April 16, 2019

State-of-the-Art Science

New UMass Physical Sciences Building optimizes research for chemists, physicists.

The new Physical Sciences Building answers the question: what if you could design an ideal space to optimize your scientific research? University of Massachusetts physicists and chemists are currently experiencing a facilities dream come true.

Built according to the input of physics and chemistry faculty members, and with a reconfigurable layout to anticipate future needs, the PSB offers 95,000 square feet of research space for up to 20 faculty and their lab groups, with room for an abundance of graduate and undergraduate students, postdocs, and collaborating scientists to work in the labs. Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy, a condensed-matter physicist, admits to being slightly envious of the scientists who get to work in the facilities! 

Executed by Wilson HGA architects, the PSB’s ingenious design could be a metaphor for approaches to life: chemists, who want things to react, are situated upstairs; physicists, who need things to be still, have labs in the basement. 

Downstairs in the physics realm, ten-foot-wide bay doors and hallways permit the passage of equipment. Nineteen-foot ceilings with overhead cranes and hoists allow for large instrument experiments, and poured pits made of sand and slab allow another six feet of play downward if they are opened, and hold instruments stable. Specialized flooring dissipates any electrostatic charges. 

Assistant Professor of Physics Chen Wang works in quantum computing—a paradigm of computing in which a bit can be simultaneously 0 and 1. To create the conditions in which this is possible—for now—Wang requires “plenty of power,” an extremely low temperature (10 millikelvin) that is stable, and a space protected from environmental “noise”—disturbances such as thermal radiation, magnetic fields, and errant vibration. “If something doesn’t work, it destroys your life,” he quips, and then follows with a grin: “The new facility makes our life much easier.”

Upstairs, in the chemistry realm, state-of-the-art ventilation allows one-way air flow out of the labs, epoxy floors protect against corrosives, and clear walls permit researchers to have breakout time while keeping an eye on active experiments. 

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Trisha Andrew describes the light, open, collaborative design as an “eonic shift” that eliminates barriers to communication and community among fellow researchers. Andrew and her 12-person lab design electronic garments: fabrics coated with polymers that can harvest the body’s energy from movement or body heat, and communicate information about biomarkers through a Bluetooth feed.

Connected to the reconstructed, historic West Experiment Station, which signals to UMass Amherst’s scientific past by incorporating elements such as the port-cochere which buggies used to drive through to drop off soil samples for analysis, the new PSB points forward to the campus’s future of sustainable discovery. It is even fitted with its own helium recovery system to help control research budgets while recycling a non-renewable resource. In the words of senior laboratory planner Betsy Blunt, who retired just after seeing the PSB to completion, “This building is a major happening.”