arnegie Mellon University didn’t achieve its position as a global leader by waiting for others to act. It got there through bold and visionary decisions. It got there by being the first to make big bets on what would be important for the future of education, research, the workplace and the world.
In 1969, it bet big on computer science, creating one of the first departments dedicated to the field. In 1979, the university bet big on robotics, creating the first robotics institute in higher education. In a short time, the university became the global leader in these fields.
Carnegie Mellon’s next big bet is on science.
This May, the university announced a $250 million future of science initiative that will include the construction of a new science building on the Pittsburgh campus, the opening of the world’s first academic cloud lab and expanded support for scientific research.
“Our vision for the future of science is one that brings together the foundational sciences with artificial intelligence, machine learning, engineering, data science and human ingenuity to solve real-world problems,” said Rebecca Doerge, Glen de Vries Dean of the Mellon College of Science. “Carnegie Mellon is betting that our vision for the future of science will take the university to the next level and is putting the resources behind that vision.”
While the Mellon College of Science will be a large beneficiary, the initiative will provide opportunities for researchers and students across the university’s seven schools and colleges and promote interdisciplinary collaboration.
“Carnegie Mellon’s next big bet is on science.”
Central to the initiative is a $150 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, a long-time supporter of Carnegie Mellon. Half of the grant, $75 million, will serve as the lead gift for a new $210 million state-of-the art science futures building. The remainder of the gift will endow a Manufacturing Futures Institute and support the construction of a Robotics Innovation Center, both at the university’s research facilities at the Hazelwood Green development.
Science Futures Building
The science futures building will be a next generation facility for research unlike any existing academic science building. It will be designed and built with flexibility in mind, allowing labs to be configured and reconfigured to encourage collaboration and to quickly mobilize to answer emerging and timely problems. Classrooms, teaching labs and other spaces will be created with the intention of inspiring young scientists and giving them the most modern facilities that will prepare them to become the next generation of scientists.
The building will be located on the southeast corner of Forbes Avenue and Craig Street, next to the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History. The lobby of the building is planned to serve as a space to welcome not just the university community but the Pittsburgh community.
“The building will be a much-needed gateway to both the heart of Oakland and to main campus,” said Doerge. “It will be a place to introduce everyone who walks through the doors to science.”
Through its proximity to CMU colleagues in other disciplines, including those in the School of Computer Science, the College of Engineering and the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the building will provide a physical link to the heart of CMU’s Pittsburgh campus and will spark collaboration across fields.
College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the building will provide a physical link to the heart of CMU’s Pittsburgh campus and will spark collaboration across fields.
The university is currently in the early planning stages for the building and will begin the architect selection process this fall, with design beginning in spring 2022. If all goes to plan, the building should be completed and ready for occupancy in 2026.
Academic Cloud Lab
In 2022, the Mellon College of Science will open the world’s first academic cloud lab. The $40 million remote controlled, artificial intelligence-driven lab will be based on the San Francisco-based Emerald Cloud Lab, a commercial lab founded and run by MCS alumni Brian Frezza and D.J. Kleinbaum.
The cloud lab will be a shared, central facility where experiments are conducted by robots and human operators. Scientists design experiments from a classroom or office — anywhere where they have access to a computer and the internet — and the cloud lab executes the experiments accurately, efficiently and quickly. The generated data is sent to cloud-based servers where scientists can access it at any time.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the value of such a lab became more evident than ever. Some faculty were able to continue to conduct research remotely and MCS was able to offer remote lab courses using Emerald Cloud Lab facilities.
“[The Cloud Lab] is a model for how to make science more inclusive,” said Marcel Bruchez, professor of biological sciences and chemistry and director of the Molecular Biosensor and Imaging Center, who taught a cloud lab class and who has conducted research using Emerald Cloud Lab’s facilities.
Having a cloud lab will have numerous benefits to CMU, the most significant being that it will democratize science. Researchers are no longer limited by the cost and availability of scientific equipment.
For example, if a scientist needed to use a mass spectrometer, buying the equipment for a lab could cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. That cost could be prohibitive, especially for a young researcher, or would be wasteful for a lab that only needed to use the spectrometer for a few hours each week. The researchers could purchase time at a shared facility but could be limited by the facility and its staff’s availability. These limitations make it difficult for early career researchers, especially graduate and undergraduate researchers, to get time on in-demand equipment to explore new ideas of their own. A cloud lab can centrally contain numerous pieces of equipment that can be run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which will dramatically increase availability for all researchers.
Another benefit is the creation of uniform, fully traceable data. Since data is collected centrally in a similar format for all researchers, it is easily comparable and shared. The format of cloud lab data lends itself to be used with machine learning, a field within artificial intelligence that helps manage and bring focus to large and complex amounts of data. With machine learning, experimentation can become more efficient, increasing the speed of discovery.
“Automating the process of conducting experiments and analyzing data fundamentally changes how science is done,” said Doerge. “Scientists can focus more of their time on asking tough questions, analyzing results and designing the next breakthrough experiment.”
Investments in the Research of the Future
The future of science initiative will also raise philanthropic support for faculty and student researchers working on a wide range of research, especially work that will lead to breakthroughs, advance science and address emerging real-world problems. This support will be in the form of professorships, scholarships and fellowships, funding for recruitment and retention and seed funding for key areas of strength within MCS and across the university.
“Much of the research that Carnegie Mellon is doing right now fits into our vision for science. It’s research that can be accelerated and enhanced with machine learning, and research that will make an impact,” said Doerge. “I am excited for the Mellon College of Science and all of Carnegie Mellon as we embark on this ambitious endeavor.”
Images courtesy of Emerald Cloud Lab
■ Jocelyn Duffy