The Lab Innovation for Toronto (LIFT) project announced on July 28 is a $190 million investment in research infrastructure, nine faculties, three campuses, 11,000 researchers, and at least 5,000 students.
“Half of our research space, 47 per cent to be precise, is 50-years-old and is not in great shape,” said Scott Mabury, Vice-President of University Operations. “[LIFT] will fundamentally alter how some of these buildings operate.”
“My lab is in Lash Miller,” said Mabury, who researches Environmental Chemistry. “The whole building is one where, if we didn’t make an investment, in 10 years or so, we would have to be thinking about replacing the building… This investment will give us another generation of usage.”
“A lot of labs will be completely renovated. People will go from really uninspiring research space with poor flooring, poor benches, and poor overall functionality, to brand new labs. Dentistry for example, [is] one of the more exciting components.”
Boris Hinz is a Distinguished Professor of Tissue Repair and Regeneration in the Faculty of Dentistry whose laboratory facilities will be dramatically altered by the upcoming renovations.
“These particular funds are a lifetime opportunity for every scientist to really improve [infrastructure],” said Hinz, noting several limitations in the current lab facilities. Pipe leakages have damaged machines, mould has infested cold rooms, and even inconsistent building temperatures have crystallized solutions.
“The [air conditioning and heating] system is particularly slow in responding. By the time the system has responded to the change in temperature outside, it’s changed again,” explained Hinz. “You’d have people sitting there with fans in the middle of winter or you’d have people in summer sitting there with a heater under the table because it’s so cold in the room.”
The Faculty of Dentistry has an interdisciplinary team of clinicians and scientists, yet this advantage is lost due to the divided nature of their facilities. Researchers in the Fitzgerald Building are segregated from the clinicians in the Edwards building.
“We’re quite heterogeneous in many respects and the physical separation doesn’t help that,” said Hinz. I see it as a strength, but it’s only a strength if these people are close enough to share ideas.”
This ineffective use of space is a common theme among several buildings across U of T. The Ramsay Wright building is no exception.
“The current lab design in [Ramsay Wright] is from a different scientific era that dates back well over half a century. The rooms are highly compartmentalized and so the way space is utilized for arranging benches, equipment, and people is often limited and inflexible,” said Vincent Tropepe, Chair of the Cell and Systems Biology Department at U of T. “We find ourselves trying to do exciting and cutting-edge research using infrastructure that is terribly outdated and that constrains, rather than facilitates, our progress.”
Tropepe highlights the need for mechanical and electrical services that are energy efficient and flexible, building security features that protect intellectual property and equipment, and functional building designs for multi-user space.
“The federal funding is a tremendous opportunity for us to move towards an advanced infrastructure for biological science research in the Faculty of Arts & Science, but it’s only one step in the right direction,” said Tropepe. “This kind of investment must continue in the foreseeable future if we are to complete the important goal of modernizing our infrastructure so as to realize the full potential for research excellence.”
Moving north of Toronto, the Koffler Scientific Reserve (KSR) houses a unique space designated for renovation. Its director, John Stinchcombe, is enthusiastic about the opportunity it holds.
“We have an old horse barn that had previously been used for housing horses, stables, stalls, feed bins, and so on. One third of that had been renovated to make it modern laboratory space. The remaining two thirds is still unrenovated horse barn, so dirt floors, stalls, cinder block, construction, and so on,” said Stinchcombe.
Stinchcombe says the impact of LIFT is two-fold: expanding research space for people working on the environment and reducing the impact of operation on the environment.
“The University of Toronto and its faculty, staff, and students, are the premiere institution in Canada at asking fundamental questions and advancing human knowledge at literally the frontier of what we know,” said Mabury. “Imagine what the faculty and staff are going to be able to do in a space that is more aligned [and] more consistent, with the level of science they’re doing.”
“We seek research funding to fundamentally alter and advance human knowledge uniquely in the world, so we need space, labs, research infrastructure, coincident with that level of ambition.”