“We went from a rundown facility to the Taj Mahal,” said Mahmood Shivji, a NSU professor who has pioneered the use of DNA to identify sharks and fish. The five-story building, designed by the international architectural firm Cannon Design, is a knockout that has already won one design award, with glass walls sculpted like waves and sail-shaped canvas shades meant to evoke both the waterfront surroundings and the work going on inside. The interior is more understated and functional but carries over the ocean theme with underwater videos running on display screens and murals by noted marine artist Guy Harvey, who has helped fund Shivji’s work at NSU. Dodge opened the door to a fifth-floor lab, stepped in and spread his arms wide. “C’mon, just look at this,” he said, sounding giddy. The room overlooked the Atlantic Ocean, tranquil on this day, and offered panoramic views both up and down the Intracoastal Waterway.
It was a view worthy of some posh Trump-esque seaside tower but utterly unexpected in a lab devoted to converting sonar readings and other data into three-dimensional maps of reefs and the ocean bottom.
Brian Walker, a research scientist who runs the mapping program, certainly appreciates his new penthouse perch. He got it largely because his graduate students work with computers, not the chemicals and tanks that fill labs below.
“I was out in the trailer before, next to the fisheries guys who stink up the place,” Walker said, with a laugh. “The facility is amazing.”
Still, the center’s design stresses function over flash — with the glass-sided northern half of the building devoted to offices, graduate students’ study areas, meeting rooms, an 85-seat-auditorium and science library. The southern half consists of five floors of lab space constructed in 30-foot-by-30-foot expandable modules filled with cutting-edge computer systems and modern equipment. A coral nursery and laboratory tanks are fed by a 5,000-gallon system that filters contaminants from saltwater pumped from an underground well.
Abigail Renegar, an NSU research assistant and graduate student, said the school will be able to triple the capacity of a nursery growing endangered staghorn corals to help restore South Florida’s declining reefs. The school also already has a grant to add “stressor” tanks where corals could be exposed to specific threats, such as oil or chemical dispersants.
It’s a center designed to allow scientists to examine the array of pressures on coral reefs — from rising temperatures and acid levels in the ocean to pollution and assorted diseases — and to seek ways to help preserve and protect the corals that remain.
The facility also promises to draw new students as well as visiting scientists and additional support for scholarships and expanded research, Dodge said. The $15 million in federal funding was critical to constructing the 86,000-square-foot building but the project still represented a major private investment for NSU, which had to match the grant. The school has spent an additional $20 million to complete an overhaul of the marina and entire waterfront campus.
Though the stimulus program, formerly known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, has often been branded a failure by President Obama’s critics, Wasserman-Schultz said the federal funding had helped create 300 construction jobs and 22 new academic jobs, preserve 22 others and produce a research center devoted to preserving healthy coral reefs that are worth billions of dollars to the South Florida economy.
“This was yet another example of the effectiveness of the Recovery Act in creating jobs and getting our economy turned around,” she said.