USC College Dedicates New Facility

The Molecular & Computational Biology Building will house researchers working on the front lines of genomics, genetics and molecular evolution. President Sample calls the four-floor structure a ‘gateway of new opportunity.’

By Eva Emerson
USC College debuted its new Molecular & Computational Biology Building – a four-floor, state-of-the-art research and training facility located next to Kaprielian Hall – during a formal dedication ceremony April 26.

The 118,000-square-foot building will house researchers working on the frontiers of genomics as well as those investigating cutting-edge questions in molecular biology, genetics, bioinformatics and molecular evolution.

More than 200 guests attended the event hosted by USC College Dean Joseph Aoun and USC President Steven B. Sample, which included a reception, tours of the new laboratories and dinner.

“Tonight’s celebration is about much more than a magnificent building. It is about the innovative research that led us to build this new facility,” said Dean Aoun, holder of the Anna H. Bing Dean’s Chair. “Computational biology could only have started in the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences because colleges have the right building blocks: mathematics, biology and chemistry.”

“But it did not start in any college – it started at USC College because USC College nurtures a culture of interdisciplinary scholarship, and this is what distinguishes us from many other institutions,” Aoun said.

At the dedication, a small crowd of VIPs – all guests central to the effort to construct the new facility – gathered to help cut the large, yellow ribbon draped across the front entrance.

Participants in the ribbon-cutting were: President Sample; Dean Aoun; USC trustee Pat Haden, who is also a member of the USC College board of councilors; Robert Erburu, chair of the college board of councilors; Jana Waring Greer, a member of the college board of councilors; and three of the college’s most accomplished biological scientists – professor Myron Goodman, Distinguished Professor Norman Arnheim and University Professor Michael Waterman.

Calling the building a “gateway of new opportunity,” Sample congratulated Aoun and college faculty, students and supporters on the building’s opening. He also thanked outgoing USC Provost Lloyd Armstrong, Jr. for his efforts on behalf of the college and the entire university during his tenure.

“This is not only a new building … [it] will be a complex and interdependent ecosystem of scientific creativity and invention,” Sample said. “First-rate research infrastructure is important to the success of the college and to the enhancement of the entire university.”

The building’s new occupants study both computational genomics – the design and development of algorithms that analyze DNA and protein sequences and the application of these algorithms to issues in a spectrum of biological and biomedical areas – and experimental or functional genomics.

The MCB Building will, for the first time, unite molecular and computational biology faculty in a shared physical space. Although the programs formally merged a number of years ago, until now faculty labs and offices continued to reflect the disciplinary division that the merger and the scientists themselves were working to erase.

“Interactions between the molecular and computational biologists have steadily increased since the merger of the two programs. However, I expect things to explode when we’re all under the same roof,” said molecular biologist Steven Finkel, an assistant professor of biological sciences.

The MCB Building, designed by the architectural firm of Zimmer, Gunsul & Frasca, boasts adjoining offices, common spaces, open areas, shared equipment rooms, meeting rooms and a seminar room.

Molecular biology “wet” labs on the first two floors will complement a different kind of lab on the third floor, designed for a new breed of biologist fluent in both experimental biology and the analytical techniques of computational biology.

The top floor will include computational biology suites where scientists will be able to access powerful computing resources loaded with number-crunching software that speeds the analysis of data produced by the crew downstairs.

“This state-of-the-art building will give USC’s life scientists a world-class infrastructure to engage in the most forward-thinking and competitive research, ensuring USC remains a major academic center for molecular and computational biology,” said Waterman, the USC Associates Chair in Natural Sciences and professor of biological sciences, mathematics and computer science.

“This building will be a resource for the whole campus and bring together researchers from the college, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, the Keck School of Medicine, the Davis School of Gerontology and the School of Dentistry,” Aoun said. “This kind of interaction, which links fundamental and applied research, is expected to pay extraordinary dividends, not only in the understanding of disease but also in the design of new drugs and therapies.”

The USC Molecular & Computational Biology Building is an important part of the largest building campaign in this university’s history, Sample said, noting that USC and its partners are in the midst of construction of 28 new buildings that will add a total of 8.1 million square feet to the university – almost equal to building another campus.

Erburu, chair of the board of councilors, spoke briefly, reminding the crowd that ground was broken for the building just 24 months ago.

“Knowing all of the scientific accomplishments our scientists have made without the benefit of a building as wonderful as this, I can only imagine all that will be achieved with this cutting-edge facility in the coming years,” he said. “For our part, we will continue our efforts to support the advancement not only of the life sciences in the college, but also of the college’s broader aim – to continue on the path of excellence in all areas.”

USC trustee Haden emceed the dinner program, which featured junior faculty members Finkel, Michelle Arbeitman and Ting Chen sharing their perspectives on the dynamic growth of the college life sciences and how the new facility will help advance their research.

Molecular biology doctoral student Ronda Bransteitter also addressed the crowd, discussing her experiences studying with Goodman, professor of biological sciences and chemistry. Bransteitter recently was selected by the biological sciences faculty to receive the department’s top graduate student honor, the William E. Trusten Student Award.

“The research done at this facility will have a direct and ongoing impact on the Southern California economy and on the progress of science and medicine in Los Angeles and beyond,” said Haden, who described the next big challenge facing the college.

This fall, he announced, “the college will launch a new fund-raising initiative based on the joint values of tradition and innovation. Like the building of this facility, this new initiative will only succeed through the dedication and efforts of us all.”

The celebration offered college guests, alumni and the building’s future inhabitants a preview of the near-complete building, but its doors are not expected to officially open until late May. Move-in will begin shortly thereafter.