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New building to be hub for multidisciplinary studies

L.A. Cicero Y2E2

The literal transparency of Y2E2—with its open social spaces and its conference rooms and lab spaces visible to passers-by—is intended to foster spontaneous interactions and lead to greater multidisciplinary collaboration among scholars from a wide range of fields.

Nobody likes moving. There are boxes, things get lost, nobody can find your new office and the phone always takes longer to reconnect than planned.

That said, the move to Y2E2 came as good news to environmental researchers. For them, the building promises the ability to work closely, in the physical sense of the word, with colleagues in many disciplines.

A month after packing and unpacking, Dick Luthy, the Silas H. Palmer Professor of Civil Engineering and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, said that even as the moving process was under way, he could sense a difference.

“Prior to moving into the building, casual interactions with colleagues in other disciplines were rare outside of organized activities. It is apparent already in just one month that those days are over. We all are experiencing a greater social dynamic across all areas of energy and environment.”

When the building was first conceived, scholars, planners and architects were intent on promoting multidisciplinary interaction through architecture. Studies have shown that unscheduled encounters are critical for knowledge-based organizations. As Luthy said, it’s one thing to plan a meeting, another thing altogether to be confident that on a daily basis one will run into someone and get new ideas.

Many of the Earth sciences people remain in Mitchell, Green and the Braun Geology Corner, but others are moving. Also, the institutes and centers that illustrate the potentials of cross-disciplinary collaboration have moved in: among them are the Woods Institute for the Environment, the Global Climate and Energy Project, the Center for Ocean Solutions, the Precourt Institute for Energy Efficiency, the Environment and Natural Resources Law and Policy Project, the Program on Food Security and the Environment and the Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West.

Affiliates of the many centers and departments, housed both in Y2E2 and elsewhere, participate in a wide range of initiatives aimed at bringing people together from diverse areas.

One of the best examples is the ongoing Water Seminar, sponsored by the Woods Institute. It began in fall 2007, when Luthy summoned his freshwater colleagues to a town meeting so that everyone could find out what everyone else was doing. In 10-minute presentations, they talked about hydrology, regulation, disease, waste, climate change, aridity and water supply. Since then, regular seminars have taken place on such subjects as water regulation in China, reservoir modeling and the ever-popular solid waste management led by researchers known as the poop group, whose work takes them to Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In addition to the research centers, interdisciplinary degree programs also have a new home in Y2E2, including the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Environment and Resources (IPER) and the undergraduate Earth Systems Program.

The building also houses two departments: the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the new Department of Environmental Earth System Science in the School of Earth Sciences, which aims to look at the full complexity of the global system, including the interactions, synergies and feedbacks that link the oceans, atmosphere, land surfaces and freshwater systems.

Pamela Matson, the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth Sciences and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor of Environmental Studies, won’t be moving into the building, but her enthusiasm is second to no one’s. Indeed, she was one of the principal instigators of the new building.

“Y2E2 is truly a wonderful interactive space for the people who are housed there, but it is much, much more,” she said. For scientists and teachers like herself, the new building “is a coming-together place, a perfect gathering place for interdisciplinary research teams, student groups, seminars and projects. Y2E2 was designed for use by our entire multidisciplinary environmental community on campus.”

The building’s various thematic communities, or research clusters, are signaled by colors: red is for climate and energy, blue for oceans and estuaries, yellow for land use and conservation, and green for fresh water. Thus, occupants and visitors are made aware of the focus areas as they move around the building. The architects also intended that these colors serve as a navigational tool: It makes it easier for people to give directions to events at the building and find their way to meetings.

Even for those who did not have to pack up their offices, Y2E2 seems to be acting as a magnet. Rob Dunbar, the J. Frederick and Elisabeth Brewer Weintz University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, a professor in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, a saltwater and climate man, and founding director of IPER and the Victoria P. and Roger W. Sant Director of the Earth Systems Program, still has his main office in Braun Geology Corner.

“But I find I am actually spending significant time [at Y2E2], at least part of a day three times a week,” he said. “It is one-stop shopping for many of the folks I work with, folks that used to be spread out all over campus.”