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Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery: Changing 'Humankind'

March 22, 2010
The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery facility is possibly the most-watched building project in the Madison Region today. This unique public-private  venture between the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), designed with a vision “to change the state of humankind,” truly seems to be “… unlike anything ever built before, [creating] an environment for things to happen that have never happened before. ….”), as the brochure states. After a tour of the building and learning more about the philosophy behind it, I have to agree.

This radical public-private venture was funded by a private donation from UW alumni John and Tashia Morgridge, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and the State of Wisconsin, envisioned from its conception to be a central magnet for interdisciplinary research—a building that facilitates the “aha!” moment of discovery and takes it to  commercialization to advance human health.

A little about the building itself, because the design of the building is itself a unique, assertive approach to form follows function. The building is located in a square block in the center of the UW Madison campus, between the buildings for biochem, genetics/biotech, engineering, computer sciences, physics, medical sciences and chemistry; close proximity to the Waisman Center, medical school, pharmacy school, veterinary school, social sciences and arts/humanities buildings. Directly across from the southern student union, the building has five central entrances—no back door—to facilitate public access. WARF Director of Programming Laura Heisler stresses throughout our tour the many ways the building is designed to encourage public access and use.  The building hosts meeting space, an “ultra flex” center forum with movable walls to accommodate 50-250, meeting areas, common areas, and four distinct eateries hosting local food in formats from coffee and pastry to full restaurant (each one named after a star in the WARF pantheon). Straight halls are non-existent, the whole building is fully wired, and a collaboration with the UW Botany department has built the only indoor year-round “dinosaur garden”, complete with the closest relatives to Mesozoic-era plants, to show the kids. There are learning labs and rotating demonstrations built in to engage public and private alike: Like the meal you ate? Learn more about the science of food next to the restaurant. Need a place to take your kids on a Saturday? Why not engage them in demos with a real microscope at one of the Discovery Niches talking about the discoveries happening right upstairs. There are outdoor areas for seating, hanging out, learning—and events like community discussions and lectures; even bands are planned. Common areas with inviting names—the Living Room, the Forum—form the foundation of the building, while the second through fifth floors are security-accessed wet- and dry- lab spaces in a unique formation that (of course) facilitates the scientific collaboration across disciplines.

Each upper floor is arranged in a combination of public and private space, with common “draw” spaces housed between changeable lab space, dining areas, embedded teaching labs, seminar rooms, and research assistant spaces flanking “research pods”. What struck me as I toured the building is that the design is as open as it possibly can be, protecting research privacy needs while accomodating cross pollination between public and private research and multidisciplinary research efforts.  The space is set up to transcend disciplinary boundaries and facilitate research across the fields of chemistry, biology, IT, anthropology, computing, engineering, medical and biotechnology.

Add to all this a heavy-hitting goal of sustainability, reaching for (and exceeding, if projections are true) 50% less energy and water use than the next newest research facility on campus (10 years old now). Solar energy, geothermal energy, recycled water from wet lab space, and four eco-zones at each corner of the building reduce the building’s energy footprint.

The overarching goal of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery was described to me like this, several months before I took my tour: “You know when you’re working on something, and maybe you take a lunch break and meet a colleague; you share what you’re working on, that sometimes that leads to that ‘AHA!’ moment—you realize that what you’re both working on could lead to something stronger, bigger, better, for big commercial potential, to benefit humankind?  This building is designed to facilitate that moment.”

Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (public institute) Research Teams, 2010:

  • Patricia Flatley Brennan, professor of nursing and industrial and systems engineering (living environments lab)

  • John Denu, professor of biomolecular chemistry (epigentics lab)

  • Lih-Sheng Turng, professor of mechanical engineering (tissue-engineering scaffold research)

  • Michael Ferris, professor of computer science (optimization in biology and medicine)

  • John Yin, professor of Chemical and Biiological Engineering (systems biology)

Interim Director: UW Madison Chancellor Emeritus John Wiley

Grand opening is in May 2010, and is open to the public October, 2010. For more information, visit:

Morgridge Research Teams, 2010:

  • Paul Ahlquist, professor of oncology (virology area)

  • Thomas “Rock” Mackie, professor of medical physics, co-founder of TomoTherapy (medical devices)

  • Susan Millar, anthropologist and senior scientist, Wisconsin Center of Education Resaerch (education research area)

  • Miron Livny, professor of computer sciences (core computational technology focus)

  • Nirupama “Rupa” Shevde, senior scientist, director of education and outreach, WiCell Resaerch Institute (Morgridge Outreach Experiences)

  • Sangtae Kim, Executive Director of the Morgridge Institute for Research (pharmaceutical informatics)

  • Jamie Thomson, Lead scientist, regenerative biology focus area

Executive Director: Dr. Sangtae Kim

Grand Opening December 2. For more information, visit:


Mentor Worldwide LLC's donation of a $16 million manufacturing facility to the new Morgridge Institute for Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will help fuel the nonprofit's mission of accelerating biomedical discoveries to delivery as treatments and cures. Read the whole story here.

Jennifer Smith, Thrive | |Twitter:
Thrive is the economic development enterprise for the 8-county Madison Wisconsin Region.