Montana State University

MSU's biomedical research to jump forward with $17 million renovation of Cooley Lab

May 12, 2010 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


A grant from the National Institutes of Health will allow MSU to upgrade 50-year-old Cooley Laboratory into a state-of-the-art facility for faculty and student biomedical research.   High-Res Available

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A $15 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will allow Montana State University to upgrade its 50-year-old Cooley Laboratory into a state-of-the-art facility for faculty and students researching everything from treatments for infectious diseases to safeguards against bioterrorist attacks.

The NIH announced on March 18 that it would award almost $15 million toward the $17 million project, with most of that stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The rest of the money will come from another NIH grant, a State Board of Investments InterCap loan and overhead from MSU research grants.

Because university building projects are typically approved only during Legislative sessions, the Montana Board of Regents and Gov. Brian Schweitzer both reviewed and approved the project, one of only a few nationally deemed "shovel-ready" by the NIH under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Schweitzer approved the project on May 7.

A renovated Cooley Lab will help advance one of the university's major strengths: biomedical research. Of the $100 million annually MSU wins in competitive grants for research, roughly $40 million of that goes to studying everything from influenza, to heart disease, to using parts of viruses for pinpoint delivery of drugs, to examining plants for medicinal properties, to exploring ways to keep horses and cattle healthy and safe from a variety of infectious agents.

"I'm glad MSU secured funding for these terrific improvements. This is a chance to create good paying construction jobs in Montana while providing learning facilities that will enable our students to develop new understanding and expertise in science and technology. These are areas that are critically important to our economy, areas that boost innovation and keep Montana ahead of the pack," said Sen. Max Baucus, who helped secure stimulus funding that made possible grants like the one from the NIH.

The renovated laboratory space will likely spur a burst of new research for students and faculty, said Tom McCoy, vice president of research.

"We have ample evidence that when we provide modern, quality laboratory space, great success follows for our students and faculty," McCoy said.

In 2007, MSU's Department of Chemistry/Biochemistry moved out of its antiquated home in Gaines Hall and into the new Chemistry/Biochemistry Building. Its success in grant awards jumped 71 percent, from $4.5 million in FY'06 to $7.7 million in FY'07. In FY'09, chemistry and biochemistry brought in nearly $10 million in research grants.

A similar story played out when the Department of Veterinary Molecular Biology moved from several trailers to a new building in 2003. In just three years, the department saw its research dollars grow from $2 million to $10 million.

A campus project committee, chaired by Paula Lutz, dean of the College of Letters and Sciences, will now work with Architects Design Group from Kalispell to finish drawing up plans, then submit them to the NIH, said Karen Hedglin, project manager, and Bob Lashaway, associate vice president of university services.

Construction can begin once the NIH approves the plans and is expected to take roughly two years.

The plans so far call for keeping Cooley's brick exterior, but completely gutting and rebuilding the five-story building so it contains fully equipped research laboratories. The building will be energy efficient, air-conditioned and meet federal standards for withstanding seismic activity and providing access to people with disabilities. The mechanical system will be enclosed under a new pitched roof.

McCoy said the building could be MSU's second LEED-certified building, meaning that its design, construction and operations are environmentally responsible. LEED refers to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the internationally recognized certification system of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Cooley Lab was built in 1960, but it has never had major renovations, and $6.7 million in maintenance has been deferred, McCoy said. As a result, the building that now contains approximately 31,000 square feet is in disrepair and its laboratories are decades behind current standards.

The building has no air conditioning, so students and faculty who conduct research on the top floor during the summer sometimes endure uncomfortably high temperatures. Such temperatures are hardly conducive to lab work, and they can shorten the lifespan of expensive and delicate laboratory equipment, McCoy said.

The current mechanical systems "are barely functional, and air movement in the building is awful," McCoy said. The only elevator requires control modifications to meet ADA standards. The building has single pane windows and is "very, very, very poorly insulated."

"It leaks like a sieve," McCoy said.

The renovated building will contain no instructional labs. However, because of the close connection between research and instruction at MSU, as well as the strong connections between faculty members and undergraduates, "We will train a lot of students in that building," said Paula Lutz, dean of the College of Letters and Sciences, and principal investigator on the NIH grant application.

McCoy said, "The integration of the research and teaching enterprise provides our undergraduate and graduate students a great competitive edge when they leave the university. We've seen our emphasis in undergraduate research pay great dividends for our students, the Goldwater Scholarship winners being a prime example."

With 51 winners, MSU is ranked 11th nationally for the number of Goldwater Scholarship recipients. The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship is the nation's premier scholarship for undergraduates studying math, natural sciences and engineering.

Timing for the project is ideal, McCoy said, because students who have been using the temporary buildings north of the Chemistry/Biochemistry Building will be able to move into the newly remodeled Gaines Hall just when the temporary buildings will be needed for students displaced by the Cooley renovations.

"Time-wise, things are falling into place," McCoy said.

He praised everyone who worked on the Cooley proposal and gave special kudos to Lutz, Hedglin and the co-principal investigators: Thom Hughes in the Department of Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience and Mike Franklin in the Department of Microbiology.

Contact: Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service director, 406-994-5607 or tellig@montana.edu