Oregon Health & Science University will celebrate the official opening of the new Knight Cancer Institute in Portland Friday.
The new building, and the 650 researchers and support staff it can hold, have the grand mission of finding a cure for cancer.
“It’s an ambitious goal,” said pediatric oncology resident Matt Dietz during a recent look around the new building. “It’s a really exciting space to be in.”
Dietz, originally from Connecticut, is in the early stages of his career. He said he can’t wait to move into the new building and rub shoulders with what he calls some of the best cancer scientists in the nation.
“As a trainee and as an interested scientist, the opportunity to have spontaneous interactions with thought leaders in the field, there’s nothing more exciting than that,” he said.
Dietz works in the lab of Dr. Missy Wong up on Oregon Health & Science University’s Pill Hill. Over the next week or so, she’s moving her team of eight researchers down to the new building, meaning her old lab is a jumble of disconnected machines and scientific equipment.
Wong agrees the new building is gorgeous, but points out that scientists move a lot — for graduate school, for post-doctoral work and for jobs once they're done with school — so she’s taking a practical approach.
“There’s always opportunity in moving to consolidate the junk you’ve accumulated over the years., and so we look forward to kind of purging out our refrigerators and freezers,” she said.
More than the new building, Wong said she is excited about sharing space with scientist from other disciplines.
"There are people that are from a genetics background, from a biochemistry background, etcetera, and we’re all scattered on this campus up here," she said. "Moving down to the new building, we’ll all be in a single building.”
The hope is that chance meetings will lead to shared ideas and, in turn, groundbreaking research and serendipitous discoveries.
One reason Wong isn’t gushing about the new building may be that she’s actually moving into a smaller space than her current work home, as are many scientists. They’re even being asked to share machinery, again with the idea of encouraging chance meetings.
“Even though the fundraising campaign was $1 billion, we wanted to use most of that money for research," she said. "So yeah, we could have built an amazing building that was huge., but then that’s not being good stewards of this gift."
The building cost $190 million with the money being provided mostly by the state and private citizens. The $500 million donated by Nike founder Phil Knight — a donation he initially promised on the condition it be matched by other fundraising — will be used mostly for research, rather than construction.
The building was finished on time and on budget. But some alterations had to be made. Perhaps the largest involved increasing the size of the concrete bathtub in which the basement sits.
The watertight bathtub is needed to stop flooding, because the building sits in a flood plain close to the Willamette River.
“I think they carefully thought about that, because it can really ruin careers,” Wong said.
Scientists at universities in New York, Texas and elsewhere have lost their life’s work recently, as samples and computers were ruined by floodwaters.
Even a little water in the basement can be a problem as that’s often when refrigerators and generators are housed. And if water shorts out the electricity, there’s no power to keep samples frozen.
Other changes to the building were less mission critical.
For example, planters on the sixth floor terrace were just too big, because they’d been designed to hold trees.
“There was a communication early on in the project with the original designer about wanting it to be an intimate space where people were sort of surrounded by nature,” said Tiffani Howard, a scientist who helped design the building.
“Well, when we started doing that work on the landscaping, all of a sudden everybody else said, ‘Our view is gone.’”
Pediatric oncology resident Matt Dietz said it’s nice that people will now know who he’s working for when he goes to work.
“When I talk with friends from college, and they find that I’m located here in Portland, they’re excited," he said. "When I talk to my friends in science or in medicine, the Knight Cancer Institute, I mean it has clout.”
OHSU is offering public tours of the new cancer center from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday.