will have enough funds in the near future to make some dent in that list," he said, adding though, "It will not make everybody happy." Applied physics and applied mathematics department chair Irving Herman endorsed the need for improvements to shared space. "I'm not satisfied with the status quo," Herman said. "But ... I appreciate that we need to take more steps and I appreciate that the University is willing to work with us." Navigating recruitment The problems with Columbia's science facilities do not just affect current faculty—professors say they also make it more difficult to hire new faculty. Hailey described Columbia's science facilities as "functional, but not competitive." "I think the physical state of the building and the laboratories has had a very deleterious effect on the recruitment of graduate students and on the recruitment of faculty," he said. "It puts us at a constant disadvantage." Physics professor Abhay Pasupathy, who works in Pupin, said he can testify to the importance of the quality of the facilities to prospective faculty. Pasupathy said that the state of the lab space in Pupin was problematic when he was deciding whether to work at Columbia, but that the University made the renovations that he would require. "When I was hired I had several offers at other places and this was seriously an issue for me. ... Would Columbia be able to renovate the space and have it ready?" Pasupathy said. "It did take a lot of effort on everybody's part to get it done." When physics professor Tanya Zelevinsky came to Columbia several years ago, the University paid for renovation to create a modern laboratory space in Pupin. But it required "significant resources," Zelevinsky said. "The building is completely not designed to accommodate modern labs," she said. Firestein said that if recruiting is not a problem now, it will be in the future unless significant renovations are implemented. "It becomes at some point a problem at all levels of recruiting, from senior to junior faculty, to post docs to graduate students," Firestein said. "You want the best people, but they get offers other places, too." Northwest not the answer? Some faculty are skeptical as to ability of the new Northwest Corner Building to significantly alleviate these problems, despite its cost and high profile, insisting that the underlying problem will remain. Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin said in a recent interview that the new building was built in response to a "widespread sense that we needed new facilities." This, he said, "doesn't mean that, with the addition of this new facility, our space needs as a University are complete, or that all our existing facilities are where they should be." Although the new building will provide state-of-the-art laboratories to 18 faculty members, this number is a small fraction of science faculty at Columbia, Hailey said. Hailey, who was on one of the original planning committees for the Northwest Corner Building, said that faculty members have questioned the wisdom of the new building from the beginning. "The faculty said, yes, we support the building of this facility because we need more square footage because, as we mentioned, that's one of the problems, but such a plan executed with total disregard for the renovation of space that currently exists is going to get us nowhere, and I think in some sense that's precisely what we've seen happen," he said. "This building has been a diversion from recognizing that the fundamental infrastructure of the departments as they exist is being woefully neglected," Hailey said. " The new building is a good start," Firestein said. "But, you know, it would be a disaster if it were the end, if everybody now said, 'OK, well we've done science, let's get on to the next thing.'" Sammy Roth contributed reporting. news@columbiaspectator.com

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