Atkinson a hall without walls

    The grand entrance to UCSD’s newly dedicated Atkinson Hall could be torn from a Stanley Kubrick film.

    Angular lights hang from the lofty, almost eerily white walls, while windows spanning the height of several people decorate the building’s face.

    Yet the offices of the building, part of the the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology program, lack that awesome presence, opting instead for a more intimate setting. On the fifth floor, which houses the science research facility’s administration, there are no walled cubicles and few offices with doors. In fact, most of the desks are gathered in the middle of the large room, with a feature indicative of the building’s mission: Mostly everything, including the chairs, desks and cabinets, is on wheels.

    “[Our purpose is] all about adaptability and agility in this world,” said Cal-(IT)2 Director of Communications Stephanie Sides. “This whole building — every floor, every office, every department — is working toward propelling the sciences and pushing the envelope by combining aspects of discipline across all areas.”

    UCSD’s six-floor 215,000 square-foot edifice, now named Atkinson Hall, was part of a $100 million deal with the state of California in 2000. Under the partnership with then-Gov. Gray Davis, UCSD split the funds with UC Irvine, with $70 million going toward UCSD’s Cal-(IT)2 project. The deal was formed out of need to stay competitive with the fast-paced sciences, and mandated that the UCSD division raise at least double the cost of the building in private funding.

    To date, faculty of UCSD’s Cal-(IT)2 sector has raised $226 million in federal research awards and industry gifts.

    The decision to establish a division at UCSD was based on the strong telecommunications and biotechnological presence in the area, and so far has been a fruitful decision, Sides said. Wireless communications giant Qualcomm Inc., based in San Diego, has donated over $15 million to the institute, which also has a partnership with Ericsson, another telecommunications company. The building also uses several experimental and beta technologies, including supercomputers used in the media arts from Silicon Graphics Inc.

    “In a lot of instances, it’s not like we’re paying for some of the hot technology we’re getting,” said Cal-(IT)2 Principal Development Engineer Greg Dawe. “In the case of SGI, it needs people to start using its products, since its too costly for Hollywood to use. So we’re the first to do it.”

    Teetering on the cutting-edge seems to be the building’s mantra, which serves over two-dozen departments spanning across the sciences, engineering, physics and music. An acoustically-isolated auditorium, made soundproof by building the space within another room on the building’s first floor was used at iGrid 2005 for a reason, according to Dawe. The global telecommunications event earlier this year featured a live video conversation between Chancellor Marye Anne Fox and Japanese officials at Keio University, with a Cal-(IT)2 touch: The teleconference was broadcast, for the first time, through a super high-definition 4,000 horizontal-pixel digital transmission. The Cal-(IT)2 room will receive its own Sony 4K projector for use in December, Dawe said.

    In addition, the room sports 200 seats each with its own Internet connection and electricity a 1000-watt sound system and an adjustable stage. The theater’s capabilities aren’t quite Vaudevillian, but not quite coldly robotic, Dawe said.

    “It’s a challenge to build a facility in an educational institute,” Dawe said. “This kind of environment demands a lot of things: video for Scripps Institution of Oceanography meetings, audio capabilities for the theater department and musicals and all sorts of other things. As you want those things, the menu gets larger and we start pushing the edge of practice. This is all one big experiment.”

    The building’s first floor also hosts another experimental science in several modules, where scientists in “bunny suits” similar to surgeon’s scrubs test the capabilities of nano-size structures. In the “clean rooms,” where filter equipment constantly purifies the air, each cubic foot of air possesses no more than 100 particles bigger than .5 microns.

    “Nanotechnology is something that you usually only hear about in science fiction movies,” Sides said. “But here, we’re trying to take it into practice, and take it one step closer to developing sciences in the area.”

    While the facilities experiment with high-end products, the users in many cases are students. When fully operational, 75 percent of Cal-(IT)2 users will be either graduate or undergraduate students, according to Sides. Cal-(IT)2 will also host an undergraduate research program each summer, where up to 15 students can propose a project to faculty that uses the building’s facilities.

    “This building is used by a lot of faculty, but students get the most benefit out of it,” Sides said. “On top of bringing in research funding, better faculty hear about this place and want to come teach here. Students hear about this place and want to come learn here.”

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