In the middle of a global pandemic, the University of Oregon is rolling out a new research and collaboration facility connected to its Eugene campus with a focus on health, funded by a historic donation to the school.

UO’s new science and research campus will officially open Wednesday evening, four years after one of the largest donations ever to a public university — a $500 million gift from Nike co-founder Phil Knight and his wife, Penny. The new facilities come with a mission of accelerated scientific discoveries and the institution’s first endeavor into engineering.

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UO’s Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact “marks a transformational moment in our university’s 144-year history,” UO President Michael Schill said in a statement.

Researchers work inside of one of the University of Oregon's new Knight Campus labs.

Researchers work inside of one of the University of Oregon's new Knight Campus labs.

Bruce Damonte

“The Knight Campus builds upon our proud history of exceptional basic science and immediately broadens and deepens our impact to encompass applied science and engineering,” Schill said. “The Knight Campus puts the world on notice: The University of Oregon is once again changing the game in terms of the way that research and science can serve students and society.”

Phil and Penny Knight have made various large donations over the years that have resulted in the expansion, renovation or creation of buildings including the Knight Library, Matthew Knight Arena and well-known sports facilities — Hayward Field and Autzen Stadium. They have also given hundreds of millions of dollars to Oregon Health and Science University and Stanford University.

Plans for the new Knight Campus began in 2016 with a $500 million gift from the Knights, along with an additional $70 million in state bonds and other donations.

Blend of teaching, learning & making discoveries

At the Knight Campus, students will have access to nine faculty-led labs, according to the university, with a focus on medical research — an area that’s been a priority for the Knights’ donations. The new UO campus’ research areas include medical sensors and devices, musculoskeletal regeneration and neural engineering.

Bob Guldberg, UO Vice President and Executive Director of the Knight Campus, speaks with students in the new facilities.

Bob Guldberg, UO Vice President and Executive Director of the Knight Campus, speaks with students in the new facilities.

Charlie Litchfield / University Communications

Although the campus officially opens Wednesday evening, some students have already begun working in various programs in the facility since September. The campus has also already recruited some faculty.

“We hired eight faculty from around the country, so they’ve been setting up their labs with their graduate students, and also undergrads,” Bob Guldberg, vice president of UO and executive director of the Knight Campus, told OPB.

The biggest changes the Knight Campus is bringing to UO, Guldberg said, is the emphasis on developing research discoveries, and deploying those discoveries into society.

“It’s not like that’s never happened at U of O, but now there’s a campus where that’s an intentional part of the culture,” he said.

Guldberg said The Knight Campus is the administrative home for a previously existing graduate internship program. The campus has also started an undergraduate scholar program which provides the opportunity for undergraduate students at UO a year of research experience, and a paid stipend.

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“It’s a great experience for them, and a great experience for graduate students and postdocs who serve as the mentors,” Guldberg said.

Another big change coming with the new campus is the idea of “convergent science,” Guldberg said — “Taking collaborative research to a whole new level.”

Guldberg said that looks like team-based research, not only between science labs but with partnerships with UO’s business school and journalism school to include training for students on science communication.

UO, OSU join up on new engineering doctorate

The new campus also includes larger collaborations outside of the university, like the new joint bioengineering doctoral program between the Knight Campus and Oregon State University’s College of Engineering.

The program will provide students at both institutions access to courses, training workshops, facilities and faculty.

“We’re very pleased to partner with the UO on this transformative new program,” Scott Ashford, Kearney Dean of Engineering at OSU, said in a statement last month. “Together we’re providing the depth and breadth not available at any single institution.”

That new Ph.D. program will be UO’s first degree program in engineering, which has long been a major focus at OSU.

“I think that’s a pretty important discipline, particularly when you’re talking about making discoveries and translating them into technologies and new products that are going to benefit patient care,” Guldberg said of engineering.

Students already began working in the Knight Campus back in September, ahead of its official grand opening.

Students already began working in the Knight Campus back in September, ahead of its official grand opening.

Nicolas Walcott

The university also has a partnership with Oregon Health and Science University’s Knight Cancer Institute to form a joint biomedical data science center.

Other regional partnerships include working with nonprofit Onward Eugene on economic development aspects for the region and with PeaceHealth, a health care system with hospitals and clinics located throughout the Pacific Northwest.

“The purpose of that partnership is really two-fold,” Guldberg said. “One, of course, is to improve clinical collaborations between the Knight Campus and PeaceHealth, but the other is that program is focused around bringing in postdoctoral fellows from diverse populations and helping them to gain confidence and experience for a successful career in academia.”

UO says the Knight Campus — a 160,000-square-foot facility connected to UO’s existing science facilities via a sky bridge — is designed to “dramatically reduce the time it takes for discoveries to enter the market” as it combines labs, classrooms, an “innovation center” and core facilities all under one roof.

Guldberg said even though the campus has not officially opened, discoveries are still underway. He said there have already been three start-up companies established by the new Knight Campus faculty.

“Those are at various stages of development,” he said. “Some of them are actually already in producing medical devices that are in patients, and some are still in very early stages that are still looking for their funding.”

Even though the opening of the Knight Campus is taking place during the coronavirus pandemic, Guldberg said, the university and the campus are continuing to work creatively — including keeping labs at 50% capacity due to public health restrictions.

“We’ve had to pivot in a lot of ways,” Guldberg said. “The grand opening is a great example of that. Of course, we plan to have everybody come in-person to this incredible new building with this incredible terrace … but, we’ll probably reach multiples of the number of people that would’ve been able to come in-person to the grand opening.”

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