Spanning 312,000 square feet in the heart of Central Campus, the University of Michigan’s new Biological Sciences Building will serve as a hub of scientific innovation and give the public an opportunity to discover science in action.
The $261 million building is the new home of the departments of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the Museum of Natural History, the teaching collections for the museums of Paleontology and Zoology, and paleontology museum faculty and staff. It includes research laboratories, associated support functions, offices and classrooms.
Although the building has opened and is currently in use by faculty and staff and will host classes at the start of this semester, the Museum of Natural History will open in two phases: the first in April 2019 and the second in fall 2019.
Towering above North University and Washtenaw avenues, the Biological Sciences Building is split into three towers, with walls of glass windows filtering in natural light to the two large atriums, social spaces and laboratories.
Among its features, the building includes a flexible active-learning hall that allows students to work in groups, and classrooms for specimen-based teaching where students can study organisms within the university’s collections.
A “whale belly” ceiling, so named for its form that curves in both the east-west and north-south directions, is made out of acoustic drywall, helping reduce reverberations throughout the atriums and reflecting light deep into the interior labs. A cast skeleton of a plesiosaur — a prehistoric marine reptile — hangs over the building’s café.
Faculty offices, graduate student areas, and large social spaces and shared laboratories that contain multiple faculty members’ teams are distributed throughout the building to facilitate interactions and interdisciplinary collaboration, said Robert Johnston, LSA director of facilities and operations.
The new lab setups mark a vast difference from the departments’ prior homes in the Edward Henry Kraus Natural Science Building and the Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building, built in 1915 and 1928, respectively.
In the older buildings, each professor had his or her own lab, and labs were often separated from one another, making interaction more difficult between colleagues.
The BSB is designed to encourage collaboration, mimicking the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of science, said Christopher Poulsen, associate dean for natural sciences at LSA.
“One faculty member said that he has collaborated with his colleagues more in the last three weeks than he had in the previous three years,” said Poulsen, professor of earth and environmental sciences, LSA; and professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, College of Engineering.
“We don’t get an opportunity very often to change our space according to the direction that science is going,” Poulsen added. “This was that opportunity.”
Another goal of the new science building is to show the public science in action, enhancing understanding and interaction with the field.
The Museum of Natural History winds through the building, and visitors will get to see exhibits related to current faculty research.
Visitors will also be able to look through large windows into the biodiversity and paleontology labs. They will even be able to see what a researcher is looking at through a microscope on a large video screen.
“I think right now there is a lot of skepticism about science,” Poulsen said. “And that skepticism stems from not understanding how science is done or what the culture of science is. Science is performed by people. It’s a collaborative exercise.”
When the Museum of Natural History opens, visitors will be able to say hello to the museum’s iconic mastodon couple and the prehistoric whales, the latter of which hang overhead in the museum atrium.
Director Amy Harris said the museum will be altering its programming to make it more participatory and hands-on for visitors, offering guests the opportunity to be part of citizen scientist projects.
“We have an opportunity here, as we’re so close to these wonderful labs, to put science on display and connect our visitors with the research that’s happening,” Harris said.
“So people are going to see science and research in process instead of finished science. And that’s a really exciting change. It means that visitors, young people, students and kids can imagine themselves as scientists.”