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Brad Stenger says the latest in lab design tends to overlook crucial storage space

No matter how much can be done in silico, a lot of science still happens on paper. The absence of adequate storage space for essential documents — internal reports, lab notebooks, grants contracts, unpublished experimental results — is a bottleneck that impedes, even prevents, scientific progress.

Current thinking among lab designers says that storage space counts against the net efficiency of a building or floor. The efficiency metric is the amount of useful workspace divided by gross area, and for facility managers and lab architects, it is the indicator to tell if an institution is getting good value for its construction dollar.

Steven Benner, chemistry professor at the University of Florida and founder of Eragen Biosciences, points out that the public universities especially feel the storage crunch. Administrators’ attention is more likely compromised by the legislature and bureaucracy, or by the taxpaying parents of students.

Yet major new facilities for genomics and post-genomics research are either in design or under construction at Princeton University, the University of North Carolina, Michigan, University of California, San Francisco, University of Colorado, and the University of Illinois, among others. And the building boom for the major research universities won’t end there. Benner’s home university is soliciting architects for a $73 million Cancer & Genetics Research Building, to be completed by 2004.

One of the problematic questions is what Benner calls “the per-square-foot productivity question” — that is, which will be more productive, one scientist with twice as much space (with room for storage) or two scientists with the standard amount of space?

While trends that favor open labs to enhance collaboration make sense for advancing interdisciplinary science, so does a reality check on the way researchers actually get their work done. “When I’m in Gainesville, I’ll get assailed for 10 hours straight,” Benner told me. “People walk in and ask a scientific question. I go to the file and get them what they need.” That can get tricky for a man whose baggage included more than 500 boxes of documents when he arrived at the university in 1996.

“It’s always the question of ‘Where is it?’” says Benner. When “it” (a document, a fact about an old experimental procedure, a government agency question about some grant expenditure) is not frequently retrieved, problems arise. “Sometimes it’s critical to the scientific data someone else is collecting,” Benner says. “Not all the data from experiments goes into a paper. I get two or three requests per year for unpublished details for work that’s more than a decade old. I’ll have to go back to notebooks, to the primary lab materials. Lately, every time I’ve been looking for something that’s a decade old, it hasn’t turned up.”

Ten years ago, Benner was doing pioneering research on molecular evolution, synthetic non-A,G,T,C DNA base pairs, and early computational structural biology. For the colleagues who come calling, no doubt, the inability to find the documentation of these efforts is a major loss.

Hoping for a way out, Benner says, “We’re all headed for paper-free offices, right?” Well, the American Forest and Paper Association claimed a 30 percent increase in the use of 8.5” x 11” paper in the ’90s, and a seven percent annual increase in hard-copy file records. The irony of advances in IT is that people using computers generate more paper, not less. And there’s little reason to suspect that the same won’t hold true as info-tech permeates biology.

One measure of a productive lab is intellectual property. If patents are the $100 bills of tech-transfer currency, then the $1s and $5s are all sorts of random documentation. For anyone hoping to use new lab space to turn genomics and post-genomics research into an economic engine, leave room for file drawers.

 

Brad Stenger is a freelance journalist who researches human-computer interaction in computational biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, designs bioinformatic interfaces for Yale’s Gerstein Lab, and works as a laboratory planner for archi-tectural firm CUH2A. Send your comments to Brad at [email protected]

 

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