New facility proposed to unify research

The University of Alaska Anchorage is in the business of breaking ground lately: a year-old parking garage, a state-of-the-art Consortium Library, new digs at the University Center, and the completion of an Ecosystems/Biomedical Health Facility, slated for March 2004.

But it’s the development behind UAA’s next project that could be groundbreaking.

UAA is working with Alaska Pacific University and the U.S. Geological Survey on a plan to build a shared science facility.

The plan could bring federal research agencies, students and professors all under one roof. The result would be a consortium of Alaskan scientists and a laboratory like no other in the nation.

“This is a chance for UAA to do something of national interest,” said Kim Peterson, associate vice provost for research.

The consortium would give USGS access to other academic departments and research organizations at UAA, Peterson said.

The agency could have help tackling issues of land use and land management in Alaska.

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The USGS, part of the Department of the Interior, collects and analyzes data about natural resource conditions and helps to resolve complex natural resource problems.

“They need economists and social scientists to study some of these problems,” Peterson said. “With this set up, they could be co-located with other academic disciplines and research facilities, such as (The Institute of Social and Economic Research).”

The benefit for UAA is that USGS is interested in working with students for research and internships.

“Here’s all these Ph.D.s they can bring to the students,” Peterson said.

UAA and the agency can also save money by sharing equipment.

Peterson used the example of a DNA sequencer, a machine that analyzes and stores data from DNA samples. High-end sequencers can run up to 1,000 samples a day. But neither UAA nor other agencies have that many samples, or the money to purchase a high-end sequencer.

“We could have the best in the state, maybe the nation, by pooling our resources,” Peterson said.

Don Spalinger, chair of UAA’s Biological Sciences department, said the consortium could also be an opportunity to re-evaluate some of the academic systems.

Currently, there is no communication system that automatically links students to internships and classroom credit for internships, such as other departments at UAA. This could be an opportunity to create that infrastructure, Spalinger said.

Right now, USGS is divided among three locations in Anchorage. It rents space in Grant and Gould halls on the APU campus, and in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife building on Tudor Road. But the agency would like to be in the same building.

In theory, APU would subsidize the building of the facility and continue to rent space to USGS, Peterson said. But UAA would own the space it designed for the building.

“(APU) is in this in a landlord role. UAA would be a condo owner in the building,” Peterson said. “We would own the labs and offices spaces.”

UAA is already working on plans for a new integrated science facility, scheduled to be completed by 2006. The facility was to be the third phase in alleviating the need for teaching and lab oratory space.

“Once we started talking to USGS, the whole picture changed,” Spalinger said. “The integrated science building won’t be big enough to hold us all.”

USGS is determining its own needs and working on a plan that will become an appendage to UAA’s plan. Architects are figuring out if the plans can work together in one building.

And there are other details to consider.

Location is an issue. Neither UAA nor APU have a lot of available land.

USGS envisions a site close to the Consortium Library and other student facilities. But USGS is a large organization, and complaints about parking are already a problem on UAA’s commuter campus.

Security is another factor. Currently, all federal government buildings have secured entrances; employees carry identification badges and must swipe them for clearance to enter a building.

Spalinger wonders how that would work with students and faculty needing access to this shared space. Furthermore, with new classes and students every semester, the turnover could be high.

Still, the benefits seem to outweigh the problems. Spalinger said this could be one of the most tightly knit consortiums in the nation.

“This could become a national laboratory for these students,” Peterson said. “We can’t pass it up.”