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This Old House

A couple of springs ago, in the midst of cutting-edge experiments probing the molecular shells of viruses, pharmacologist Wade Gibson found himself with an unexpected crisis. The ceiling of his laboratory, on the third floor of the Physiology Building, leaked. Water doused—and destroyed—a key piece of equipment, a highly sensitive, computerized protein-sequencing device. “We had to order a new machine,” Gibson remembers with surprising stoicism.

William Agnew amidst the constructionGibson’s not the type to be thrown off-track by such a setback. But the incident didn’t sit as easily with physiology director William Agnew, who was keenly aware of a number of infrastructure problems—from pipes and wires to lab benches and lighting—that were getting in the way of projects in other labs. Agnew was also concerned about the effect that antiquated workspace in the five-building basic science complex on the northeastern corner of the medical campus might have on attracting and retaining top scientists.

“It’s a factor that can make you lose faculty and fellows to competitive institutions,” he points out. “And it makes it infinitely harder to recruit the best students. Beyond that, this is Johns Hopkins, and it’s a disgrace to have a member of the National Academy of Sciences working in substandard facilities.”

So, two and a half years ago, Agnew singlehandedly took on the job of finding a way to bring the laboratories into the modern age. The trouble, of course, was finding funds to do more than just patch-up jobs. Three of the five buildings were in dire need of work and, according to Agnew’s initial calculations, would take about $12 million to improve properly.

Although the School of Medicine had updated parts of the Preclinical Teaching Building and Hunterian, the infrastructures of the Wood Basic Science and the Biophysics buildings dated back to the 1950s. The Physiology Building, harkening to 1929, had presented a challenge for years; it was prohibitively expensive even to bring into line with standard code requirements. Because of failing electrical systems, large appliances were crammed into tiny rooms and plugged into hallway outlets by way of extension cords. In one room, a heat-sterilizing autoclave, a refrigerated ultracentrifuge, and an 80 degree freezer shared company, causing “brown outs.” One eminent physiologist found the only way to keep his expensive computer setup from breaking down in his overheated lab was to cover it with boxes of dry ice.

The remodeling had been put off year after year, explains Richard Grossi, chief financial officer of the School of Medicine, because other projects were deemed more urgent. “Of course we would have liked to have done these renovations, but a decision was made to place a higher priority on [creating] new space for the basic science and the clinical departments.”

When Agnew began his crusade, former Dean Michael Johns agreed to put up more than $1 million of medical school revenue toward the renovations. Agnew then pieced together grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institutions, and with biophysics director Jeremy Berg’s help scraped together another few million. Meanwhile, he located a science-savvy alumnus who agreed to donate an anonymous $5 million if the School would match it.

So, in January, Agnew invited Dean/CEO Edward Miller on a tour of the basic science complex. The dean took one look and committed the School of Medicine to raising $3 million from outside donors to get the overhaul done right. “The infrastructure didn’t support the quality of the science being done there,” Miller declares. The total—nearly $13 million—should be enough to bring the facilities up to snuff.

Today, the job is well under way. Workers have rewired outmoded circuitry and replaced corroded pipes. Walls have come down, and partitioned labs been opened into bright spaces. Even hallways look better, with new tiling and lights, and no more rusted gym lockers serving for storage.

The remodelling has bonded the basic sciences faculty, uniting business and fund-raising offices. And in a new spirit of cooperation, directors have worked out plans for an Institute of Basic Sciences.

By spring 1999, the complex should function a lot better. As for the total number of labs to be gutted and rebuilt, a pleased Agnew puts the estimate around 80. - KL