GW Research, Spring 2016

Research Capital

Bright and colorfully-accented common spaces, like this one on the ground level, are scattered throughout the building.
Bright and colorfully-accented common spaces, like this one on the ground level, are scattered throughout the building.
May 29, 2015

When the doors of Science and Engineering Hall opened in January, it signaled the culmination of nearly a decade of planning and four years of construction—a demolition, a dig and a steady climb skyward from the bottom of a 75-foot hole. But the new year brought the start of something even bigger.

For some academic departments, the building’s opening marked a reunion, reconnecting colleagues and experiments that had been scattered among the nooks of a space-squeezed city campus. It also is a place to build new connections and cover new ground. And for many faculty and student researchers, the building’s long-awaited opening ushered in an era of inquiry and opportunity at GW that previously was merely the stuff of daydreams.

For years, the growth of the university’s research profile outpaced its infrastructure. Engineers converted dusty storage rooms into makeshift laboratories. Scientists conducted experiments in crowded basements and carpeted labs. Graduate students traveled four times per week to build nanodevices at the National Institute of Standards and Technology,
25 miles from campus. GW’s only transmission electron microscope—for viewing fine details in minuscule specimens—lived underneath the Lisner Auditorium stage. 

And yet, they made it work. The university has climbed into the top tier of research schools, as counted by the influential Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. And research expenditures—a key measurement of an institution’s research activity—ballooned by 80 percent between 2003 and 2012, to nearly $200 million.

“The one thing that connects generations of GW engineers and scientists is that we studied in really crummy facilities. And it made us scrappy,” Board of Trustees Chair Nelson Carbonell, BS ’85, said in 2011, then as vice chair, at the building’s groundbreaking. 

“GW scientists and engineers can do a lot with a little,” he said. “But just imagine what we can do with a lot.”

The new building—eight stories above ground and six below, including four levels of parking—is located on the former site of the University Parking Garage at 22nd and H streets. It brings together research and teaching spaces previously spread across a dozen buildings. And it nearly doubles the space on campus available to a variety of science and engineering programs. 

Science and Engineering Hall houses a growing roster of researchers that, for now, comprises around 140 faculty members from 10 departments, including all six from the School of Engineering and Applied Science and four disciplines from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. The mix ranges from computer scientists and aerospace engineers to physicists and biologists. They will be joined, likely in 2016, by some of the researchers from the Milken Institute School of Public Health and the School of Medicine and Health Sciences when the top two floors are completed.

“This building likely will hold the most diverse amount of combined science and engineering of any building that you could find in the United States,” says Rob Voss, a project architect at Ballinger, the firm that designed the new building. 

Faculty members share four specialized labs: a three-story “high bay” for large-scale experiments, an ultraclean nanofabrication lab, a greenhouse and an imaging suite equipped with microscopes for viewing objects at resolutions better than one billionth of a meter.

The building will put the university and the city “at the center of scientific innovation,” GW President Steven Knapp said after the concrete structure reached its full height, in late 2013. 

“Washington, D.C., is often thought of a city of power and policy,” he said. “But for us to have credibility in the future in the policy realm, we need to also have authority in the realm of technology, science and engineering.”

The city is very much what distinguishes this facility from research buildings at other college campuses throughout the country, officials say. At a grand opening celebration in March,
Dr. Knapp mused: “I remain confident that this is the largest science and engineering building that will ever be built within six blocks of the White House.” And that proximity to corridors of power—including Capitol Hill, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences (the president of which spoke at the grand opening)—is already a tangible advantage. 

The building has not only attracted researchers to GW, officials say, but it’s also a magnet for equipment manufacturers and other potential industry partners looking to have a presence in a brand-new, high-visibility space. It has already resulted in deals involving showcase-level microscopes.

“It’s an impressive building in an impressive location,” says Can Korman, associate dean for research and graduate studies at SEAS, and the lead academic representative from SEAS in the planning of the building. “There are a lot of great buildings in the middle of cornfields.”


But GW’s largest capital construction project didn’t come without challenges. The construction site shared a city block with three residence halls, a D.C. traffic artery and, below ground, a Metro tunnel. The building required elaborate planning and delicate maneuvering by engineers, architects and construction crews. 

The imaging suite and nanofabrication lab, for instance, are engineered to dampen vibrations from the Metro. And instruments that use electrons for imaging and etching nanoscale devices needed to be shielded from the magnetic fields produced by the subway’s high-voltage rails.

“Whether you’re trying to see things or build things at the nanometer scale, you want to make sure those little electrons are going right where you want them to go,” Dr. Korman says.

On top of that, the university challenged designers to build the nearly 500,000-square-foot facility without multiplying GW’s carbon footprint. The researchers moved into new work spaces, like this chemistry lab, in January. Along with a suite of core lab facilities and more immersive teaching spaces, the building is being called “transformational.”

The end result is an academic building that is unparalleled at GW in scope and function, as well as eco-friendly. Among the building’s sustainable features, the roof protects the building from the heat of the sun, heat from the building’s exhaust air is captured and transferred to incoming air, and rainwater is collected and reused to flush toilets.

As much as Science and Engineering Hall is about new facilities and bringing together departments, it’s also about looking beyond the bounds of traditional silos. In an effort to encourage that, many of the building’s work spaces are surrounded by glass, putting research and classroom activities on display.

“We want people to be curious, to look in and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing in there? Maybe I can help you,’” says Jason Zara, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. “With funding getting tighter every year, research is really moving in a much more interdisciplinary direction.”

Faculty members are grouped into so-called research neighborhoods, which concentrate researchers with overlapping interests, like researchers from the Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology. After outgrowing their townhouse office and being scattered around campus, they are together and surrounded by chemists, biologists and engineers. 

One of the center’s researchers, anthropology professor Chet Sherwood, is on a floor that shares a kitchen and common space with the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department on the floor below.

“You can’t underestimate the importance of geography,” he says. “And that’s the point of the building—it might actually induce biological anthropologists to have lunch with electrical engineers. And then who knows what might happen?”

Officials say that combined with the building’s shared specialty labs, the university is now positioned to propel the innovative ideas that could result from those collaborations.

In the past, GW researchers often were “supporting actors” on larger institutions’ multimillion-dollar grants—not because of “lack of brainpower,” says Dr. Korman, but rather, lack of proper facilities.

“Now we’re in a position to be a major player for these larger grants,” he says. 

The nanofabrication lab, for instance, will allow engineers like Volker Sorger to conduct his research in Foggy Bottom, instead of traveling to federal labs or outsourcing to other universities. After completing a PhD at University of California at Berkeley in 2011,
Dr. Sorger says the promise of Science and Engineering Hall is part of what attracted him to the electrical and computer engineering faculty.

Dr. Sorger works in nanophotonics, or light at the nanometer level, a space about 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. He is seeking to develop technology that could harvest its energy to power laptops or smartphones. Other GW researchers are building nano-scale sensors to detect small volumes of toxins or to enable devices to diagnose medical conditions using a single drop of blood or urine.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Science and Engineering Hall’s three-story high bay will allow engineers like Sameh Badie, in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, to work on outsized projects that will help build safer, more earthquake-resistant bridges and buildings. Dr. Badie conducts experiments on reinforced and prestressed concrete structures that are sometimes in the range of 45 feet long and 8 feet tall. Since the facilities at the engineering school’s Tompkins Hall could not accommodate those large structures, in the past
Dr. Badie often needed to hand off his projects to institutions with larger facilities.

The enormous room also could benefit researchers like Philippe Bardet, in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who needs a high ceiling for his studies on the fluid dynamics inside nuclear reactors.


For students, too, the building offers exposure to new research opportunities and modern learning spaces. 

“Instead of this being a drag that you have to go to lab for four hours, you are going into a lab that inspires you, a lab where you want to learn,” says chemistry professor Susan Gillmor. 

All chemistry labs will be taught in the building starting this year. With larger labs, the department will be able to offer more spots in introductory classes. And the new teaching spaces create “few barriers among students, and also between the students and the instructor,” professor Cynthia Dowd says.

In a departure from the traditional lab layout—rows of workstations arranged behind one another—the new chemistry rooms have lab benches that line the perimeter. Tables for discussion and collaboration sit in the center, intended to encourage more face-to-face interaction.

The building also features a reconfigurable engineering “studio lab” on the ground floor, a hybrid lab and lecture space designed to facilitate hands-on activities. The studio lab has room for 72 students and can be switched from, say, a mechanical engineering lab to one for electrical engineering by pushing carts of equipment into storage space in the walls. It also can be divided into three separate rooms.


The glass-walled, collaborative atmosphere of the building will also make it easier for students to find research opportunities, says student Elizabeth Hubler, BS ’14, who is staying at GW to pursue a master’s degree. After a freshman year class with Michael Plesniak, chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, she became involved in
Dr. Plesniak’s fluid dynamics lab and has stayed ever since. In the lab, she is working to improve a simulated human vocal tract, which could be used to treat voice disorders.

“I think the new building will bring a lot more chances for undergrads to get involved in research, just because there will be so much more visibility,” Ms. Hubler says. The group’s former lab space was in Staughton Hall. “Most people don’t even know where that is,” she says. That fragmentation made it “hard for undergrads to really see the types of projects faculty are working on.”

The building also has a scaled-down teaching version of the superclean nanotechnology lab—a rarity on college campuses, officials say—that will be used to train researchers and expose students to the art of nanofabrication early on in their academic careers. 

A grant from the National Science Foundation will fund a new nanofabrication course co-taught by three SEAS faculty members, as well as a nanotechnology fellowship program led by Dr. Sorger, the nanophotonics researcher. The grant will allow 10 freshmen and sophomores to work and learn in the teaching clean room this summer. Next year, those students will lead the new cohort of undergraduate fellows. 

“We really want to create nanotechnology ambassadors. We want to win them very early on,”
Dr. Sorger says. “And once we hook them into nano, they don’t leave.”

That potential surrounding Science and Engineering Hall is part of the energy that drew Dr. Sorger to GW in the first place. He sees the building as a launchpad, and he’s in good company around campus: Among administrators and the researchers who were heading into the building, the word “transformational” tended to follow “Science and Engineering Hall” like a last name. That excitement has seen the building through from lines on paper to concrete pillars and, finally, to bright new labs and classrooms. 

The outcomes that will be forged there are unknown but, for many, the possibilities seem endless.

“The size, the investment and the momentum behind the building … it’s very exciting,” Dr. Sorger says. “We can really build something here.”