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Genetics lab to enhance marine research

Duke will break ground July 30 on the first new research building at the Duke University Marine Lab since the 1970s.

The $6.75 million, 12,000 sq.-ft. Orrin Pilkey Marine Sciences and Conservation Genetics Center will open Fall 2013 with new lab space designated for genetic marine science. The designs incorporate concerns such as sea level rise and hurricanes, and may receive LEED platinum certification for sustainable building practices. The Board of Trustees approved the construction at its meeting in May.

The building was paid for by donations from the Oak Foundation—a philanthropic entity that supports non-profits grappling with global social and environmental issues—and chemical oceanographer Philip Froelich, Trinity ’68, and his wife Kathy. The Froelichs proposed naming it after Pilkey, a marine geologist with special interest in coastal areas and James B. Duke professor emeritus of geology.

“The most powerful new tool for understanding marine conservation is genetics,” said Bill Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment. “It’s time for us to make a commitment to our ability to stay out in front in the marine sciences.”

Genetic research enables scientists to track the movements and activities of marine populations, Chameides said. For instance, scientists can use genetics to track the migrations of bluefin tuna between Atlantic and European fisheries, and determine if the two populations mix or return home to breed. If the genetic makeup between the groups mixes, then European conservation measures will directly affect the Atlantic population and vice versa.

The marine lab—a division of the Nicholas School—currently holds some molecular research facilities, but the new building offers more lab space with greater electrical capacity for the molecular tools, said Marine Lab Director Cindy Van Dover, Harvey Smith professor of biological oceanography.

“It’s really an opportunity to bring our science into the future and allows us to expand our faculty,” Van Dover said. “We’re doing molecular work in the old labs but we need a larger space than what we currently have.”

Pilkey, whom Chameides described as “a shining light” of the Nicholas School, has focused his recent work on how rising sea levels affect beaches. Fittingly, the building’s design addresses the threat of sea level rise in the coming decades, Van Dover noted. A worst case scenario predicts six to seven feet of sea level rise in the next 100 years, with storm surge rising beyond those levels.

Planners chose to situate the building at a spot on the south side of the island, formerly home to a trailer dormitory, because it was a high point on the island.

The research lab will occupy the second floor to protect the expensive equipment from flooding, like a house on stilts, Van Dover said. The ground floor will hold offices, conference rooms, a teaching laboratory and a commons area, which can all be cleared out quickly in case of flooding.

New York-based architects and construction managers Peter Gluck and Partners designed the building exterior to withstand corrosion from salty coastal air, high humidity, high wind speeds and hurricane-borne debris, project architect Stacie Wong wrote in an email June 26.

The goal for the building is a LEED platinum rating, Van Dover said. Platinum is the highest level of certification offered by the U.S. Green Building Council for sustainable design, construction and operation. The project will certainly earn at least a LEED silver rating and it will be reasonable to aim for a gold rating, she added.

Key sustainability features include drought tolerant landscaping to eliminate the need for a permanent irrigation system, geothermal heating and cooling and use of materials produced within 500 miles, Wong said.

The Marine Lab offers students a close-knit island community and a high degree of student interaction with faculty, Van Dover said. The communal area on the ground floor will serve this goal as a “collisional commons” where researchers and students can interact.

“You can sit next to someone and enjoy the view and start chatting about something and you’re off on a new idea,” Van Dover said.

Pilkey was giving a talk at the Marine Lab when the Board met and approved the naming of the building. One of the students in the audience saw an email announcing the decision and walked up to congratulate him after the talk.

“It came as a complete surprise to me, it really did,” he said.

The University’s support for the Marine Lab comes at a crucial moment, Pilkey said. Marine environments will be hit especially hard by global warming, in the form of sea level rise, acidification and warming waters.

“Marine labs are going to really be center points of research on the future of our oceans,” he said. “The changes that are going to occur here are going to be vast. Duke is making a commitment to the future of the world’s oceans, and that’s wonderful.”

Donor Philip Froelich studied marine geology as a student of Pilkey at the Marine Lab in the 1960s and then joined him for a year of research in Puerto Rico. When Pilkey first met Froelich, the student seemed “very bright but very bored.”

Then Froelich, who was not available to comment in time for publication, applied his chemistry studies to the ocean, and set off on a career of chemical oceanography. He now serves as a member of the Nicholas School board of visitors.

“As soon as [Froehlich] found the ocean, he found his way and never looked back,” Pilkey said.

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