Think about your home. There’s almost always something you need to fix and want to change. And then there are the occasional moves.
Now multiply that times 7,000.
That’s the number of lab spaces at MD Anderson. Leading the moves, fixes and changes in our labs are five facility planners.
“Research is vital to achieving our mission to end cancer, and our scientists can discover more when their space works well for them. That’s where our team comes in,” says Jeff Ellard, manager, Facilities Planning and Design.
Research lab roots
How can a facilities expert know enough about, say, synthetic chemistry to design a state-of-the-art cancer research lab? Our people have a huge edge because they first were experts in research. “Our approach is to hire research personnel and teach them the facilities side,” Ellard says. “We believe they’re more effective because they relate to the scientists and understand their needs and goals.”
It’s an unconventional approach that works well for the planners and the researchers they serve.
“When approached about this role, I was excited about staying involved in research, but in a new and different way,” says Paula Holton, senior facilities planner/designer, who spent 25 years working in two of our labs prior to joining Facilities Management in 2007.
Current team members often discover new teammates through their project interactions. For example, Holton saw potential in Sandra Cormier when they worked together on her lab move during her time in the research lab.
“Organization and being able to multitask are just a few of the many important skill sets needed for this job, and Paula said I was almost ‘too organized’ when she helped our lab move,” jokes Cormier, who became a facilities planner/designer in 2012.
The labs aren’t just work spaces for our scientists. The labs are personal for our researchers because they house their life’s work. So creating new lab spaces and moving entire labs from one location to another are among the more intense and comprehensive projects handled by this team.
Each person typically juggles 20 projects at a time. Even small projects have multiple steps and involve many people and groups. Coordination is a key part of their role.
Facilities planner/designer Hector Avila adds another dimension to that job function.
“We’re often interpreters as well – helping the business areas understand research language and helping the scientists understand institutional perspectives and priorities in terms they know and appreciate,” Avila says.
Maximizing efficiency of space, including labs
MD Anderson has more than 1.5 million square feet of laboratory space, which is about 26% of our total gross square footage. But as it becomes harder to add space, it must be approached strategically.
“MD Anderson will continue to invest in research to remain at the forefront of cancer, but all investments, including space, must be made thoughtfully and to best help our patients,” says Ethan Dmitrovsky, M.D., provost and executive vice president.
One important effort is ensuring we’re taking full advantage of our current research lab space by using a more comprehensive review process. Today, evaluating how much lab space is needed includes considering equipment used and the number of people conducting the research.
“We’re constantly learning. We must stay up-to-date on research and its advancements to provide the best service and adequate space that’s conducive to the research conducted by our clients,” Cormier says. “This is completely different from the career path I imagined when I pursued my biochemistry degree, but the rewards of assisting the researchers in Making Cancer History® are more rewarding than I could ever have imagined.”
A longer version of this article originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s bimonthly employee publication.