Postdoc Dingyin Tao in the lab with Rhoel Dinglasan

The Science of Space

A plethora of new labs allows young investigators to go where scientists have never gone before. Bacteria, beware.

By Rebecca Widiss • Photography by Chris Hartlove

Just over 50 years old, the Bloomberg School’s North Wing is young again.

Construction workers are making final tweaks to a sweeping renovation that encompasses a quarter of the School’s research labs—where investigation topics range from malaria and influenza, to sex differences and reproductive disorders, to basic research on how the human genome responds to its environment.

From the start, the renovation team’s goal wasn’t simply to update the North Wing’s labs but to build on decades of research—much of it from the School itself—on healthy and productive workspaces. Large windows and reflective surfaces spread light throughout most rooms. Open and flexible layouts promote collaboration. And state-of-the-art support systems minimize energy use.

The chance for the ambitious renovation arose when President Obama called for “shovel-ready” projects for the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The School proposed a complete overhaul to seven of the North Wing’s nine floors. (Some of the labs were not being used because they did not meet present-day lab standards.) Associate Dean Janet DiPietro, PhD, led the proposal’s drafting while Senior Associate Dean Jane Schlegel, MBA, directed Facilities’ planning and design work. The proposal received the maximum award of $15 million. A team from Facilities, including Dave Kempner, Mike Schoeffield, Kim Perreault and George Sparkes, managed the design and renovation phases.

In the following stories, see how space can shape science.

Seeing the Light

Dionne P. Robinson
6th-year PhD candidate, Molecular Microbiology and Immunology (MMI)
PI: Sabra L. Klein, PhD

Despite our age-old fascination with sex differences, one topic rarely comes up in such discussions: immune responses to infection. Dionne P. Robinson’s research may soon change this.

Robinson is investigating how estradiol, a hormone primarily secreted by the ovaries, can help female mice fend off the influenza virus. She spends hours poring over lung samples from her mice—gauging how the presence of inflammation-related proteins and cells correlates with estradiol levels.

The new space has given Robinson a new neighbor: a molecular virology lab. It’s a great resource for relevant findings and ideas, as well as equipment. “Anytime we need to borrow something, they’re right there,” says Robinson. She often borrows automatic pipettes, while the neighbors stop by to use a plate-washer, which helps researchers avoid erroneous results caused by hand washing.

But best of all, says Robinson, are the windows. As she sits at her desk writing one final paper before completing her doctoral degree, she says, “It’s really nice to have some natural light coming in.”

A Mass Improvement

Dingyin Tao, PhD
Postdoc, MMI
Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute
PI: Rhoel Dinglasan, PhD

There’s been a welcome new “addition” to Dingyin Tao’s life—a mass spectrometer. “In many ways, a mass spectrometer is like a ‘newborn baby’ who needs to be taken care of very carefully,” says Tao. “We need enough space, no dust, a consistent temperature and no direct sunshine.”

It’s worth the effort. With Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation support, Tao is working with principal investigators Rhoel Dinglasan and Sungano Mharakurwa to develop a malaria test using saliva rather than blood samples (which are unpopular in areas where blood taboos exist). Success is by no means guaranteed, but step one is to identify a protein that could signal the presence of Plasmodium falciparum—the deadliest malaria parasite—in saliva samples from asymptomatic carriers. Tao relies on the new spectrometer to characterize the proteins in his samples.

Before the renovation, Tao shuttled samples to the medical school for analysis, risking that they degrade en route. Now Tao not only conducts his own mass spec research in-house but assists collaborators from as far away as Australia.

In the Hood

Hillary Clark
2nd-year PhD student, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB)
PI: Valeria Culotta, PhD

The bacterium that causes Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi, has a rare talent: It thrives without using iron for any cellular processes, such as metabolism or DNA replication. Hillary Clark is studying this unique aspect of B. burgdorferi’s success—seeking insights that might one day be used against it.

“I used to have to go to rooms on opposite sides of the building to gather my materials,” says Clark, “and go back and forth all day.”

Now, she adds, “everything I need to do one experiment is in one place.”

Clark has similar praise for the new Tissue Culture Room. “The hood is huge, the lighting is great, and everything is organized. It’s a lot more efficient to get things set up and start my experiments.”

Not that Clark’s in a rush. After spending a day in the new lab, she says her first thought was, “[I’m] happy that I’m only a second year, and I get to spend a lot more time here.”

A Killer Fungus

Cissy Li
3rd-year PhD student
Environmental Health Sciences
PI: Valeria Culotta, PhD (BMB)

Though the HIV virus has many partners in shortening life, few are as brutally efficient as Candida albicans, a yeast fungus. In people with weakened immune systems, C. albicans proves deadly 35–40 percent of the time.

Cissy Li is studying an unusual antioxidant enzyme that’s found in C. albicans and seems to be involved in its deadly impacts. She hopes to tease out the enzyme’s role and, in turn, highlight a potential vulnerability that would be unique to the fungi.

For Li, the new lab’s spacious, open layout means faster trouble-shooting. Often when bench neighbors are chatting about a problem, she says, someone all the way across the room will pipe up with a solution. On the flip side, Li appreciates having all the team’s back-up equipment—freezers, refrigerators, temperature-controlled shakers—tucked in nearby rooms where they can’t be heard.

The Outside View

Kate Laws, 4th-year PhD student, BMB
Alissa Armstrong, PhD, Postdoc, BMB
PI: Daniela Drummond-Barbosa, PhD

You are what you eat. We all know this is true, but why it’s true is another matter—especially when it comes to links between obesity and cancer.

Enter Kate Laws (left, top left photo) and Alissa Armstrong (right, top left photo).

“Basically,” says Laws, “we study the ways that what you ingest changes [how] your body functions—in a really tiny snapshot.”

That “snapshot” is the Drosophila fly. Both women are tracing nutrient-sensing pathways that lead through fat tissue to ovarian stem cells, ultimately impacting how many eggs the flies produce. The pair hopes to shed light on how diet affects stem cells in general, across a wide range of organisms and—since normal stem cells and cancer cells share many of the same pathways—on the cancer-fat connection in particular.

A Special Space: The Bacteria Stops Here

Karen Griffin
Laboratory Assistant, MMI
Glassware Lab

For over a decade, Karen Griffin has been working in the Glassware Lab, helping to ensure that every test tube, pipette and beaker in MMI gets cleaned and sterilized properly.

Griffin’s work begins when a researcher drops off a cart of dirty equipment, usually containing about 20 pieces of glassware. “Sometimes we have 20 carts,” she says. “Now we can do all 20 in eight hours.” With roughly 800–1,000 pieces coming in every week, Griffin and her coworkers need to clean approximately 47,000 pieces every year.

Thanks to the renovation, Griffin’s workspace is literally twice as efficient as before. She and her coworkers now have two glass washers, two autoclaves to sterilize equipment, two dry ovens and (thankfully) twice as much space.

Griffin has been around long enough—13 years—to fully appreciate such equipment. “In the old days,” she says with a laugh, “we had to use our hands.”