Feb. 21, 2018

Innovative research facility pushes boundaries in lab design

Facilities team, Cumming School researchers enable collaborative research, teaching and learning in new childhood cancer research lab

It took leadership and a few design risks, but the Charbonneau Cancer Institute Childhood Cancer Research Program at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) now has a new modern, open-concept collaborative research and support space. It provides the perfect environment for the team of researchers, grad students and postdoctoral scholars to focus on their work researching the biology of childhood cancer and blood disorders.

Challenging how we think about lab design: modifiable workspace 

Guided by her vision for a transformative lab, Dr. Jennifer Chan, associate professor in the CSM and deputy director of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute (pictured above), worked with IBI Group Calgary and the campus Facilities team of architects and planners to push boundaries and challenge traditional approaches to laboratory design.

The result is an open-concept lab with shared workspaces equipped with fully configurable benches, specialized research rooms, student workspaces accessible through sliding glass doors, and glass-walled supervisor offices along the outer edges creating an unbroken line of sight across the facility.

“Our new space is very different than any other on campus,” says Chan, Kids Cancer Care Chair in Pediatric Oncology Research. “The lab design allows for easy reconfiguration to accommodate future technology or new equipment — it’s like Lego. That’s the beauty of it. We’re working as we intended in a modifiable space. Although complete ‘future-proofing’ is a challenge, we can still anticipate that change will happen.”

Jane Ferrabee, campus architect, and the Facilities team designing and building the space were prepared to push themselves to think about their standards more critically in an effort to provide a space that allowed the researchers to work more efficiently.

“We saw this as an opportunity to explore innovation and go new places in lab design,” says Ferrabee. “It challenged everyone involved — from electrical, IT and lighting to the lock shop and furniture — to think differently about the way we do things.”

Lab design fosters environment for improved teaching and learning

With the new research facility, Chan saw an opportunity to create an improved team environment, to cultivate new ways of teaching and learning in the lab, and to strengthen the connection between medicine and basic science.

“We’re changing the culture of how we work — any time there’s a change, there’s an opportunity to improve the work culture,” says Chan. “We’re promoting the culture of the group with our decisions.”

Chan explains how the new lab setup fosters collaboration: With the old lab space, it was like “sitting at a bar, facing forward with your food in front of you — you’re in your own compartment. This new approach is like a dinner setting where everyone is facing each other with food in the middle, and everyone is communicating and collaborating around the table. We took our then-current notion of ‘open concept’ and looped it into a circle."

With private spaces on the outer edge, common spaces in the middle and sliding glass doors connecting everything together, students can get their work done in the quiet student workspace while still keeping an eye on what’s happening in the lab. This spatial layering means students are close to their group, work and supervisors’ offices, allowing for close-knit interactions and mentorship between student and supervisor, as well as passive supervision important for safety and productivity.

“It builds a sense of community,” says Chan. “You see someone working and it inspires and motivates you to work.”

Research facility supports Eyes High goals

The new lab is not only improving the quality of workspace for researchers and students, but also demonstrating the University of Calgary’s Eyes High commitment to becoming a top-five research institution.

“To be a top research institution we’ve got to think creatively,” says Ferrabee. “As a university, we should be able to be innovative and push the boundaries, create the environment for collaboration, and show that we are a university that cares about its researchers as we invest proactively in their research space.”

Jennifer Chan, MD, is an associate professor in the departments of Pathology and Laboratory MedicineOncology and Clinical Neurosciences at the Cumming School of Medicine and is a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute.

The new research and support space was made possible by generous community donations through the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, with partnership from the Kids Cancer Care Foundation of Alberta and the Alberta Cancer Foundation.