Round and round the centrifuge spun, gathering speed until peaking at a force of 10 g’s, or 10 times the force of gravity.
About 30 medical professionals from across the nation and world looked on, savoring what could be the final time they see the centrifuge, a blue capsule that’s 8 feet in diameter and can simulate conditions at altitudes of thousands of feet.
The group met Friday in the Sherman Annex on the University at Buffalo’s South Campus for food and beverages, the inaugural gathering in a weekend-long symposium to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the university’s Center for Research and Education in Special Environments.
They were also there to bid farewell. The beloved lab, which several in attendance used early in their careers at UB, is scheduled to be demolished in 2016.
“It’s a shame for me to see this fantastic facility be picked apart,” said Dr. Donald Hickey of Amherst, a volunteer researcher at the lab who graduated from UB’s medical school in 1978.
Hickey estimated it would cost $850,000 annually to pay a handful of technicians and two chief scientists needed to run the 18-room lab. He admitted it would take an “angel” to provide that funding, and he fears his efforts to save it are too little, too late.
Still, Hickey contends, decades of valuable work and future research will be lost by leveling the facility and dismantling the state-of-the-art equipment it houses. Besides the centrifuge, there is a hypobaric and hyperbaric chamber capable of simulating altitudes up to 100,000 feet and depths up to 5,600 feet, and a 400-liter stress bath that tests objects and people submerged in water.
Amid the headlines of a new medical campus being constructed downtown, Hickey has waged a less-public battle to save the decades-old research lab tucked away in the Sherman Annex.
Hickey, director of the surgical intensive care unit at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, has penned letters to possible benefactors in a last-ditch effort to spare the facility; so far, he has been met with silence.
The university decided to eliminate the lab’s salaried positions once the current director, David Pendergast, retires in the coming years, Hickey said. When former director Claes Lundgren retired from the position in 2008, the university decided against renewing one of the two salaried positions, leaving the lab to be staffed by one paid director.
Pendergast transitioned into Lundgren’s former role, but once Pendergast retires in a couple of years, the university said it would not be keeping the second salaried position.
The situation is exacerbated because the state has scaled back funding for research scientists, Hickey said.
University officials told Hickey that if he could raise the money needed to maintain the lab, the facility would remain. But grant sources aren’t eager to award funds to labs with an uncertain future and without a director to oversee research and projects.
UB issued a statement that the university’s new downtown medical campus was a factor in the decision to close the lab, adding that the lab “contains equipment that is very difficult, if not impossible, to transport.”
“Also playing an important role in the decision to close the center is the steady decline in federal research funding due to sequestration,” the statement said. In April, Hickey said UB connected him with the university’s Office for Research and Economic Development in an attempt to find businesses that might be interested in the lab’s research and in providing funding. So far, that effort hasn’t proved fruitful.
Friday evening, several symposium attendees commented that their time at the lab was a cornerstone of their education.
Flying in from Switzerland, Urs Boutellier, a lab research assistant professor at UB from 1983 to 1985, said he used the facility’s equipment to conduct respiratory system studies that ultimately resulted in helping better train athletes.
The greatest loss, Boutellier said, is the wealth of information lab scientists won’t be passing on to students. Twenty-three Ph.D. students, 30 master’s students, 31 postdoctoral students and 32 visiting scientists worldwide in medicine, health-related sciences and engineering have been trained at the lab.
“It’s not just the equipment but the knowledge of the people here. The equipment doesn’t do the research. You lose the knowledge. You lose the equipment,” said Boutellier, a recently retired professor of exercise physiology. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Gesturing toward the lab’s hulking, reddish-orange hypobaric and hyperbaric chamber, Ed Flynn, a doctor with the Naval Sea Systems Command, said the chamber rivals technology used by the Navy. “That chamber over there is a 5,000-foot chamber. That’s the deepest in the world,” Flynn said.
While comparable equipment exists elsewhere, Hickey said the center’s facility is one of a kind. “There’s not a laboratory in the world that can do all that we can do,” he said. “Nobody’s got it all in one room.”
Established in the early 1970s with funding from the Defense Department, the center has been awarded $28 million in research grants from 1996 to 2011 from the Navy, Army, Air Force and NASA. Research at the lab centers on how the body responds to different stresses, such as climate changes and air pressure.
Research from the facility has been utilized to test underwater breathing gear for Navy SEALs and to study how aircraft cabins respond at high altitudes for safer air travel.
More recently, the lab has used its equipment to gauge how multiple sclerosis patients respond to heat exposure.
Hickey said the facility can still offer practical, contemporary uses. Equipment at the facility can be used to support stem cell research, the treatment of bone damage caused by radiation therapy, and cellular and molecular responses to carbon monoxide poisoning, he said.
“The history of excellence, I’m honored to be a part of it,” Quackenbush said. “It’s such a shame to see them leave in this fashion.”
News Staff Reporter Jay Rey contributed to this report. email: email@example.com