Penn State’s Millennium Science Complex Gives Wings to the Idea of Convergence

Penn State Milliennium Science Complexby Tom Imerito

As I drove to State College from my home in Pittsburgh last Sunday evening the rapidly changing weather brought to mind the three states of matter – gaseous air, liquid rain, and solid crystals of snow – the structural ingredients of materials science.  In an ironic and aggravating way, the unseasonable weather coincided perfectly with my journey to Materials Day, Penn State’s annual celebration of the latest innovations in the field of materials science.  Hosted by the Materials Research Institute, this year’s theme was Converging on Materials, a reference to the idea that advancements in instrumentation and computation are compelling the merger of scientific disciplines.

Today, those advancements allow life scientists to look at living matter at such close range that before long biology morphs into chemistry.  Chemists can see things so closely that physics quickly enters the picture. And engineers designing nanoscale materials and devices for use in living bodies need to collaborate with experts who understand the finer points of how bodies work.

For the first time Materials Day took place in Penn State’s new Millennium Science Complex, a massive, futuristic testament to the idea of convergence.  Designed expressly to encourage intellectual cross-pollination and collaboration between research scientists at the Materials Research Institute, the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, and the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, the new complex is comprised of a pair of block-long, three-story wings situated at right angles to each other.  One wing is dedicated to the physical sciences; the other to the life sciences.  Where they join at one corner the first and second floors are cut diagonally to form entrances to the wings, while the cantilevered third floors continue in mid-air and join to form a canopy over a garden plaza situated between the entrances.  Inside, on the cantilevered third floor, the convergence of the two wings provides a common area for the intermingling of people and ideas from both the physical and life sciences wings.

The futuristic look of the complex stands in marked contrast to the conventional brick and limestone buildings nearby.  But beyond architectural pzazz, the complex is a study in practical utility.  Buried beneath the entry plaza, an area of the structure’s basement is built upon a separate foundation isolated from the rest of the building and the bustling environment surrounding it.  Shielded from electromagnetic interference, and temperature-controlled by vibration-free, wall-mounted heat and cooling panels, the subterranean instrumentation rooms are sufficiently free of outside noise and vibration to provide an ideal environment for the operation of microscopes powerful enough to characterize and visualize virtually any material, whether vegetable, mineral or animal, at sizes as small as atoms.

As a tour guide escorted my cohort of visitors through the complex, the openness of the floor plan was striking. We passed administrative offices, open work areas, clean rooms, and laboratories for dry and wet processes, microscopy, electronics, and nanotechnology. Periodically interspersed along the corridors open conference areas outfitted with white boards and computer terminals provided space for impromptu discussions.  In addition to the university’s nano-fabrication laboratory, the complex houses state-of-the-art facilities for research in the areas of functional polymers, electronic materials, biophotonics, infectious diseases, microscopy, flow cytometry, microbiology, virology, immunology and neural engineering.

As we walked, corner windows provided delightful views of multicolored perennials arranged in beds on the green rooftops overhanging lower floors. The addition of a storm-water recycling system, heat recovery wheels and light/heat efficient windows, makes the building LEED certified.

On an aesthetic level the Millennium Science Center is inspirational to look at, walk through and think about.  On practical level it integrates and leverages knowledge, talent and technology for the improvement of the human condition.  The symbolic value of providing a mid-air meeting place for scientists from the converging fields of life and physical sciences gives testament to the creative vision of architect, Rafael Vinoly.  It cannot be a coincidence that the complex takes the shape of a bird with outstretched wings and raised head.  Can it be flying anywhere other than toward the future of science?

© Copyright 2012 Thomas P. Imerito/ Science Communications

Photo Credit: Nathan Cox Photography

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