Winning a $1.6 million federal grant to buy a robotic system to store 1 million blood, urine and tissue samples was easy compared to finding space for it at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
The "monster" machine, to be known as the university's "bio bank," is 13 feet wide, 20 feet deep and 10 feet high, said Dr. Alan Shuldiner, associate dean for personalized medicine.
But free lab space is scarce on the school's West Baltimore campus.
Officials plan to put that shortage in the past with a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday, marking the commencement of construction of a $305 million, 429,000-square-foot biomedical research building. The structure would become the largest on the University of Maryland, Baltimore, campus and provide space for a research enterprise that officials say is bursting at the seams and difficult to coordinate across disciplines.
While the medical school's research funding from external grants and contracts grew 28 percent from fiscal years 2008 to 2011, lab space remained constant. By one estimate, the school is using less than a third of the space its research activity warrants, something officials said hurts its ability to attract faculty and pursue new research opportunities.
"The good news has been, we have been very fortunate over the past decade or more in having very rapid growth in our research programs," medical school Dean Dr. E. Albert Reece said. "The bad news is we have just fundamentally run out of space."
In October, crews will begin demolishing the former home of the university's School of Dentistry, at Baltimore and Pine streets, to make way for the new research building. The university hopes to open the 10-story facility in January 2018.
State money will cover all but $65 million of construction costs; the university plans to raise the remainder from private sources.
Plans for the building date back about a decade, when it started to become clear research space was filling up, said university President Jay Perman. Even in 2001 and 2002, during the planning of the school's newest research building that opened in 2003, it was clear it would be filled quickly, Perman said.
"Space is easily the most precious commodity in our environment, and something needed to give," Perman said. "It's a wonderfully enabling process to be able to get started with this long-envisioned building."
That the planned research building's site became available was a result of another real estate headache on the urban campus. When dental school officials sought to renovate its 40-year-old home, it became apparent doing so would be nearly as expensive as new construction, said Angela Fowler-Young, director of capital budget and planning. To replace the dental school, the university built a $124 million facility on an adjacent parking lot, opening in 2006.
Officials say the site will help foster interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers in the dentistry school, east of the new research building, in the pharmacy school to the west, and in the medical school to the south.
Its primary use will be for the medical school, however, to alleviate a space crunch that often sends postdoctoral researchers and prospective faculty members to other institutions where they can have their own office and more top-notch lab space. For postdocs who spend two or three years at the university working with a mentor on research, staying in Baltimore for a faculty job often means little more than a corner of their mentor's office and no lab space of their own to launch their studies, Shuldiner said.
Even Reece, setting an example for faculty, has to "do more with less" in his own lab researching birth defect disparities. The lab takes up about 600 square feet but could use more like 2,000 square feet, he said.
"We have about 12 people in that lab," Reece said. "You can just sort of do the math and see how much each person has.
The new building also makes room for future research growth. Its top two floors, about 66,000 square feet, will be left unfinished — saving on up-front construction costs yet making future expansion easier and cheaper.
While Reece has decried the impact of federal budget cuts on medical research, he said the threat doesn't give him pause in seeking to add more space and researchers. The medical school estimates the building will create nearly 600 jobs in the form of new faculty, technicians, postdoctoral fellows and other staff needed to support infrastructure.
"We have a current problem that we're trying to relieve," Reece said. "We're not building a building speculating that in the future some things will happen."