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Biochemistry’s Past, Future Unfold In A New Building

Of all the eye-catching features in UW-Madison”s new biochemistry building, visitors might start at their feet, with the mosaic of swirling shapes sealed into the lobby floor.

The plum-colored terrazzo tile swims with images that occupy a biochemist”s life: Unfolding strands of DNA, circular snapshots of hormone and protein structures, and silhouettes of frogs, plant leaves and pink-eyed lab rats.

“Biochemistry Waltz,” the unique creation of Seattle artist Norie Sato, sets an appropriate scene for a building that exists largely because of the richness of the department”s research past.

But folks in biochemistry are looking squarely forward these days, as they enter a new century in a stately new home. The $35.6 million, 200,000 square foot building has created an air of anticipation this summer as the department undertakes an office-by-office move into its new space. The move will be completed before a formal dedication on Oct. 15.

“It makes you feel like you”re in someplace special,” says Hector DeLuca, the department chairman. “It gives you a feeling of expansiveness, of wanting to do more.”

That expansive feel is created by two open atriums spanning five floors, which are bathed in natural light from rooftop skylights. The atriums are the central features on each floor of the building, with offices, labs and conference rooms built around them. Open staircases and balconies overlooking the first-floor lobby give the building an open, unconstrained feel.

Other features include spacious lounges and furnished kitchens on each floor, a 60-seat multimedia auditorium and an expanded library. A decorative light maple was used throughout the building on stairways, cabinets and furnishings. And thanks to a creative building layout that”s sure to inspire some envy, every office and work space faces a window.

Biochemist Michael Cox, who coordinated the building project, said the building took shape long before the architects began the formal design. Faculty and staff were invited to share ideas about what makes an ideal work environment.

The staff consensus on the building, Cox said, was to combine two complementary ideals: Work spaces that are secluded, private and comfortable, but shared spaces that invite socializing and small talk.

“The offices and labs are set up to be retreats,” he said. “They are places where people can be efficient and really accomplish something. But every place they go to when they leave their labs is organized around these atriums. They are going to be major gathering places.”

Having places to bump into colleagues and exchange ideas is essential to creative work environments, Cox said. Such opportunities were rare in the old biochemistry building, which is actually four building projects cobbled together from four separate eras.

The wing built in 1986 is top-shelf space, he said, and is connected to the new building by a third-floor skywalk. But wings built in 1956 and 1939 are well below current standards for research. And the original 1912 building, while a beautiful structure that”s on the National Register of Historic Places, is better reserved for non-laboratory uses.

Another portion of the terrazzo tile artwork, detailing a molecular map of vitamin D, pays homage to one of the department”s most famous lines of research. It also hints at the unique financing of the building. More than half the building was paid for with patent royalties generated from discoveries related to this essential vitamin.

One of the department”s early pioneers, Harry Steenbock, discovered how to enrich milk with vitamin D in the 1920s, an advance that helped wipe out a once-common and crippling bone disease. And one of the department”s contemporaries, DeLuca, has developed scores of vitamin D derivatives to treat osteoporosis. These advances also show promise in treating diabetes, multiple sclerosis and cancer.

Steenbock”s work set the foundation for creating the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), a revolutionary way to manage patents from university discoveries. Seventy years later, the royalty income from DeLuca”s vitamin D patents literally provided the foundation for the new building.

DeLuca credited former Chancellor Irving Shain with making this possible. In the 1970s, Shain created a new arrangement with WARF that enabled departments to receive 15 percent of the royalties generated from department patents. “That new arrangement has really helped this department thrive,” DeLuca said.

Although less measurable than the WARF royalty impact, the department”s history is filled with stellar achievements that continue to have an impact on daily life. Those include a whole alphabet of vitamin discoveries, iodizing salt to eliminate endemic goiter, drugs that prevent dangerous blood clotting, and a butterfat test to control milk quality.

Biochemist David Nelson, who edited a centennial history of the department, said this legacy of innovation speaks volumes about the department”s modern character. “That new building would not be there had it not been for these heroes of generations ago,” Nelson said. “The impetus would not have been there.”

No classes have been taught yet, but the new building may already have made a mark on future classes of students. Ronald Raines, the graduate recruiting coordinator for biochemistry, said the department doubled the rate at which new graduate students accepted offers for fall 1998 admission. Of the 38 students who received offers, 22 accepted — a 60 percent retention rate.

Raines said other top programs in the nation are rarely above 50 percent. “We can”t prove the new building had anything to do with this increase,” he said, “but it”s pretty strong circumstantial evidence.”