Stem Cell Generation?

With Allston timeline uncertain, lab space for biology researchers remains in flux

Months after the University first announced that it would be slowing construction of its much-anticipated Allston Science Complex, administrators have begun to carve out alternative accommodations for those researchers who had been promised space there. University Provost Steven E. Hyman said in a recent interview that he hopes the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute will have space in Cambridge by the beginning of 2011. But to make room, professors in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology will have to vacate their labs in the Sherman Fairchild Biochemistry Building by the spring of 2010.

The renovated space in Fairchild and the adjacent Bauer Laboratory will be made “denser and more efficient” for the stem cell researchers. The new design, already used in the massive Northwest Science Building, separates administrative office space from the actual laboratories, which feature tightly packed rows of counters in a large open expanse.

“Students and postdoctoral fellows can intermingle and talk to each other and learn not only from their own [Principal Investigator], but more easily from other people in the [Stem Cell] Institute,” says Hyman, a long-time proponent of stem cell research. “It’s also more cost-effective because more of the space can be used to generate research and research grants.”

But some faculty say they think the changes are largely superficial, more indicative of a fad than actual improvement: “Why are miniskirts better than long skirts or pants? It’s a question of fashion,” says MCB Professor and current Fairchild inhabitant Guido Guidotti. “Now, the fashion is to have large labs where everybody’s together.”

Some professors have also questioned the rationale for spending what is rumored to be tens of millions of dollars on laboratory renovations, while the Faculty of Arts and Sciences still has $143 million to cut from its budget over the next two years.

Matthew Meselson, a distinguished MCB professor who has been in the Fairchild building for more than 30 years, took the podium at the last Faculty meeting of the year to ask administrators to reallocate the funds reserved for the renovations, which he said were estimated to cost at least $50 or $60 million. He added that such a move could help avoid some of the most damaging cuts looming over FAS.

But University President Drew G. Faust responded by saying that those funds had been dedicated to development in Allston, and as such would be redirected to related projects and not “issues that you are all facing as a Faculty.”

Several MCB professors scheduled for eviction from Fairchild have expressed concern over the past few months about the lack of consultation during the University’s decision-making process, noting that revelations of the move came as a total shock. Although professors have been meeting with architects since March, they continue to express confusion about the upcoming renovations.

“I don’t know anything about them—that’s the problem,” Guidotti said resignedly in an interview last week. “There’s nothing you can say. You can discuss things when one’s opinion is asked before a decision is made. Once the decision is made, what’s the point of talking?”

Faust first announced her decision to slow construction of the Allston Science Complex in February, citing financial difficulties caused by the economic downturn. Stem cell researchers—who have for years been dispersed across Harvard’s Cambridge and Longwood campuses—had been slated to move en masse to the Complex. To ensure that the Allston slowdown would not derail continued research progress, University officials opted to use existing lab space in Cambridge to accommodate the researchers.

Planners ultimately chose the Fairchild Building, a roughly 30-year-old laboratory complex built specifically for biochemistry research that was even planned by a few of the current occupants.

The labs of two acclaimed stem cell researchers, Douglas A. Melton and Kevin C. Eggan, are already in the building, but the University revealed in February that the entire structure would have to be vacated and completely renovated to make room for their stem cell colleagues. Faust said the new labs would be ready by 2011—precisely when the Science Complex had once been slated for completion.

“There is extreme financial difficulty in the University and the decision was made to delay Allston,” says Catherine Dulac, chair of the MCB department. “We all have to accommodate some of the consequences.”

With FAS now planning to revamp its administrative and programmatic structure, the University’s decision to reconfigure its limited laboratory space has irked affected MCB researchers who feel the move suggests an underlying bias towards more lucrative research.

“I think it sends a message. It’s one thing to build a big stem cell institution in Allston, where you’re launching a whole special project,” said Jim Henle, an MCB lab administrator in Fairchild, in a March interview. “It’s another thing to displace a whole department and send them to who-knows-what netherland.”

But the administration continues to say that no fields in the life sciences—or any departments for that matter—are being prioritized, and that the University had made a real effort to accommodate the needs of all researchers.

“I realize there’s an inconvenience to MCB faculty, but we’ve really done our best to mitigate that,” says Provost Hyman. “They’re moving into a brand new building, they’re going from three buildings to two, and we’re trying to do other things to make it right for them.”

After moving out of the Fairchild Building, the MCB department will consolidate into the newly-constructed and largely unoccupied Northwest Science Building and the Biological Laboratories. During the Fairchild building renovation, the Melton and Eggan labs will take up temporary residence in Northwest as well.

While it is unclear if stem cell researchers will still eventually move to Allston, the current fiscal crisis has greatly complicated the University’s plans to bolster interdisciplinary science.

“Allston is just one part of the University. All the education and science currently happening on this campus—that’s what we are all concerned about,” Dulac says. “What the solutions are, we have no idea. The discussion is just starting.”

—Staff writer Esther I. Yi can be reached at estheryi@fas.harvard.edu. —Staff writer Peter F. Zhu can be reached at pzhu@fas.harvard.edu.