The Future is Wide Open
IRIC building brings scholars together to take interdisciplinary research new places
The University of Idaho’s new Integrated Research and Innovation Center (IRIC) is all about space.
It’s bright and open, with daylight streaming in from all angles in common areas, offices and laboratories. Glass-walled conference rooms line IRIC’s three-story atrium, which overlooks the campus mall and includes an enormous door that can open the lobby to the outside pavilion on nice days. Outdoor stadium-style seats etched with the university seal stand beside a grass-covered, rain-watered roof — one of the features that make the building LEED Gold targeted for sustainable design.
It’s flexible space, too. The IRIC floors are made of square panels that can be reconfigured to bring power, internet and phone connections anywhere they’re needed. The laboratory appliances can be rearranged to fit different research groups. Special features, like a visualization lab with ceiling-mounted supports for slow-motion cameras or lighting equipment, open the door to even more projects.
But above all, it’s space that’s designed to be filled with people: students, staff and faculty who will gather from the sciences, humanities, engineering, arts and social sciences to work together to ask big questions, explore big ideas and discover big solutions.
“Space is really an important part of developing an interdisciplinary culture,” said Holly Wichman, a UI Distinguished Professor of Biology who leads one of the first research groups moving into IRIC in spring semester. “You really need to spend time together if you’re going to do interdisciplinary work that’s integrated, rather than parallel.”
This means digging into the complexities of the modern world, which can’t be divided along a university’s traditional disciplinary boundaries.
“Our biggest problems are complicated problems that are going to require this kind of approach: infectious disease, energy, fire and so on,” Wichman said. “They are problems that have many different faces, and it takes people from many backgrounds to approach them well.”
A Dream Fulfilled
IRIC is the fulfillment of a longtime dream. An interdisciplinary research building was on the university’s wishlist for more than a decade, said UI construction manager Richard Rader. The Idaho State Board of Education approved the IRIC project in 2012, and administrators and researchers gathered to break ground in August 2014.
Construction is slated for completion in October 2016, followed by furniture installation and space customization for the building’s first occupants, who will move in January 2017.
Who exactly those first occupants will be is still coming into focus. A facility committee governing the building formed over the summer and began laying down a procedure for assigning space.
IRIC is open to any research group on campus, selected through a formal process. Faculty members generally won’t move their existing offices and labs to the building, but rather carve out space for project-specific needs, like offices for graduate and postdoctoral researchers, laboratory space for certain experiments and meeting space for cross-campus teams. The building will house projects for set lengths of time, often based on the lifespan of a grant — though that, like much of IRIC, is flexible.
The university has already tabbed a few projects to go in IRIC outside the selection process. UI’s newly established , or CMCI, leveraged the promise of future IRIC space in its grant application to the National Institutes of Health.
It paid off. Directed by Wichman, CMCI — which focuses on using advanced computer and mathematical modeling techniques to answer biomedical questions, such as how viruses evolve and how social interactions contribute to disease spread — received $10.6 million from NIH.
A reviewer of the grant that funds CMCI even noted that IRIC is a sign of commitment to interdisciplinary work, commenting that it turns the university’s relatively small size into a strength.
Wichman said UI has a productive history of team-based science.
For example, she is also part of the group that founded the university’s Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies. IBEST began as friends meeting for lunch and conversation, and grew into a decades-long, university-wide collaboration that has brought in millions in research dollars.
IRIC will foster the same sort of casual, collegial interactions that created IBEST.
“I think it really changes the culture when you have places people can interact readily,” Wichman said.
CMCI’s space in IRIC revolves around this idea. A corner of the third floor is dedicated to the center’s Collaboratorium, where working groups of students, faculty and staff can gather to discuss their projects. CMCI leaders met with IRIC building staff to customize the furniture and technology for the Collaboratorium, which will be near CMCI laboratory space and offices for center-dedicated postdoctoral researchers and the CMCI deputy director.
“This group of people has been wonderful to work with in terms of listening to what we want to do and making sure it’s the right kind of space — every detail,” Wichman said.
Another confirmed IRIC tenant isn’t a research group, but a central facility dedicated to serving multiple projects. The contains top-of-the-line tools for DNA and RNA sequencing, and its staff assists researchers in designing experiments, analyzing results and visualizing data.
“Basically we take projects and ask, ‘How can we answer this question?’” said data scientist Alida Gerritsen, who works in the core.
Gerritsen is excited for increased refrigeration and storage space compared to the core’s current home in Life Sciences South, and hopes IRIC’s central location will introduce new researchers to the lab’s services.
“I have noticed that even with this technology-based world, physical proximity is a big factor still,” she said. “Meeting people face to face at the establishment point is really important to beginning a project.”
Though IRIC’s first confirmed occupants are based in the hard sciences, the building is by no means limited to just one side of the university research enterprise.
Traci Craig — a psychology professor, associate dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences, and a member of the Facility Committee — expects scholars, artists and researchers will come up with creative and unexpected uses for the building.
“I hope that faculty reach out and have conversations with the committee and the facility manager if they have even the slightest interest,” Craig said.
Craig envisions IRIC as a place where social science and humanities researchers can create research-dedicated space, even when their work isn’t physical. For example, a theater professor writing a play or a psychologist working with data gathered from online surveys don’t need laboratories, but would benefit from spaces set apart from their teaching duties.
“I think there are a lot of possibilities," she said.
Like Wichman, Craig believes IRIC’s best feature is its focus on bringing people together.
All the project leaders in IRIC will meet on a regular basis, so the presence of historians or political scientists could give science and engineering researchers different perspectives on their work and help spark ideas for new projects.
“I think being able to give that hands-on experience in a state-of-the-art facility will make undergraduate students better prepared for graduate education, and make our graduate students ready for academy or industry.”
— Traci Craig, Facility Committee member
Students, too, will be a major part of IRIC, whether they’re stopping at its coffee stand on their way across campus, dropping in for a presentation or working in one of its labs.
“I think being able to give that hands-on experience in a state-of-the-art facility will make undergraduate students better prepared for graduate education, and make our graduate students ready for academy or industry,” Craig said. “I think there’s an opportunity to feel like research is valued and taken seriously, and they can be part of something that’s important.”