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Smooth Move

Shepherding the Koch Institute’s researchers into their new home
April 19, 2011

For most people, moving offices is a tedious business. Seasoned scientists, technicians, administrators, and UROP students alike must sort through every item in their workspace and decide whether it’s worth keeping. But as a project manager in the Department of Facilities, I always find this phase of a construction project exciting. To me, it’s magical to see empty, pristine buildings come alive.

moving in Moving trucks ran like shuttles, transporting more than 1,500 loads of materials and equipment to the new Koch Institute building.

Last fall, after seven years of planning, design, and construction, the building meant to house the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research stood ready at the corner of Vassar and Main. So in nine buildings scattered across campus, some 600 cancer researchers finished packing up their pipettes and petri dishes. In November and December, these biologists, physicians, materials scientists, biological engineers, chemical engineers, and electrical engineers converged under one roof in a building designed to foster collaboration in the war on cancer. As the institute’s executive director, Robert Urban, likes to joke, the challenge of rounding them all up was a bit like what Noah must have faced in gathering the animals for his ark.

Like other lab moves at MIT, the KI project involved relocating active research, researchers, research subjects, and all things and people that support research. And as usual, everything moving was sensitive and priceless—in some cases, a scientist’s life’s work. We needed to move materials for cancer research whose outcome the world is awaiting.

When move planning began, in May 2010, we in Facilities supplemented our design and construction team with KI administrators, a lab relocation specialist, and representatives from Environmental Health and Safety and from Information Systems and Technology. This core group pondered the move schedule for weeks, aiming to fill the building floor by floor because each level is designed to house a community of researchers coming together from multiple disciplines to work in concert. Although we couldn’t be certain when the building would be ready, we came up with a tentative schedule that worked around conferences, lectures, and ongoing experiments. New furniture and lab equipment had to be installed before anyone could move in, so we oversaw almost daily furniture deliveries in October. One day brought the arrival of 1,000 stools! We also supported and encouraged the project’s real rock stars: the lab move coördinators, most of them lab managers, who were empowered to ride herd over the people in their labs. Each week we met with them to lay out the nitty-gritty tasks ahead.

Over seven weeks, 632 people moved, filling more than 7,000 plastic packing crates. Those hundreds of people represented 12 engineering labs, 15 biology labs, 13 core facilities for specialized shared equipment, and administrative offices. Movers transferred freezers stuffed with newspaper to hold their contents intact, refrigerators whose contents had been moved into cold rooms the day before, and 72 pieces of equipment that required preparation before the move and setup after. Each lab took two days; an environmental specialist handled chemicals on the first day, and the mover transported everything else the next. Riggers armed with ropes and pulleys applied basic principles of physics to move heavy and cumbersome equipment, such as two robotic systems that perform very tiny operations on cells, flow cytometers that use lasers to count cells, and scintillation counters used to detect radiation.

Research scientist Adam Amsterdam, PhD ‘98, who works in the laboratory of Nancy Hopkins and Jacqueline Lees, oversaw the monumental task of moving more than 22,000 zebra­fish, which are used to study genes associated with cancer. Starting in December, he and technical assistant Tim Angelini began gradually adding fish to two new aquarium systems (each with about 1,000 interconnected tanks), wheeling them in plastic boxes through the tunnels connecting buildings E17 and 68 to the KI building. The fish had to be introduced to the new tanks slowly to allow balanced growth of the bacteria that process their waste products. Amsterdam and Angelini moved about 500 fish the first week, 500 the second, 1,000 the third, and 2,000 the fourth. Once the water was properly conditioned, they moved the remaining fish in two days.

Though the move was chaotic, we finished on schedule. The labs were back to work within days—and sometimes hours. By the dedication ceremony in early March, the building’s café had opened and artwork graced the lobby. And now the important work of KI goes forward.

Sudy Nally, a project manager in the Department of Facilities, has been managing renovation projects at MIT for more than 10 years.

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