Johns Hopkins unveils new Undergraduate Teaching Labs

Video: Deirdre Hammer and David Schmelick

The concave, glazed-glass facade of Homewood's new Undergraduate Teaching Laboratories actively, and quite beautifully, reflects a neighboring cluster of trees and the Buffano Sculpture Garden to its north. As one walks by the building, with each step the reflection alters like a kaleidoscope being turned. Inch closer, and the view adjusts further still, picking up details not visible before, like a sculpture or plant in the distance.

On the other side of the glass, pure science comes into view.

Starting here this fall, Johns Hopkins undergraduates will analyze enzymes, culture cells, and conduct other lab work intended to reinforce concepts introduced in lecture courses, and as a platform to scientific discovery that might lead to the next great breakthrough.

The 105,000-square-foot facility, which opens in September, brings together under one roof undergraduate labs and faculty in the departments of Chemistry, Biology, Biophysics, and Psychological and Brain Sciences; and the undergraduate Neuroscience program.

The four-story building comes equipped with the latest lab technology to accommodate a variety of teaching methods and learning styles, and its flexible and open layout will enable synergistic, cross-disciplinary partnerships and research opportunities. When not in the lab, students and others in the natural sciences community might meet and mingle in the building's dramatic atrium space, a new commons area with ample seating—soft chairs, a custom-built bench around the perimeter, and even rocking chair—and a coffee bar with cafe tables and chairs.

Katherine Newman, the James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, says that the magnificent new structure will transform education in the life sciences at Johns Hopkins.

"The UTL building is one of the most exciting additions to the Homewood campus in the past decade, both for the way it promotes first-rate interdisciplinary science education and for the opportunities it will provide for research in biology, neuroscience, chemistry, and biophysics," Newman says. "The labs are state-of-the-art, and they look out over one of the most beautiful settings on campus. I can hardly wait to see our students colonize the labs and the rocking chairs in the atrium. Everything we know about innovation tells us the opportunity to talk shop in a setting that promotes easy interchange is critical to discovery. It will be a whole new day for life sciences in the Krieger School."

The facility, designed by Ballinger of Philadelphia, connects to Mudd Hall and completes the fourth side of the Mudd/Levi/Biology complex. It consolidates aging lab space that previously was sprinkled around the campus, in Mergenthaler, Macaulay, and Dunning halls.

Teaching labs, 20 in total, occupy the lower three floors of the building. The upper floor features an expansive building-length biology research lab with a dramatic view of the outside landscape. In the ground-floor project lab, upperclassmen will conduct independent research and experiments.

All floors contain seminar rooms and faculty offices.

The building's other key features include a computer lab; an instrument core with a nuclear magnetic resonance component; and procedure, tissue culture, autoclave, and cold rooms.

Martin Kajic, a facilities project manager for Johns Hopkins, says that the spacious building offers a significant upgrade over the old lab spaces, which will be evaluated by the Krieger School for its future growth needs.

"The existing labs were older, with most below ground with no natural light," Kajic says. "And the flow of the labs was not ideal. Students were crammed in and often had to place book bags at their feet. These new labs offer better circulation, better sightlines to faculty and teacher assistants, and they're safer."

Every lab has an eyewash, an automatic gas turnoff, and close proximity to a shower.

The building's environs were landscaped with assistance from award-winning Mahan Rykiel Associates of Baltimore and include multiple microbio retention and rain gardens that will help capture storm water runoff.

More green elements are inside the building, which is expected to receive LEED certification in either Silver or Gold.

The facility is projected to use 40 percent less energy than a similar code-compliant laboratory building through the use of technologies such as chilled beams, occupancy sensors that control both lights and HVAC, high-performance fume hoods, daylight sensors, and energy wheels that will recover heat/moisture from exhaust air.

"No building on campus has this type of energy-recovery system," Kajic says. "It collects energy that would be lost and brings it back into the system to reuse."

The restrooms have low-flow fixtures, and the entire building is run by a sophisticated control system.

Brad Crowley, a project engineer with Ballinger, says that a major part of the design process was to emphasize low energy use and help decrease the university's carbon footprint.

Flexible modular layouts will allow the laboratory curricula to be redesigned over time in step with evolving scientific fields. Faculty will develop integrated laboratory modules around common areas or themes.

Students will learn that it is possible to bridge seemingly disparate disciplines, says Greg Ball, vice dean for science and research infrastructure and a professor of psychological and brain sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences.

"Students should emerge from this experience with a clear sense of the usefulness and necessity of multidisciplinary approaches in the study of complex scientific problems," Ball says. "Eventually the goal is that students in different courses will share the reagents, the data, and the ideas they generate, reinforcing the sense of a broad scientific community that extends beyond the student and his or her lab partner. Students will also learn how to communicate with their peers in other courses and disciplines as they share their findings. These communication skills will not only enhance the students' understanding of their work but also prepare them for a range of career paths."

The facility itself, Ball said, can serve as a research model.

Once a set of successful, integrated laboratory modules has been developed at Johns Hopkins, he says, other schools could benefit from the university's experience.