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Campus greenhouse to improve research

Submitted by Alexis Williams on November 19, 2012 – 2:22 pmNo Comment

Towering above UALR is a spacious, state-of-the-art facility that is familiar to very few people on campus. In fact, unless you have a science major, you might not have known it even exists.

Graduate students and professors are conducting research in the futuristic and energy-efficient Center for Integrative Nanotechnology Sciences, known colloquially as the Nanotech building that opened six months ago. The research canvasses a vast array of subjects, from solar cells to nanomedicine. Part of that research necessitates plant life, so the university discussed in 2006 the possible addition of a greenhouse atop the Nanotech building.

“We talked a lot about the potential of the greenhouse on the physics building,” said David Millay, associate vice chancellor of the Facilities Management department who oversaw the construction of the greenhouse.

“But we eventually decided that the physics building wouldn’t support the structural stress of the greenhouse,” Millay said. “We received [overwhelming support] from top administration, which helped.”

Campus supporters for the facility were Interim Provost Sandra Robertson, Chancellor Joel Anderson, Vice Chancellor of Finance and Administration Robert Adams, and Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics Michael Gealt. The science colleges were also eager to include the structure.

“CSAM has biology research activity going on, and they’ve wanted a greenhouse for a long time,” Millay said.

Mariya Khodakovskaya, assistant professor of applied science, is one of three named researchers currently working in the greenhouse. She is collaborating with a graduate assistant on several experiments, one of which involves “plant stress signaling”. This research centers on improving plant resistance to certain stresses, like cold and drought.

Since the greenhouse was officially opened six months ago, the only plants currently inhabiting the facility are soybean, corn, and barley crops.

“We were cultivating the crops in growth chambers before, but those three are too tall to properly develop in the chambers,” Khodakovskaya said. “When you’re dealing with plants, there is just one way to do it, and that is with a greenhouse.”

Khodakovskaya said the main deciding factor behind the necessity for the greenhouse was the fact that the old greenhouse was simply falling apart, completely unsuitable for research. It had holes in the roof and was in need of “major reconstruction.”

“[The greenhouse] will accommodate ongoing research by providing a high-quality environment to do so,” Millay said.

Both Millay and Khodakovskaya said the biggest perk of the rooftop greenhouse was its controlled-environment feature. Every atmospheric aspect, from humidity, temperature, and light, can be carefully and precisely manipulated by a computer system. Consequently, the facility is highly energy-efficient.

The greenhouse is a 1,800-square foot structure built with reinforced steel beams, concrete floors, and Plexiglas-like tempered windows. It can withstand winds up to 80 miles per hour. Millay said such a facet was mandatory on the roof of a five-story building. The greenhouse can only be accessed by elevator and is not currently open to the public because of its unique purpose.

“It’s really more of a laboratory than a tourist attraction,” Millay said.

Khodakovskaya said that it might one day be public, but for now, it is just a research facility. “We have to be careful to preserve the atmospheric conditions.”

Millay said the construction of the greenhouse cost the university little more than $200,000, but that increased to $400,000 including tables, furnishings, and the support structure.

“I am absolutely pleased with the end result,” Millay said, “and eager to see what comes out of it.”

Khodakovskaya also shared her enthusiasm. “I am very excited about [the addition of the greenhouse]. It will hopefully attract more grad students to our campus,” she said. “Our goal is to provide quality research, which will make us more competitive for state funding, which will provide more opportunities for UALR and bring more work here. This is a great step for UALR.”


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