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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 8 | Sep. 2, 2004

UBC’s New State-of-the-Art Facility

By Hilary Thomson

The curving coloured ribbons of glass that stretch across the 36-metre-wide front window tell the whole story.

If you’re able to read DNA sequences, that is.

The swirling design represents the DNA segment that was the focus of the late Michael Smith’s Nobel Prize-winning research. A UBC professor of biotechnology, Smith devised a way to re-program segments of DNA, a process called site-directed mutagenesis. The discovery earned him the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The colourful glazing -- the first window of its kind in a North American building -- is a visual highlight of the Michael Smith Laboratories (MSL) that will be officially opened Sept. 24.

“Michael Smith not only made an extraordinary contribution to science, he also encouraged young scientists to learn and discover,” says UBC President Martha Piper. “I can think of no more fitting legacy than to have this group of stellar scientists brought together in a state-of-the-art facility.”

Smith’s dream was to create a unique interdisciplinary centre dedicated to genomic research and located at the heart of campus. Now, almost two decades later, his vision has been realized with a $30-million lab that covers 7,500 sq. metres adjacent to the UBC Bookstore.

“I remember Michael had a model of the building on his desk when I first came here,” says microbiologist Brett Finlay, UBC Peter Wall Distinguished Professor whom Smith recruited in 1989.

Finlay is one of 15 principal investigators and approximately 225 people who will work in the three-storey building when it is at full capacity. Many of the researchers have been associated with UBC’s Biotechnology Lab which Smith founded in 1987. Scientists in the lab have been recognized with numerous national and international research awards.

“This is a remarkable group of academic investigators whose research discoveries have crossed scientific disciplines in extraordinary ways and who represent international leadership in biotechnology,” says Phil Hieter, MSL director. “A distinguishing feature of MSL scientists has been consistent development of new technologies to answer important biological questions.

It would be no surprise if UBC’s next Nobel Prize came from this lab.”

A replica of Smith’s Nobel Prize medal and his picture will be featured in a special alcove in the ground floor public lobby.

Other building features include a teaching lab directed by David Ng, who provides outreach programs to approximately 2,000 Lower Mainland high school students annually. There is also a 100-seat lecture theatre that is electronically linked to other UBC teaching sites, a multipurpose room, and an atrium offering common social space for scientists and research staff.

The building is the first on campus to use Voice Over IP, a technology that allows voice and data to travel on the same infrastructure so that researchers can plug in computers anywhere in the building, giving greater mobility between interdisciplinary labs and lowering operating costs. In addition, the building will be part of UBC’s high-speed wireless network.

Researchers have had significant input into the design of their workspace.

Electrical engineer Robin Turner, who develops new spectroscopic methods in biotechnology, will be working in a laser lab built to his specification.

“These labs are highly programmed space with features customized to the researchers’ work so that scientists can move in and start work right away,” says Ron Turner, project manager, who was a childhood friend of one of Smith’s sons. In those days, he regarded the scientist as “just some guy in Birkenstocks.”

MSL researchers, representing five faculties, explore organisms ranging from worms and mice to trees.

They include neurobiologist Terry Snutch whose work may lead to new therapies for migraines, stroke and cardiovascular disorders, and chemical engineer Charles Haynes who looks at the behaviour of biomolecules and how synthetic surfaces can be tailored for medical and industrial application. MSL associate director Brian Ellis, an expert on genetically engineered food, studies how plants adapt to environmental stresses such as fungus, insects and temperature extremes. Hieter analyzes genes involved in cancer and other human diseases.

The lower floor of the MSL will house the UBC Bioinformatics Centre. Directed by Francis Ouellette, the 450-sq. metre-facility will house five researchers and approximately 70 students, post-doctoral fellows, and lab workers when fully operational.

Bioinformatics integrates computers, software tools, and databases to address biological questions, particularly in the fields of genomics and proteomics.

The MSL represents the UBC component of the Centre for Integrated Genomics, a collaboration of UBC and the BC Cancer Agency.

Funding for the MSL has been provided by Canada Foundation for Innovation, the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund and private donors.

For more information on the Michael Smith Laboratories, visit www.biotech.ubc.ca.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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