If they were asked to name the key ingredients for promoting scientific and technological innovation, many people might point to hard assets like lab benches, specialized facilities and equipment.

But as research becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, making collaboration ever more necessary, another view is gaining popularity. It suggests that inspiration often arises from catalysts like coffee and conversation, rubbing elbows with colleagues and simply hanging out.

All of these factors are integral to the design and function of Lehigh’s new $4.5 million Health Research Hub (HRH), which opened in late 2013 in Iacocca Hall on the Mountaintop campus.

“HRH is intended and designed, from an architectural perspective, to be a truly collaborative space in every sense of the word,” says Anand Jagota, professor of chemical engineering and director of the bioengineering and life sciences program. “We’re redefining how facilities are laid out, how they’re allocated and how they’re shared.”

The renovated 4,500-square-foot space immediately conveys a feeling different from that of many other Lehigh research facilities. Rather than being walled off from each other, labs are open and bright, with long, barrier-free benches that allow easy interaction between researchers working on different projects or in different disciplines.

The HRH, says Jagota, accommodates three core functions that rarely exist side by side: cell culture, characterization using optical microscopy and other forms of imaging, and microfabrication for engineering biological systems and devices.

Perhaps most noteworthy, a conference room adjoins an area of student desk space at the heart of the Hub.

“There’s always a natural inclination to put in more labs,” says Jagota. “But we chose to set aside almost 500 square feet for a place in the middle of the facility where people can exchange ideas, call something up on a computer or just sit down and talk. The idea is to encourage people to work across departments and provide the spark for new projects.”

Indeed, says S. David Wu, Iacocca Professor and Dean of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, the HRH will set the tone for future space renovations throughout the college.

“The HRH is meant to be a showcase that demonstrates new concepts and best practices in research collaboration,” says Wu. “In its physical layout, its management and the manner in which its space is allocated and reallocated, the facility will encourage multidisciplinary collaboration.”

An unexpected use for a pathogen

A case in point is the partnership between Bryan Berger and Steve McIntosh. While both have positions in the department of chemical engineering, “our research areas are as different scientifically as two people’s can be,” says Berger. But because they had socialized, Berger thought of McIntosh while he was working with the Lehigh Valley Health Network to study pathogenic bacteria that grow on inert surfaces.

“These bacteria essentially chew up metal and spit it out as nanoparticles,” Berger says. What if that process could be reengineered to harness the bacteria to make nanoparticles of specific metals? Doing so could produce semiconductor particles called quantum dots that could be used in diverse applications for wide-ranging fields including healthcare, consumer goods—and renewable sources of energy.

“Steve had the knowledge to integrate quantum dots into a device to make methanol,” Berger says.

Joining forces with Chris Kiely, professor of materials science and engineering, and Robert Skibbens, associate professor of biological sciences in Lehigh’s College of Arts and Sciences, the team secured a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a biological process for generating renewable methanol fuel. The team is combining quantum dots with enzymes to capture the energy in sunlight and separate hydrogen and carbon from, respectively, water and carbon dioxide to form a hydrocarbon.

“Typically this is done with nasty solvents and reactants on a small scale,” McIntosh says. “Harnessing a biological process allows us to do it greener, at low cost and on a much larger scale.”

Berger and McIntosh were the first multidisciplinary team to set up shop in the Health Research Hub.

“It helps promote collaboration to have a sense of working with your friends or people you run into every day,” McIntosh says. He and Berger had developed that familiarity randomly before the HRH took shape, he adds, but “with the Hub’s shared space, this should happen more frequently.”

“A natural influx”

The concepts behind the HRH grew out of a greater vision for the future of both the bioengineering program and Lehigh as a whole.

“Health-related research has been growing at Lehigh as part of a natural influx of biology into the physical sciences and engineering in general,” says Jagota. “It’s a major area of the economy that grew even through the recession—and will continue to grow over the next several decades.”

Recognizing these trends, Lehigh launched an undergraduate bioengineering program in 2002. “When that program acquired some maturity, we set out to decide what we needed to do and what we should provide for new faculty in order to develop a strong research identity,” Jagota says.

That required a careful evaluation of Lehigh’s attributes. Lehigh’s relatively small size and its lack of a medical school, says Jagota, ruled out conducting research on heart transplants, for example, or in an area that required testing on large animals or access to certain kinds of tissue samples.

“We looked at our strengths in materials, devices and engineering,” Jagota says. “The combination of these strengths informed the kind of technology- and engineering-centric health research we think is going to succeed at Lehigh.”

Part of the vision behind the HRH included encouraging collaboration among people with disparate expertise in what is becoming an inherently multidisciplinary field. “The question became, ‘What kind of a facility do we need to build to support that?’” says Jagota.

“A single mission and space”

Robert Nalls is principal architect with Nalls Architecture Inc. of Narberth, Pa., near Philadelphia, which specializes in buildings that support scientific research for institutional clients. The firm has completed a variety of projects, creating designs for the University of Pennsylvania’s new Vaccine Research Institute in Guangzhou, China, and for the renovations of Princeton’s Campus Club and of the biomedical labs at the University of Virginia’s Medical School.

“We’ve worked on other projects that entail interdisciplinary collaboration,” Nalls says. “But Lehigh’s project—more than any other we’ve done—really brings together what are often distinct disciplines into a single mission and space.”

The characterization lab on the south side of a central corridor features three darkened, windowless rooms to enhance visualization for microscopy and imaging. On the north side of the hall, the fabrication and cell culture labs sit side by side. Both are pressurized, with access through air locks. The pressure in the fabrication lab is designed to push against outside air to keep the room clean, while the pressure in the tissue lab directs airflow the opposite way to keep potential contaminants inside the room.

“The tissue lab exceeds biosafety level 2 standards, making it the highest biosafety level lab at Lehigh,” says Xuanhong Cheng, associate professor of materials science and engineering and a faculty member of the bioengineering program.

“These kinds of rooms can be a challenge in a renovation,” Nalls says. “Supporting mechanical systems become very important for design and construction.”

Both the fabrication and tissue labs use smart systems that gather information about air pressure and handling to constantly maintain proper relationships between adjacent spaces, says HRH lab manager Guowei “Will” Xia.

The conference room and student desk area perform a safety function while promoting collaboration.

“It’s not safe or appropriate to bring food or coffee into labs that may have chemical or biological hazards,” Nalls says. “That’s another reason it’s so important to have a dedicated non-lab environment to come together and eat lunch, have meetings or talk about what you’re discovering.”

Flexibility was a key consideration throughout the space, especially in bench labs.

“You can unplug equipment from the ceiling and take it to another lab, or make room for other equipment so the lab can change as the science or project needs change,” Nalls says. Some equipment will be built or brought in by faculty. Other equipment will be provided through research grants or funds allocated from an internal Lehigh award supporting work at the HRH.

Flexibility will allow different research teams to rotate in and out of HRH space, says Jagota. Thus, space in the facility will be assigned on a year-to-year basis, and research teams must reapply for renewal at the end of each year.

“One of our tasks was to come up with a process for systematically inviting proposals for the space,” he says.

“We’re explicitly looking to bring people together for new multidisciplinary projects that would otherwise not be able to get off the ground.”

Probing neuron death with OCM

Yevgeny Berdichevsky and Chao Zhou study epilepsy by using brain tissue cultures and microelectronics to observe how seizures affect neurons. Both are assistant professors ofelectrical and computer engineering, but until recently their laboratories were located two miles from each other.

“Before HRH, I was at the Mountaintop campus and Chao was on the main campus,” says Berdichevsky. “To conduct our research, graduate students carrying tissue samples would often have to drive back and forth between the two locations, which is far from ideal.”

In their project, Berdichevsky and Zhou are attempting to gain a better understanding of the neuron death that occurs during epileptic seizures in order to promote the development of new anticonvulsive drugs.

“About 30 to 35 percent of people with epilepsy don’t respond to medication,” Berdichevsky says. “The next step for them is neurosurgery.”

Zhou has developed optical coherence microscopy (OCM) technology that enables high-resolution imaging of brain cultures.

“Having windowless darkrooms where light can’t intrude is critical for optical imaging,” Berdichevsky says, “and so is having the darkroom in close proximity to the tissue cultures. It’s not typical to find those two things together, but we have that in the HRH.”

The success of the project, he adds, depends on two different areas of expertise coming together.

“Each of us brings something to the table that the other doesn’t have. Together, we can build a better project than either of us could do alone.”

The HRH offers similar advantages to Yaling Liu, associate professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics and also a faculty member in the bioengineering program. Liu has teamed with Daniel Ou-Yang, professor of physics, and Linda Lowe-Krentz, professor of biological sciences, both in the College of Arts and Sciences, to develop fast, low-cost methods for testing anti-cancer drugs. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, the team is conducting tests on a chip etched with channels that are coated with human endothelial cells to mimic the capillaries of the human lung.

Liu examines interfacial phenomena at the nanoscale while Lowe-Krentz studies how blood flow changes cell behavior. Ou-Yang is developing observational tools using technologies such as confocal and scanning electron microscopy.

“My lab, the confocal scanning microscope and the scanning electron microscope were all in different places,” Liu says. “Transporting live samples back and forth sometimes damaged them. Having a core centralized facility is very helpful.”

A focus on protein transport

Liu is also working with Cheng on a microchip designed to isolate cells that tumors shed into the bloodstream in hopes of developing better diagnostic tests. “Her lab is in Iacocca and mine is on the main campus,” Liu says. “It will be easier to have all our efforts in one location.”

Angela Brown, assistant professor of chemical engineering, joined the Lehigh faculty in January and has already set up an HRH lab to study alternatives to existing antibiotics that bacteria increasingly resist.

“Rather than focusing on killing bacteria, I’m focused on the toxins that bacteria produce and how these toxins interact with human cells to cause disease,” says Brown.

Brown is particularly interested in the outer membrane vesicles that allow bacteria to secrete toxins and deliver them to other cells. Understanding the mechanisms that bacteria use to transport proteins could help scientists develop new weapons against pathogens and also improve the delivery of some medications.

In the HRH, Brown will take utilize the microscopy facilities and culture lab to grow both bacterial and human cells.

“The Hub is a beautiful space that shows Lehigh is committed to collaborative biomedical and biological research,” says Brown. “When I interviewed here, I noticed that people collaborate across departments. It’s not just something the administration encourages; it’s something people actively do.”

In just its first few months, says McIntosh, the HRH has made collaboration easier.

“I’ve seen it often in the shared conference space, the student spaces and the bench areas,” he says. “I’ll be involved with a discussion with one student, and another who is working nearby chimes in.

“A camaraderie is developing where we help each other out more.”


Story by Richard Laliberte
Photos by Ryan Hulvat