President John T. Casteen III Peggy Harrison

At its October meeting, the Board of Visitors endorsed a comprehensive approach to enhancing the sciences when it approved three major research buildings—one for Medicine, one for Engineering, and one for the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. Together, these buildings add more than 195,000 square feet of research space to already planned lab buildings for Engineering and Medicine, bringing the total capacity now being designed or built to some 300,000 square feet. These new buildings will enable us to support and sustain the work of continuing faculty members and to attract new talent at all levels.

In recent months, as a planning commission has reexamined prior plans and our progress under them, we have heard from consultants, from our own faculty, and from others about the importance of building appropriate science buildings, and doing it now—not as has often been the case in prior times, a decade from now. During the October Board session, James Moeser, chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill; Hunter Rawlings, Cornell’s former president; and John Vaughn of AAU advised us on future directions in higher education. All three spoke about the need for adequate science buildings to complement investments in faculty members. Mr. Rawlings perhaps said it best: “The way you bring great scientists and develop great scientists in these very expensive fields is you have to build the buildings for them. That’s the only way you’re going to be successful.”

The new buildings just authorized must move timely and under tighter design discipline than any projects ever before attempted. Scientists here needed them a decade ago when neither the state nor the University had money for projects of this kind and scale. Accordingly, University planners will work under a tight schedule for design (one year). Rather than beginning from scratch, they will analyze how other universities that have built major facilities in this amount of time have done it, and adopt the most economical and best validated models to deliver these buildings on time and within reasonable cost limits.

Our options are changing now. What was impossible (or seemed so) in earlier years is possible now. Prior to the Restructuring Acts of 2005 and 2006, we lacked the state support and internal financial clout to build science facilities competitive with those built at Yale, Michigan, Berkeley, and at UNC-Chapel Hill and Cornell during the last three to five years. Between Restructuring and hard-won AAA bond ratings, UVA has financial options now (institutional bonding, strategic use of overheads intended for facilities, philanthropic giving, other generated income that is not restricted in use) that either did not exist previously or required complex, slow approvals.

Conversations about how to accomplish our goals in the sciences have in some sense gone on here for decades. Serious work toward them began in the late 1990s during the Virginia 2020 planning process. Among other priorities, VA2020 defined the current multi-school initiatives in nanoscale technologies, morphogenesis, and digital technologies. Since about 1998, we have explored constructing adaptive research and technology buildings—structures designed to change as science needs change. We received state authorization to begin planning one (MR6) in 1999. We began planning 480 Ray C. Hunt Drive as a flexible research building in 2002. In 2004, the Board launched a program to attract world-class or “star” scientists to distinguish UVA in the sciences and to accelerate achievement in our science programs.

These two initiatives—hiring and cultivating extraordinary scientists, and providing efficient research buildings when they are needed—are the core elements of our plan to build excellence in the sciences. The “star” hires strategy (i.e., hiring members of the national academies or comparably distinguished scientists) has produced better than solid results. With special funding from the Board, we have attracted six extraordinary scientists, each of whom enriches the academic enterprise significantly. At the same time, cultivating future stars within the faculty and among graduate students remains a similar priority. 

Joseph Campbell (Engineering) works in integrated optics. Among other things, he seeks efficient ways to transfer data over fiber-optic networks for telephones, advances in night-vision technology, and development of tiny biological sensors to monitor the presence of bioterrorism substances such as anthrax. Stephen Rich in Public Health Sciences (Medicine) studies, among other topics, genetic predispositions to diabetes and its complications, with the ultimate purpose of preventing the disease. John Yates in Chemistry (College and Graduate School) is one of the top surface chemists in the world. He studies global warming, solar cells, and chemical detectors. Mark Yeager in Physiology (Medicine) studies the structural biology of membrane proteins with the goal of enabling researchers to see the structure of cell membranes and to develop drugs to fit specific structures. Bernard and Christine Thisse in Cell Biology (Medicine), developmental biologists and geneticists who pioneered analysis of the genome of the zebrafish, apply their earlier work to understanding human birth defects, the formation of organs, and regenerative medicine.

These recent hires are stars by any standard. Professors Campbell, Rich, Yeager, Yates, and the Thisses have relocated research groups and laboratories as they came here, or are doing that now. Together, they will bring some $40 million in research funding during the next three years.

Our new provost, Dr. Tim Garson, co-chairs with Leonard Sandridge the Commission on the Future of the University, charged with proposing directions for the next decade and beyond. It should come as no surprise that, among other recommendations, the Commission identifies science and technology as critical areas for building strength and further distinguishing UVA. We work toward excellence in all that we do. In these uncommonly expensive and important fields, we are determined to push forward the frontiers of knowledge that contributes to Virginia’s and the nation’s vitality, to use scarce resources efficiently, and to adopt best practices from elsewhere. This is a time to imagine and build a university that addresses “all the useful sciences” for our time and for the future. The work and the possibilities inspire awe.