UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 8 | Sep.
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
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
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
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
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
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
For more information on the Michael Smith Laboratories,