New Jersey's Institute of Technology's $21 million dollar STEM complex, which was unveiled last month, is part of its initiative to create a space where the life sciences and engineering collaborate and work together on new projects.
The institute received $13.5 million from the state’s Higher Education Capital Facilities program as part of the Building Our Future Bond Act, with the remaining $7.5 million funded by NJIT.
The Life Sciences and Engineering Center is a four-story complex with more than 20,000 square feet in shared laboratories. It is expected that the collaboration capabilities of the new facility will open doors for technologies and research being worked on at NJIT.
“We are bringing a very interdisciplinary environment where the life science, engineering and material sciences are coming together,” said Somenath Mitra, executive director of the Life Sciences and Engineering Center.
One of the ideas fostered by the new collaborative space began with the work of Tara Alvarez, a professor of biomedical engineering, who studied convergence insufficiency, a disorder where an individual’s eyes do not move in tandem with one another.
According to NJIT’s research, roughly 5 percent of children and adults are affected by convergence insufficiency. It commonly occurs in people who have suffered a concussion, but the therapy offered to people with the condition proved ineffective. The therapeutic tasks, which patients were told to perform at home, were boring, and often practiced incorrectly. Alvarez saw a better solution.
Her team, which included a computer scientist and artist, created a virtual reality game that provided more effective treatment. “We needed to boost motivation by making therapy fun,” said Alvarez in NJIT Magazine. The virtual reality project brought together biomedical engineers and computer scientists to create a solution to a problem that might otherwise be unattainable. These types of projects are what NJIT hopes to inspire with the collaborative spaces.
“Things that are normally far apart are coming together here,” said Mitra.
For students, the collaborative spaces are representative of how industries typically have their laboratories designed in the real world. “In [the] industry, that’s how it works,” said Pamela Hitscherich, a fifth-year biomedical engineering graduate student. “An individual researcher wouldn’t have their own space, they’d work alongside other researchers,” she said.
Hitscherich’s research, which focuses on heart disease and diabetes, requires collaboration among multiple fields of engineering, such as those that design bioreactors, manufacture devices that can exist in the human body, or find ways rebuild damaged cells in human tissue.
“Those are separate specialties. Different labs would have expertise in those [and] working collaboratively is when you get the best work done,” said Hitscherich.
NJIT’s mission is to increase the school’s strengths in engineering and combining that with biotechnology, biosensors and nanotechnology to develop new applications for healthcare, therapeutic interventions and pharmaceutical drug development.
The ribbon-cutting was held on Sept. 22 and caught the attention of Gov. Chris Christie. “We don’t want our best and brightest students to leave the state and not come back,” said Christie, echoing the state’s overall commitment to expanding STEM opportunities for students in New Jersey.
The Life Sciences and Engineering Center connects to the school’s Otto H. York Center for Environmental Engineering and Science, contributing to the school’s overall focus on maximizing collaboration. The construction leaves open 47,000 square feet for future expansion.