posted 2012-04-26 00:02:50

Psychology Labs Move into the 21st Century

Animal and autism facilities to be revamped

Kimberly Devi Milner

Associate News Editor

By the end of summer 2012 Hunter psychology professors will cut the ribbon to eight state-of-the-art animal study and cognitive developmental research laboratories as part of the department’s largest renovation in over 40 years. The project emerging in CUNY’s Decade of Science will provide modern labs for Hunter faculty working with electric fish, songbirds and rats, and observation rooms for professors engaged in developmental and autism studies.

Construction marks the sixth floor of the Hunter North building and the fifth floor of Thomas Hunter Hall where laboratories are being emptied and redesigned. The makeover that started last fall will make the labs – some of which are carrying designs from initial construction in the 1930s – easier to navigate and control. Researchers will be able to regulate room conditions such as lighting, heating, and air-conditioning that create controlled environments for experiments, according to the department’s Research Associate Manager Dr. Bryan T. Dowling. Renovations to the North sixth floor will cost approximately $2,500,000 and Thomas Hunter renovations will cost between $600,000 and $800,000, according to Rick Chandler, assistant vice-president for facilities.

Renovation of “walls, floors, doors and sinks – basically infrastructural changes – [may] seem small but have a large impact on research,” said Dowling. The labs will also be outfitted with state of the art equipment to meet the specific needs of Hunter faculty.

“We had to be creative since Hunter has such limited space,” said Psychology Department Chair Professor Vanya Quinones. “Most of the developments on the sixth floor will help animal studies. The fifth floor [of Thomas Hunter Hall] will benefit development and cognitive studies.”

A recent addition to the Hunter Psychology Department faculty, Professor Ofer Tchernichovski, who studies vocal learning in songbirds, will work in a lab on Hunter North’s sixth floor equipped with aviaries that will be made larger by extending into the hallway.

Across the hall, Professors Peter Moller who studies communication between African weakly electric fish, and Thomas Preuss who works with teleost fish, will continue performing research in labs outfitted with black blinds that allow them to completely block out sunlight.

Up until the renovations, pieces of cardboard could be found fastened to windows as makeshift curtains to darken the room. Professors Peter Serrano and Michael Lewis will occupy the neighboring lab to continue research in stress disorder and addiction using animal models like rats.

The Hunter North laboratories behind the elevators “were originally designed in the 1930s as labs for psychology interviews, not animal research,” said Moller. Moller’s laboratory housed a large fish tank and x-ray imaging systems in a maze of awkward hallways and small rooms.

With straight hallways and simple rooms Dowling expects the renovated labs to more comfortably accommodate students, and be a more efficient use of space.

“Of course you have architects who look at the space and the designs of what we want then laugh,” said Moller, who worked beside the contractors designing his lab. “But the [renovated labs] were designed based on what we needed.”

Psychology professors requesting updated laboratories have had to wait several years for the renovation initiative to be approved and funded by the college and central CUNY administration.

Working in the old laboratories’ inappropriate lab conditions often forced researchers to find new ways to control their environment. Senior Sviatoslav Kendall who assisted in an experiment involving rats noted that his professors turned on air conditioners in the winter and sometimes opened windows to keep fragile samples from falling apart.

“The reality is we’re not an Ivy League super well-funded facility, and we’re just making do with what we have,” said the Psychology major.

Although displaced and with their bulkier equipment in storage, many psychology professors are thrilled about the renovations and the modern lab facilities to come. “What’s exciting about this is that the sixth floor is moving into the 21st century – in terms of science facilities that is,” said Moller.

Renovations will also occur on the fifth floor of Thomas Hunter Hall where psychology rooms for developmental and autism studies will be transformed into observation rooms equipped with one way mirrors and will be designed to be serene and child-friendly. A child-sized bathroom will also be installed further down the hall.

“Redesigning a bathroom makes a huge difference working with children who are autistic,” said Dowling. These renovations are “what our department has lobbied for many years,” he said. “As science progresses the need for infrastructure changes.”