At ASRC, It’s All About the Science of Collaboration

Kevin Gardner, the director of the structural biology initiative of the newly opened Advanced Science Research Center, likes to explain his work to the uninitiated by breaking it down to a few simple but extraordinary pieces of information about how we live on the molecular level.

ASRCWithin each cell of our bodies, Gardner says, is a mechanism that allows the cell to perceive and react to its environment with staggering proficiency. Every one of our red blood cells, for instance, has 280 million hemoglobin molecules that are constantly sensing where that cell is in the body and what it needs to be doing.

“It’s a machine that’s smart enough to know, ‘Hey, I’m in the lungs, I need to pick up oxygen’ or ‘I’m in the periphery of the leg, I need to dump oxygen,” Gardner says. “What we’re trying to figure out is how nature has evolved those machines to work as well as they do. And if we’re lucky enough to get answers to how those machines are broken by disease”–cancer, for instance–“then we’ll have insights into how to fix them.”

Kevin Gardner and his structural biology team are exploring the signaling mechanisms of cells.

Kevin Gardner and his structural biology team are exploring the signaling mechanisms of cells.

Gardner’s field of structural biology sits at the crossroads of three scientific disciplines, tackling questions inspired by biology, drawing on perspectives of chemistry and using the tools of physics to take on a wide range of biomedical challenges. That made it a natural choice to be one of the five research initiatives of the long-planned ASRC–a research center conceived to bring together scientists from distinct but interrelated disciplines, breaking down the traditional walls between them and cultivating a highly collaborative research culture.

After nearly a decade from conception to completion, the University-wide science center, at the south campus of City College, is up and running with founding directors of three of its five initiatives in place.

Chancellor James B. Milliken said, “Building on the University’s rich legacy of world-class science and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s commitment to economic development and investment, the CUNY Advanced Science Research Center brings to New York a new research enterprise that focuses on some of global science’s most dynamic disciplines and important challenges. It positions the University at the vanguard of 21st-century exploration.”

The ASRC’s three founding directors are all leaders in their fields who were recruited after international searches.

Charles Vörösmarty

Charles Vörösmarty

Charles Vörösmarty, a renowned authority on global water issues and other areas of environmental sciences, joined CUNY as director of the ASRC Environmental CrossRoads initiative while the building was still in the planning stages. Rein Ulijn, a pioneering nanochemist with seven patents for new materials that have unique “adaptive” properties inspired by biology, was recruited from Scotland’s University of Strathclyde to direct the ASRC nanoscience initiative. Gardner, a molecular biophysicist and biochemist, arrived at the ASRC and CUNY from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center with an international reputation for innovative thinking.

“We are actually creating new types of chemistry,” Ulijn said during an event last month that unofficially introduced the ASRC and its innovative concept–“Transcending Scientific Boundaries,” as the event’s title neatly summed it up–to members of the New York science community. Flanked by his fellow ASRC scientists on the stage of the center’s auditorium, Ulijn discussed the ways in which his work might be advanced both by the center’s interdisciplinary approach and its shared core facilities, which feature some of the most advanced research equipment in New York.

Rein Ulijn, director of the nanoscience initiative, holds seven patents for new materials that mimic biology.

Rein Ulijn, director of the nanoscience initiative, holds seven patents for new materials that mimic biology.

Ulijn’s nanoscience is distinctive in its “systems” approach–its focus on mimicking the complex collections of interacting components that function as a whole in biological and ecological environments. The approach is aimed at creating new materials that have the ability to actually change their properties to adapt to circumstances, potentially yielding applications for everything from biomedicine to energy production.

Vörösmarty says the world’s increasing–and increasingly complex–environmental challenges can’t be viewed in isolation. “If you look at the population of the earth, we’re heading toward 11 or 12 billion by some estimates. We’re adding eight New York Cities every year for the next 20 years, and we’re living in a rapidly changing environment. There are 95 million catalogued chemicals that are being synthesized by human beings, and in the time it took me to say that sentence there was a new chemical catalogued. That’s about 10 million a year and it’s exponentially growing.”

Though it might seem that his field has little to do with the other ASRC disciplines, Vörösmarty says there’s no question that it can benefit from research and discoveries in their fields of his colleagues. For example, “How can you combine new kinds of chemistry that Rein will be working on to create cities that revitalize themselves without the environmental impact that we see today?”

With the arrival of its first wave of newly recruited world-class scientists, the launch of the ASRC and its sister building, the City College Center for Innovation and Discovery, is a landmark moment in the University’s decade-long, multibillion-dollar drive to become a leading center of visionary scientific research with real-world impact. The new City College research building, a 200,000-square-foot facility for key interdisciplinary fields, will be another magnet for regional, national and international researchers and an academic hub of learning for students and college faculty.

Combined, these two research centers are poised to become both a jewel of CUNY science and a centerpiece of the state’s rapidly expanding technology sector–a key element of Gov. Cuomo’s economic development initiatives.

Conceived as an incubator of innovation, the ASRC features some of the most sophisticated research equipment in New York. Chief among the shared facilities is the ASRC’s NanoFabrication Facility. Open to faculty and staff researchers and students, as well as government and industrial partners, the NanoFabrication Facility offers researchers the world’s most specialized instruments for fabrication and characterization of materials at the micro and nanoscales. It is CUNY’s first cleanroom and one of the most advanced on the East Coast.

“Science is becoming much more interdisciplinary, and scientists need to understand the capacity of the other fields to leverage their own,” said Gillian Small, vice chancellor for research and the ASRC’s executive director. “This isn’t a standard science building with a biology floor and a chemistry floor and a physics floor, each in its own world and scientists who want to work alone for years. The idea is to populate the building with dynamic people who want to work across disciplines and put them together in a very open-plan building, with plenty of common areas, so that their ideas can really bounce off each other. That’s how innovation happens.”

Each of the ASRC directors has a faculty appointment at one of CUNY’s senior colleges–Vörösmarty and Gardner at City College, Ulijn at Hunter. In addition to running their own labs, each will oversee new faculty researchers who will in turn build labs within their disciplines. Searches for the directors of the ASRC’s photonics and neuroscience initiatives are in progress, and once all five floors are fully operational, the ASRC will be home to 20 teams of researchers, four in each initiative.

The ASRC has also long been planned as a center that researchers from across CUNY will be encouraged to use, whether to collaborate with other faculty or to use the shared core facilities to expand the scale and scope of their work. Graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and even undergraduates from throughout the University will have opportunities to work on research projects at the center.

The ASRC is at the center of an expanding constellation of CUNY science initiatives and centers–from the CUNY Energy Institute at the other end of the City College campus to the Center for Advanced Technology, known as the CUNY CAT, and the Hub for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The Hub and CUNY CAT were created to foster commercialization of faculty discoveries for the economic benefit of the University, the city and state. CUNY CAT, which is now located within the ASRC, promotes collaborative research between CUNY scientists and industry, while the Hub is an incubator of emerging technologies that gives faculty scientists the knowledge and tools they need to start spinoff companies in partnership with CUNY.

The Hub was recently named and funded as an “innovation hot spot” by a major new state initiative that aims to grow New York’s technology economy. It follows a $3.74 million grant from the National Science Foundation to a consortium of CUNY, Columbia and New York University, led by Vice Chancellor Small, to create a kind of business boot camp to help academic researchers and talented students transform their discoveries into marketable business ideas. Called the New York City Regional Innovation Node, it’s part of CUNY’s commitment to elevating the “STEM” fields–science, technology, engineering and math–and to energizing the city’s drive to become a new leader in the global science and technology economy.

That effort is concentrated in the ASRC’s neighborhood. The new center and the other CUNY research entities are part of a blossoming science corridor in Upper Manhattan. A block away is a consortium that includes CUNY called the New York Structural Biology Center. And opening later this year just a few blocks southwest will be Columbia University’s new Jerome L. Greene Science Center, a research center that CUNY science leaders see not competitively but cooperatively — a potential partner. For instance, the ASRC and the Columbia building are being outfitted with an eye toward avoiding the duplication of specialized and expensive equipment. There will be arrangements between the two that allow researchers from each institution to use the other’s labs and encourage collaboration.

“What we’ve been building, and what the launch of the ASRC really gets in motion at a high level, is an integrated, University-wide research network that brings faculty discoveries to the marketplace for the public good,” said Vice Chancellor Small. “We’ve added the innovation support centers–CUNY CAT and the Hub–to help our researchers get the funding and knowledge necessary to create startups. That’s what we’re trying to do as much as possible–link everything together to make us a more entrepreneurial university. As a public university using public money, we have an obligation to put the advances that come out of our labs to practical benefit to society.”
This includes both scientific and economic benefits. So there is a focus on discoveries that faculty researchers can turn into startup companies, in partnership with CUNY, that can both generate new revenue sources for the University and contribute to job growth and economic development for the city and state.

“At the typical institution or in a typical research building, Rein and I would probably never encounter each other, let alone work together,” said Gardner. “The ASRC will get people together in a way that becomes a real driver of innovation and way to truly unlock problems. It’s an exciting opportunity to do great science and have a real impact on the world.”