Knight Campus footbridge

Tour de Force

By Ed Dorsch, BA ’94 (English, sociology), MA ’99 (journalism)

Wearing a green mask and a yellow “O” lapel pin on his gray suit, Robert E. Guldberg starts my tour of the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact on the steel-and-glass skybridge that spans Franklin Boulevard. We walk above six lanes of traffic, watching shifting clouds reflect off the 650 glass panels that wrap the new building’s exterior, a cascading wall designed to resemble water flowing over rocks.

“This skybridge is one of my favorite places,” says Guldberg, vice president and Robert and Leona DeArmond Executive Director of the Knight Campus. “It serves practical purposes, but it’s also a symbol of our connection to campus—and the bridges we’re building from innovation to industry.”

Robert E. Guldberg, vice president and Robert and Leona DeArmond Executive Director of the Knight Campus
Robert Guldberg, vice president and Robert and Leona DeArmond Executive Director of the Knight Campus, talks with Kylie Nash, who is pursuing a PhD in bioengineering in the program’s first cohort.

The Knight Campus was built for one mission: science that advances society. By creating a best-in-class research center, the university is already recruiting top scientists to make discoveries, develop them, and start new businesses.

Tomorrow’s researchers will also benefit from a novel, experiential approach to science education, says Guldberg. The Knight Campus Internship Program offers an accelerated, career-focused master’s degree, and a select group of undergraduates is participating in an immersive research and mentorship program. Partnering with Oregon State University, the Knight Campus also offers a PhD in bioengineering—the UO’s first engineering degree.

We cross over, and Guldberg opens the doors to an exhilarating environment that hums with energy. Despite dreary winter skies, it’s filled with natural light and bustling with (masked, distanced) people.

Using the Knight Campus facilities
Kate Roth is pursuing a master’s degree in the bioinformatics and genomics track of the Knight Campus Graduate Internship Program.

Staircases connect open, inviting meeting areas. “Everything is designed for collaboration, conversation, and serendipity,” says Guldberg. “That’s what researchers and entrepreneurs need to succeed.”

They also need coffee. Guldberg shows me the future location of a café, and we continue exploring. All around us, concrete and steel intersect with cross-laminated timber and natural elements. A flowing water feature near the main entrance suggests the McKenzie River; in the Beetham Family Seminar Room, wooden ceiling slats form waves to evoke the Willamette; dotted patterns on a window form the shapes of duck DNA.

As we make our way upstairs, generous windows offer stunning views of Hayward Field and, in the distance, the Cascade Mountains. They also display the activity within to curious outsiders.

An outdoor terrace features native plants, seating areas, and a fire pit, all protected by a translucent ceiling that’s so high I barely notice it. It’s raining, but I’m dry as I look north to Autzen Stadium.

Then it’s back inside and up to the top, where we enter one of four “research neighborhoods.” Guldberg shares this one with Knight Campus Professor Keat Ghee Ong, who specializes in electrical engineering and wireless sensors. Their startup company Penderia—one of three launched from the campus so far—develops implants that transmit data to help patients recover after surgery.

He stops to chat, from a distance, with a student wearing a mask. The students working in this neighborhood include some of the UO’s first bioengineering PhD candidates.

“We’re creating a new breed of scientist,” says Guldberg. “In addition to technical training, they learn entrepreneurship, career development, and communication. Our interdisciplinary programs, combined with practical research experience and internships, position our graduates for success.”

Faculty members work in close proximity to students and labs in each of the neighborhoods. They’re organized by research interests and open to scientists from many different fields. These design strategies create efficiencies, opportunities to collaborate across disciplines, and what Guldberg calls “beneficial collisions of people.” Throughout the Knight Campus, space allocations will expand, contract, and shift as projects and funding evolve.

Guldberg shows me the electronics shop, a culture lab, and the 3D human tissue printer, a device that could theoretically fabricate a human organ. He offers to replicate my ear, but I decline. These instruments aren’t cheap, says Guldberg, so sharing them with their research colleagues makes sense. More impressive equipment is downstairs, in the building’s core facilities.

“In the past, there’s been this misconception that you either do applied work or you do fundamental work. The Knight Campus will support a cycle where one leads to the other—and amplifies the other.”
Robert E. Guldberg, vice president and Robert and Leona DeArmond Executive Director of the Knight Campus

The bottom floor is open and bright, featuring carpet with fractals designed by UO physics professor Richard Taylor and meeting rooms with glass walls portraying Oregon mountains.

We peer into (but don’t enter) Oregon’s only publicly-owned class-1000 cleanroom. Similar to facilities in semiconductor plants, it keeps the air incredibly pure. Inside, researchers work at scales so small their projects could be damaged by a floating particle the size of a blood cell.

The nearby X-ray imaging facility generates three-dimensional pictures of tissues, fossils, electronics, and more. Researchers can observe rare specimens without harming them or study the structure of tiny prototypes at the submicron level—smaller than one millionth of a meter.

The rapid prototyping and 3D-printing facilities are essentially high-tech machine shops that create parts down to the micron scale. Here, the most precise milling machine in the world can carve the Oregon “O” on a human hair. Another instrument can create a model of this building small enough to sit on that hair.

These tools are available to the entire UO faculty, as well as to industry partners. For Guldberg and Ong, the core facilities fabricate variations of titanium bone plates, accelerating their research—and their new biomedical company. Having these services under one roof, says Guldberg, makes it possible for researchers to quickly try out new ideas, fail, reboot or try again, succeed, and move forward.

Our final stop is the Innovation Center. Here entrepreneurs lease lab space and offices, transforming discoveries into spinoff companies, with help from experts in business and technology transfer.

Like our tour, this is where the cycle ends. But it’s also where everything begins. As the Knight Campus gives rise to new businesses, says Guldberg, entrepreneurship and applied research will also boost the fundamental science that leads to new discoveries for industry, creating a perpetual upward spiral.

“Everything is here in one building—research labs, offices, fabrication, business incubation, all laid out very strategically. This powerful, well-designed space accelerates the exchange of ideas and the development of startups.”
Keat Ghee Ong, Knight Campus professor

“Our teams of scientists, researchers, and students are blurring the lines between disciplines to solve important problems,” he says. “Everything inside this building is designed for discovery, development, and impact. We’re developing novel biomedical devices and therapies and deploying new technologies to the marketplace, where products, innovations, and cures improve peoples’ lives.”

From every vantage point, the view from the Knight Campus looks very bright.

The Knight Campus was designed by Ennead Architects of New York and Bora Architects of Portland and built by Hoffman Construction, of Portland.
(Skybridge photo, below, credit: Bruce Damonte)

Hit the Ground Running

Before the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact had officially opened its doors, researchers were busy pursuing their work.

Eye surgeon Bala Ambati is pursuing novel therapies for vision disorders such as macular degeneration.

Knight Campus interior
The Knight Campus features four research neighborhoods, with wet lab space, work stations and offices in a setting permeated by natural light. (Credit: Bruce Damonte)

Chemical engineer Marian Hettiaratchi is studying an enzyme with the potential to be repurposed to help reverse nerve damage caused by strokes and as a treatment for spinal cord injuries.

Computational biochemist Parisa Hosseinzadeh is using new materials to design proteins to serve as biosensors for early disease detection and inform the development of new treatments.

Neuroscientist Tim Gardner is developing an implantable electrode to treat such diseases as inflammatory bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and diabetes.

Synthetic biologist Calin Plesa is improving and lowering the cost of gene synthesis, used to study how mutations influence disease development and to develop new therapeutics.

Materials scientist Jonathan Reeder is developing bandage-like patches to monitor a person’s health by measuring biomarkers such as cortisol, vitamin C, and glucose secreted in sweat.

—Jim Barlow, University Communications