A university, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, is “an institution of higher education and research that grants academic degrees in a variety of subjects.” At UW-Madison, the “higher education” part of this definition is easy to see. Visit campus during the academic year between the times of 9:40AM and 9:55AM, 10:45AM and 11:00AM, 11:50AM and 12:05AM, etc., you will see a flood of bodies, backpacks and bikes in the street hustling between the many educational buildings. The “research” part has historically been exquisite at UW-Madison, but it has visually been harder to find, until now.
The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, or commonly referred to on campus as “Discovery,” has been shining with success and inspiring curiosity for almost two years now. This $210 million project has been granted two awards since opening in 2010 – the 2012 Lab of the Year award by R&D Magazine and a LEED gold certification for incorporating energy and water saving systems. The building is a symbol of UW-Madison’s research that previously seemed hidden. Discovery is home to three organizations: the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID), the Morgridge Institute for Research (MIR), and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). WID is a public research organization operated by UW-Madison, MIR is a private research organization sponsored by the Morgridges and operated by WARF, and WARF acts as a landlord since they own two-thirds of the building and is also utilized for patenting purposes. The combination of the three creates an efficient way for many different types of research to get accomplished.
The building was strategically designed for the three organizations to revolutionize research by encouraging different fields to collaborate and solve a variety of problems. Interaction with the community was another major feature taken into consideration when planning the building. The first floor, called the Town Center, is open to the public and invites the community to learn about all of the research being done in the building. The other four floors (lower level included) contain the research labs which are not open to the public. One must realize that WID and MIR are not separated by floor. The majority of the research space is shared between the two entities and is very open to encourage researchers to talk and share ideas. “The Discovery building was built to force people to interact,” says Janet Kelly, the Communications Director of MIR and WARF, “You literally do run into people you would not see if you were working in a traditional lab building with many floors, long corridors and hidden labs and offices.”
Oftentimes it gets confusing when trying to put together all the pieces that make up this puzzle of a building. An easy way to differentiate everything is by looking at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery as a brain. The human brain has two hemispheres; the right for creativity and expression, and the left for logic and mathematical thinking. The public entity, the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, is the right side of the brain, while the private entity, the Morgridge Institute for Research, is the left side of the brain.
Covering research that is more abstract and creative, WID has teams researching stem cell development based on the external environment, human beings as ecosystems and virtual reality environments (see the magazine’s September, 2012 issue) to name a few. Marianne English, who leads the Communications Office for WID, described their focus on something called transdisciplinary research. “The core of our research is to see what different disciplines can get from each other by working together” English says. The idea is that larger questions about the problems faced in the 21st century, such as population growth, higher education, etc., can be approached from multiple disciplines. “Problems don’t come in disciplines so why should the solutions?” English says, “Instead of focusing in on a precise aspect of a topic, we want to focus on the overlapping parts of academic fields.” If all academic fields were circles of a Venn diagram, making up all educational knowledge, it seems that WID’s research focuses on the overlapping parts of the circles.
Highlighting more analytical research, MIR aims to advance basic science while addressing some of the world’s most devastating diseases such as hepatitis B, AIDS and cancer. Because it is specifically a medical research organization, MIR asks a lot of the same questions as WID does, but approaches the answers in a more direct manner. MIR has research teams working on projects such as regenerative biology, virology, and medical devices. Being a private institute allows benefits such as continuing research with private funds and on private property in situations where the government may not permit certain research using federal or state funds, such has been the case with human embryonic stem cell research in the past. “The biggest advantage is that private organizations can be much more nimble when responding to important opportunities such as establishing new partnerships, hiring scientific talent or purchasing state-of-the-art equipment,” Kelly says, “A private institute does not have the bureaucracy and funding restrictions that comes with being part of a public university.”
There is a reason why the two parts of the brain are not separated within the body. The two parts have to work together in order for the body to function properly. The same applies to WID and MIR. This goes against the stereotypical vision of what lab research is. Ali Khaleel, a UW-Madison student who also works at the Discovery Welcome Desk, says “Whenever I thought of scientific research, I thought of a few guys in white lab coats playing with petri dishes and microscopes in a small, dark lab. Now I have a completely different idea.” Discovery has taken a completely new approach to research. Teamwork and sharing ideas are the most important aspects in this new method.
In MIR’s perspective, one great benefit of working alongside a public entity is they have access to resources and facilities of a world class public research university. “While few people have heard of the Morgridge Institute because it is so new, such a close association with UW-Madison automatically provides the Morgridge Institute with some credibility and recognition in the scientific world,” Kelly says, “At the same time, the Morgridge Institute is hoping to further strengthen research on campus by adding research power and resources.” In today’s society, it can be a very uncomfortable topic and can almost become a competition between public and private organizations. At Discovery, no rivalry exists. “The idea of combining public and private research is inspiring,” Khaleel says, “In the end it really doesn’t matter. The goal is always going to be the same: to make peoples’ lives better.”
Spend an hour, even a half hour. You will discover something truly incredible and unique.Ali Khaleel, UW-Madison student
The Town Center then acts as the communication device for the brain. It draws the public in and makes known all the research that has been going on. Both the WID and MIR provide brochures and newsletters to inform the public about their research. The Town Center then invites the public in by hosting events and lectures, providing free computer usage and wireless internet, offering great places to dine, in addition to being, simply put, really cool. There are fossils in the floor, chimes that play according to a natural mathematical sequence, and block fountains that can help you keep track of time. “The majority of contacts I get who come to the front desk just say, ‘What is this building?’ and when I explain everything they are just so mesmerized. People get drawn in because everything looks so cool and then they learn,” Khaleel says. Some of the events hosted are the Hackathon: A Bridge between Humanities and the Sciences, Saturday Science as well as many events for the Wisconsin Science Festival. Even events that do not have to do with science promote the public to come in. Last year, for example, there was a breakdancing competition. “It was cool to see something so unrelated to science in a science research building,” Khaleel says, “Even though they weren’t there to learn, some of the guys were playing around with the interactive walls and learning about what the building is all about.”
Once again, Wisconsin is keeping to the state motto: “Forward.” The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery is one of the only research institutes in the world to combine the public and private sector. Others may be attempting to imitate, but we are leading the way. Finally, the research that UW-Madison is known for has a bright, shining face, located right in the heart of campus across the street from Union South. “People who come to UW-Madison say ok here is my bucket list: go to the Capitol, meet Bucky, eat on State Street, go to a football game, etc.,” Khaleel says, “Going to Discovery should be added to every one of those bucket lists. Spend an hour, even a half hour. You will discover something truly incredible and unique.”