Ten years of world-class research

Emeritus Professor Nick Hoogenraad AO reflects on the evolution of LIMS

By Dr Giselle Roberts

At our photoshoot, Emeritus Professor Nick Hoogenraad AO stands on Science Drive and turns back to admire the LIMS building. It’s been raining and the Murri totems, a bold sculptural instalment by Indigenous artist Reko Rennie, glisten in geometric splendour on the steps of the Institute.

Hoogenraad’s stamp is everywhere, from the building’s cobalt cellular façade to the undergraduate learning spaces and flexible research labs. Director of LIMS from 2009 until his retirement in 2014, Hoogenraad’s uncompromising determination harnessed the potential of interdisciplinary scientific research at the University and gave it an iconic $94 million-dollar home.

I sat down with Professor Hoogenraad to talk ten years of LIMS and research translation of the most innovative kind.

GISELLE ROBERTS: Nick, let’s go back to 2009. You were Head of the School of Molecular Sciences and had been for over ten years. How did LIMS come about?

NICK HOOGENRAAD: The School of Molecular Sciences was, at that time, comprised of three departments. In Bundoora, we were located in Physical Sciences 2, the Reid Building and Biological Sciences 2, with Pharmacy and Applied Science in Bendigo. Each department had its own lab manager and essentially functioned as its own entity. I could see that interdisciplinary research was critical to future research and funding, but our physical environment did not support it.

GR: So, a new building was needed.

NH: Yes. Initially, we tried to obtain funding for the refurbishment of existing buildings, but the feedback was clear: the government was more likely to support new construction projects. We toyed with idea of establishing a medical institute, but it led us to the concept of a fully-fledged scientific institute with teaching at its core – and LIMS was born. Our plans were in place when the Global Financial Crisis hit and the federal government announced a new round of infrastructure funding. We were ready, the time was right, and the application was successful.

GR: How did you come up with the building design?

NH: I drew upon all the wonderful places I’ve worked at, including Stanford University, where I embraced the powerful notion that scientists should not isolate themselves in their disciplines. LIMS 1 was created with that in mind. The University had a competition to find the best architects to design the building and we were very fortunate to secure Lyons. Carey Lyons, the principal architect, sought staff input which resulted in a building that has spectacular design features but also represents the needs of its stakeholders. The staff working in LIMS 1 are still enthusiastic about how well it works. The upper levels are research-focussed, flexible and collaborative. The lower levels accommodate undergraduate learning and teaching. Everything is linked by a central staircase symbolising the pathway from student to scientist. And there is a common tearoom on level four. I was committed to this, because academic staff need to have some interface and interaction with one another to make collaboration a reality. And it worked. Suddenly we saw chemists and biochemists sitting together at lunch or over coffee, talking about projects and new ideas.

GR: How important was the incorporation of learning and teaching spaces into the building?

NH: It was critical. Teaching is informed by research. As a university, we need to be passionate about both. The LIMS 1 building reflects that, connecting undergraduate study to postgraduate study. It gives senior undergraduate students the opportunity to move from the practical lab into the research lab. It was a dream come true, to express my ideas about teaching and research in a fundamental conceptual design. I am very proud of this building. It really is something special.

GR: Looking back over the past ten years, what do you think about the evolution of LIMS as an Institute?

NH: I think it has achieved what we set out to achieve. The research strategy is organised according to themes, not departments. That has helped to unify our vision, and make it truly interdisciplinary. It gives me enormous pride to see LIMS’s research achievements and to walk along the undergraduate levels and see students getting excited about science.

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