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About four times the size of Yost Hall, ISEB will loom like a flagship on Case Quad.


New building for a new age

In one of its largest building projects in decades, the university will build a $300 million laboratory complex designed for team science.

By Robert L. Smith


The university’s largest building project in decades will do more than raise a $300 million research building on Case Quad. It will create an iconic flagship for a new research era, one that prizes team science and big projects.

University leaders see a building that will help them to increase research spending by hundreds of millions of dollars, attract top faculty and students, and enhance the reputation of Case Western Reserve University.

The Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Building, as it’s being called, will reunite science and engineering on Case Quad, where Case Institute of Technology earned renown for innovation and invention. University President Eric Kaler sees powerful symbolism, which is resonating with early donors. Plenty of challenges await. The university is headlong into a campaign to raise $150 million in private funding, or about half the cost of the project: The other half is being financed by the sale of century bonds. Faculty and researchers will navigate a culture change as schools and colleges prioritize collaborative research projects that can attract major grants. And the building itself presents some tricky engineering and design challenges. But the vision of ISEB is generating excitement in the faculty ranks and across campus, and no wonder. “It could be a game changer,” said Venkataramanan “Ragu” Balakrishnan, dean of the Case School of Engineering. That sentiment is echoed by Joy Ward, the university’s interim provost and executive vice president.

“This building will allow us to have the full range of knowledge-building and problem solving under one roof,” she said. “This is an important opportunity for us, because we have such strong collaboration already in science and engineering — we just don’t have the collaborative space to solve the problems of the day.”

Kaler, a chemical engineer who became university president in 2021, describes ISEB as the answer to several concerns, including a shortage of lab space on campus. He also expects a state-of-the-art research building to elevate the university’s reputation as it presents faculty with the tools and resources they need to work at their highest level.

“We have a critical need for modern research space that can bring together people from different disciplines, because that’s where most of the action is in research and innovation these days,” he said in an interview with Case Alumnus. “And we just do not have that kind of space. So our faculty and researchers are hamstrung.”

The answer: A 195,000 square-foot, five story building designed exclusively for research teams.

“It will enable our faculty to grow and to grow their research productivity,” Kaler continued. “That means more research grants. It means more publications, more students, more innovation and more inventions. It’s exactly what we need to do to increase the reputation and the impact of the university.”

A $25 million commitment from Roger Susi ’77 has helped the capital campaign surpass $60 million.

Why now?

CWRU consistently ranks among the top 50 universities na-tionally and is a member of the prestigious American Association of Universities, which represents the nation’s leading research universities. But it has been slipping in a key barometer.

Ten years ago, CWRU spent about $420 million a year on research, good for a ranking of 42 in the National Science Foundation’s survey of Higher Education Research and Development — the HERD Survey. Today, CWRU still spends about $420 million a year on research, but it has fallen to 66 on that competitive list.

“That’s because we’ve been flat,” says Michael Oakes, CWRU’s senior vice president of research and technology management. “Everyone else, our so-called competitors, they’re all growing their research spending. It follows that we’re falling in the rankings.”

Last year, Kaler hired Oakes away from the University of Minnesota, where they once were colleagues, to turn the tide. He’s charged with swelling the research budget by $200 million, or by 50 percent, as soon as possible. That would advance CWRU in the HERD rankings and in line with peers like Washington University in St. Louis and Emory and Boston universities.

Most research funding comes from grants, typically federal grants, which have become fewer and bigger, as they aim to solve complex problems. Oakes sees a good business model for an AAU university. Grant-funded faculty tend to attract more grants, which pay the salaries of their lab teams.

Given Kaler’s goals, Oakes is pushing a “big grant strategy.” He wants research leaders to aim for grants of $10 million or more. He has created a team of specialists to help faculty write grant proposals, relieving them of some of the bureaucratic hassle, and vows to get them the equipment they need. It’s working, he said. Faculty are applying for more grants. But the space limitations are hard to overcome. 

Researchers at both the Case School of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences work in labs grouped by departments, often small rooms off long corridors in legacy buildings. Such labs are not designed for modern research and are expensive to retrofit.

Lydia Kisley, an associate professor of physics, knows the challenge. One of the top young grant producers at CWRU, her lab team is spread across two rooms in two different buildings, the 120-year-old Rockefeller Building and the 1950s-era AW Smith Building. Neither offers the best setting to study materials at nanoscale using highly sensitive optical microscopes.

“We need more space, a stable infrastructure, with no flooding,” she said. “I’m sure alumni have fond memories of the lab where they did their research. Those spaces have gotten very old.”

What will we see?

The design is being led by Peter Cook, an architect and vice president in the Washington, D.C. offices of HGA, a national architectural firm. Cook and his colleagues have been busy on university campuses, including MIT’s, where they recently designed a new nanotech research center known as MIT.nano. CWRU administrators went to see it in November.

“What it showed is that HGA has the capability to do some-thing like this,” said Dean Tufts, CWRU’s vice president for campus planning and facilities management, who was also brought aboard by Kaler. “It’s a very impressive building” in a restrained space, not unlike Case Quad, which was laid out in the 1880s.

Cook was one of three lead designers of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which caused a sensation when it opened on the National Mall in 2016. Inspired by African art, the bronze edifice stands apart in a neighborhood of white marble.

Cook said his priority is to give CWRU what it needs in a research center, a building that fits Case Quad, but he’s also looking to make a splash.

The solution will rise on the site of Yost Hall like a glassy beacon to science. ISEB will loom about four times the size of Yost as it pushes toward Martin Luther King Drive down the hill, creating a showcase corner of campus.

“We want to make sure we’re not timid. This is a real opportunity for us to showcase Case’s aspiration for its science. We want this to stand out, to make you say, ‘Hey, there’s something special going on in there.’”

“We want to make sure we’re not timid,” he said. “This is a real opportunity for us to showcase Case’s aspiration for its science. We want this to stand out, to make you say, ‘Hey, there’s something special going on in there.’”

Early renderings show a building that resembles glass cubes fitted neatly together between Tomlinson Hall and the Wickenden Building. Light and transparency will be major themes, Cook said, as will efficiency and facets that promote collaboration and flexibility.

There will be a café where Oakes hopes “collisions occur” between researchers and students from different specialties.
A third floor event patio will look out on Case Quad. Around back, where the lobby windows will glow Spartan blue, the transformation will be more dramatic.

Tufts said the project will become part of a larger effort to open up the Quad to the neighborhood. ISEB will extend into the parking lot behind Yost, requiring designers to navigate a 20-foot ridge and the Doan Brook culvert. A quest for LEED Gold certification further complicates design. The parking lot behind Tomlinson will make way for a greenway that will create a new entrance to the Quad from MLK.

“That corner will be more of a presence for Case,” Tufts said. “We want to make the entire campus more inviting.”

Team science, culture change

The largest structure ever built on Case Quad will be a busy place. Administrators want room for 70 principal investigators and their teams, which average six people, meaning the complex will stir with about 400 people daily. Wet labs will occupy about 40 percent of the building.

The ISEB steering committee, co-chaired by Oakes and Tufts, has been inviting faculty input. Some want “clean rooms” for microchip research and fabrication, a drone capture area, floors stable enough for sensitive measuring and testing. Spaces will have to be reconfigurable to house a changing array of research teams.

At five stories, ISEB should fit neatly into the Quad skyline.

Balakrishnan, who just finished his fifth year at the helm of the Case School of Engineering, said Oakes’ big grants-big projects strategy fits where university research has been heading.

“These days we have an ability to look at things at a higher level, and that requires a team of investigators and a systems level approach,” he said. “In the old days, research was often a solitary endeavor; a professor and maybe a few students alone in their lab. Today most problems are solved by teams of people working together. You can solve bigger problems, take bigger leaps. And that’s a good thing, because these days we’re attempting to solve big, big problems.”

Examples of problems solved and innovations achieved by interdisciplinary research teams include Covid vaccines and the iPhone, Balakrishnan said. Society still needs a battery that can efficiently store electric power, and solutions to extreme weather and global warming are becoming critical.

Lee Thompson, a professor of psychology and the interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, thinks ISEB will accelerate the pace of interdisciplinary research at CWRU, which is already robust in areas like biology and robotics, art and physics, and neuroscience, the fastest growing major in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

In one example, engineering’s Roger Quinn is working with biology’s Hillel Chiel to develop the next genera-tion of human-like robots with National Science Foundation funding. With ISEB, more students will become part of such projects, enhancing their Case education, Thompson believes.

It will be modeling the best way to do research,” she said. “It will help them to learn, right off the bat, how discoverers work together.”

Which faculty will claim a space in ISEB remains an open question. Much will depend on who attains grant funding for their idea. But a consensus is emerging around research themes, areas of inquiry that would tap Case expertise:

  • Electrochemistry and battery technology 
  • Sustainable manufacturing
  • Climate science
  • Robotics and neural engineering 
    Combating disease
  • Applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning

For faculty, team science is going to require a culture change, and that will not be simple, said Dustin Tyler, PhD ’99, a professor of biomedical engineering.

“Interdisciplinary teams are very hard in academia,” Tyler said. “People spent careers building their expertise, super deep knowledge, to get tenure. Now we have to adapt and apply our skills to a broader problem. It’s a new balance.”

Tyler is likely assured a place in ISEB. He directs the Human Fusions Institute, a model of interdisciplinary research as it combines the skills of biomedical engineers, surgeons, roboticists and ethicists to develop smart prosthetics and more.

Kisley also thinks the new approach will be an adjustment. Some faculty are worried about the increased emphasis on finding research grants, she said.

“My view is, I’m going to have to get funding to do research regardless” — and she would rather being doing it in a state-of-the-art facility.

In ISEB, she sees a shiny new lure, one that will help attract and retain top faculty, but also stellar students who will populate the labs.

“Our graduate students are visiting many campuses besides ours,” she said. “It’s going to be exciting to picture yourself in that research building — because you’re going to picture yourself as a 21st century researcher.”

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