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Without Allston, Cramped in Cambridge

Science departments in FAS are feeling the squeeze after plans for Allston expansion are put on hold

By Rediet T. Abebe and Radhika Jain, Crimson Staff Writers

Peter R. Girguis and seven of his colleagues in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology currently occupy a work space the size of a traditional master bedroom.

“We’re sort of bursting at the seams,” Girguis says. “We’re pretty cozy.”

Girguis’ constrained work space is, in many ways, an indirect consequence of the indefinite halt on construction of the Allston Science Complex, a project with a $1 billion price tag that was meant to be a hub for interdisciplinary science research.

Harvard began construction on the Allston Science Complex in 2007 as a means of expanding the space accessible to science laboratories. But when the economic crisis of 2008 forced construction in Allston to slow and eventually cease altogether, administrators and faculty across the University scrambled to readjust existing space in Cambridge.

That space now seems to be running out.

“We’re crammed in like sardines,” says Daniel E. Lieberman, chair of the Human Evolutionary Biology department. “If I were an undergraduate, I’d be complaining.”

But with administrators projecting a minimum wait of ten years before laboratories can move to Allston, faculty and students may have to get used to the crunch.

THE MOVE THAT NEVER WAS

The Allston Science Complex was meant to be a mecca for stem cell research, a place where interdisciplinary collaboration would work to solve real scientific and medical problems.

For Douglas A. Melton, co-chair of the Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology Department, collaboration between laboratories, which was part of the University’s vision for Allston, is a key element of the scientific process. “Sparks often fly when you have two scientists right next to each other,” Melton says.

Melton and his colleagues in the SCRB department are currently scattered between the Longwood Medical Campus, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Cambridge campus.

Some of the department’s laboratories were going to be moved to Allston to foster centralization, according to Kathryn L. Link, the executive director of SCRB. With construction in Allston halted, SCRB laboratories have been given two buildings in Cambridge—the Sherman Fairchild Biochemistry Building and the Bauer Laboratory. These will be occupied in August, when renovations to Fairchild are scheduled to be completed.

“[The labs] will be moving into state of the art facilities. [Fairchild] is a building that will set standards in terms of its greenness,” says Senior Communications Officer for University Science B.D. Colen.

Melton says utilizing the space in Allston would have “allowed for greater growth,” but for now, his department has more than enough space.

“I would expect we would fully occupy this space within a year or two,” Melton says of Fairchild and Bauer.

RESHUFFLING RESEARCH

Accommodating all of the stem cell laboratories in Cambridge has prompted reshuffling­­­—most significantly, the relocation of multiple Molecular and Cellular Biology labs to the Northwest Science Building—that has had indirect implications for even those departments that have not had to move at all.

“There’s less space for other programs to be able to develop and grow,” says Andrew A. Biewener, former chair of the OEB department.

The Northwest Science Building has been a particularly coveted piece of real estate.

“The Northwest space, everyone wanted it,” says Melissa Franklin, physics department chair, adding that the relocation of MCB faculty to Northwest affected physics professors already located in the building. “There was a lot of scrambling about that,” she says.

When it comes to finding more space, professors across the sciences have differing opinions about the options open to them.

“I think there’s space available, for example, that might be able to meet the needs of two investigators who might have the same equipment requirements or physical space requirements. But they might be in two different departments,” Girguis says.

For Girguis, the cost of moving around is also of concern.

“How much money are we going to spend by making local adjustments? Is that sustainable?” Girguis says.

LOOKING AHEAD

Although construction has ceased for now, University Provost Steven E. Hyman says that he is “quite hopeful” that there will be “active Harvard academic programs” in Allston in the next ten to fifteen years. But Hyman says that it is uncertain which departments will move to Allston.

According to Faculty of Arts and Sciences administrators, the University’s capital campaign is planning to raise money with Allston as a top priority.

The time frame within which laboratories can expect to move to Allston, however, is not definite, according to a senior FAS administrator.

“Our main attention is making a beehive of activity here in the fall. We do not think of this as temporary housing,” Melton says.

Franklin, whose physics department is spread out over seven buildings, says that there is a charm to staying on this side of the river that in some ways outweighs the potential for increased space and centralization that Allston provides.

“Five years ago if you asked our faculty, they would not want to go to Allston. Maybe that has changed now,” she says. “They like it here. They like the trees, they like the really bad food at Greenhouse ... These people really like students—undergrads.”

But with student interest in the sciences seeing consistent growth and departments seeking new faculty appointments, there is little doubt that changes in arrangements will have to be made soon.

“To end this game of musical chairs, somebody has to leave,” says Lieberman. “What’s very frustrating is that we do not have the resources that we need. It’s just not right for our students.”

—Staff writer Rediet T. Abebe can be reached at rtesfaye@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at radhikajain@college.harvard.edu.

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