Tribute to a Visionary
Whitehead building offers new frontiers in biomedical research
Joseph B. Whitehead Sr. was a man with big, new-fangled ideas. In the 1890s, he got the radical notion that bottling the soda-fountain favorite Coca-Cola might prove a popular venture. Indeed, his bottling company became one of the greatest business success stories in American history. So it is fitting that Whiteheads pioneering spirit is honored in Emorys newest research building, a structure as bold and visionary as Whitehead himself.
When the Whitehead Biomedical Research Building opened in Aprila month ahead of schedule and $1 million under budgetvisitors had the chance to tour a little corner of the future. In the Center for Medical Genomics, they watched a capillary electopheresis sequencer rapidly separate genes and a wave nucleic fragment analysis system identify genetic variations. In plain English, the Whitehead building boasts some of the most sophisticated medical research equipment in the world, creating the potential for new discoveries about, for example, the links between genes and disease.
The Whitehead Biomedical Research Building represents a substantial investment by Emory in the advancement of basic biomedical science that is the foundation of all progress in medicine and health care, says Michael M. E. Johns, executive vice president for health affairs and director of the Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center. This wonderful new research building is a bricks-and-mortar manifestation of Emorys commitment to attracting the very best biomedical scientists to Emory and Atlanta and to being one of the worlds leading centers of medical discovery and innovation.
The eight-story, 325,000-square-foot building located behind the Dental Building houses three basic science departments within Emorys School of Medicine: cell biology, human genetics, and physiology. Also located there are the Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases and research programs in the departments of medicine and pathology and laboratory medicine.
One of the buildings most innovative features for researchers is its open laboratory space. The 150 lab modules are capacious and flexible, designed with few walls to encourage interaction and collaboration among the investigators who spend their days there. Hundreds of windows allow natural light to pour in.
When I was in graduate school in the 1970s, science was more individual, says cell biology chair Barry Shur. Technology was simpler, you were trained in a particular technique, and you worked by yourself at the bench. Today, science is so technically sophisticated that our scientists cant do good science in a room by themselves. They need to bump into other scientists in an interactive space; they need to talk to geneticists, neurobiologists, cell biologists, and electrophysiologists. The physical barriers of self-contained labs hinder good research.
In the area of human genetics, researchers are investigating hereditary disorders including Huntingdon disease, Down syndrome, and fragile X syndrome. Cell biologists are focused on neurological diseases, normal cell development versus cancerous cell growth, and human embryonic development. This department features Georgias first high-speed, laser-scanning confocal microscope, custom-designed to measure and manipulate brain activity in real time.
Physiologists are studying kidney disease and hypertension, sickle cell disease, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, male infertility, and spinal cord injury. Basic scientists in pathology and laboratory medicine conduct a range of research on the biology of epithelial cells, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer. Those working on digestive diseases are studying the genetic influence on colon cancer and bowel diseases. Pulmonary and critical care scientists are looking at cystic fibrosis, lung cancer, and the molecular mechanisms leading to successful lung transplants.
Underground, below the bustle of the Whitehead labs, 130,000 mice rustle the bedding in their plastic cages. The 50,000-square-foot vivarium is kept tidy and fresh by the robotic institutional cage-washing system developed by the Swedish Karolinksa Research Institutethe first of its kind installed in the U.S. The Whitehead building also is equipped with seven high-containment labs suitable for research on organisms classified at biosafety level III.
With its red tile roof and tan stucco exterior, the research center appears to keep step with other classic Emory buildings; yet it is one of the greenest buildings in the country. The Whitehead Building meets the stringent standards of the Leadership in Energy Environmental Design program, joining only a dozen other certified structures. Special heat-recovery wheels on the roof are expected to recoup $100,000 in energy costs a year, while water-recovery units should save 2.5 million gallons of water annually. Rainwater is collected and used for irrigation. And ninety percent of the buildings occupants can work by sunlight.
The Whitehead Biomedical Research Building owes its existence to funds from the foundations created by Whiteheads family: his wife Letitia, his sons Joseph Jr. and Conkey Pate. For nearly a century, Emory has benefited from the familys quiet generosity. Their philanthropic efforts are wide ranging and well known. Whiteheads name graces the surgical pavilion at Emory Hospital, and there is a Joseph B. Whitehead Chair professorship in the Department of Surgery.
At the dedication of Whiteheads most recent and grandest namesake, President William M. Chace spoke the hearts of many who had dreamed of such a building. This building stands as a tribute to the familys collective vision of a better, healthier, and happier world.P.P.P.