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Highlights | Returning to research

  • In May 2019 there was a radioactive material breach that shut down the Research and Training Building (R&T) on the Harborview campus. 
  • The rebuild took longer than expected, with the COVID-19 pandemic playing a large part in the slowdown. 
  • After two years and the efforts of many teams, researchers are back in the building.

Two years after a radioactive material breach, the Research and Training (R&T) building on the Harborview campus welcomed people back on-site after slowdowns of the rebuilding process during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers are excited to be back, especially the now-retired physician, researcher and professor Nicole Gibran, MD, FACS, who pushed back her retirement to see this project through. 

“I was so impressed about the concerted effort from UW School of Medicine, UW Environmental Health & Safety, Harborview and University leadership, and with how committed people were to getting the R&T building remediated. It was truly a team effort,” says Gibran. “I want to emphasize the fact that this couldn’t have happened without a lot of elbow grease and dedicated individuals, including investigators.”

Rebuilding through setbacks

The breach that allowed for the disbursement of cesium-137, a dangerous radioactive isotope, during a common removal procedure of an irradiator device displaced over 200 researchers and ruined invaluable research samples.

Luckily, there was never a significant threat to human health. Very low levels of radioactivity were spread on air currents throughout the building, which had to be found and cleaned in difficult to reach spaces. It was the high cleanup standards and the pandemic that had the most significant impact on the rebuilding timeline.

High standards

UW Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) has strict requirements for radiation levels, which means the R&T building is very safe. It also means that the Radiation Response team needed to redo cleaning or building efforts to meet those requirements.

The exhaust system is one example.

From the start, Gibran says the team knew the loading dock required considerable remediation, but they thought the exhaust system could be restored with a deep clean. When the cleaning didn’t meet the standards set by EHS, they had to remove and rebuild.

“It’s important to remember that except for the loading dock, the building was never considered unsafe by the Department of Health,” says Gibran. “It speaks to the high level of safety the University insisted upon.”

Unprecedented times

Right after the breach, researchers were reassigned to shared workstations in other buildings, which created crowded work environments. Cue the COVID-19 pandemic and its physical distancing requirements, which resulted in more displaced researchers.

Additionally, the pandemic reduced access to supplies for rebuilding, slowing down valuable reconstruction time.

“This had a dramatic, negative effect on people’s productivity,” says Gibran.

It also put a spotlight on the caring and supportive team willing to go above and beyond to get the project back on track and prioritize researchers’ projects, she says.

Silver linings

“I have to say that there were some silver linings, as I look back over the last two years,” says Gibran.

One of those is updated lab equipment. Incubators and bio safety cabinets were replaced because the team couldn’t decontaminate them or they were too old and the team couldn’t replace parts that needed to be remediated.

“If we couldn’t determine the safety of equipment, we had to replace them completely,” says Gibran.

Other important upgrades happened to infrastructure and facilities components and audiovisual systems. Researchers are returning to a brand-new, empty slate and it’s inspiring for them, she says.

They also had an opportunity to reorganize and create a synergy that Gibran notes was missing before.

“Instead of saying, ‘You can have room 510,’ now people on each floor are grouped by common interest,” says Gibran. “When you walk through there is an airiness and space and it looks revitalized; it’s been exciting to see the building transformed.”

Happy returns

There is still construction and renovation going on, but it does not prevent researchers from being back in the building. Here’s what some returning researchers had to say.  

Lorenzo Giacani, PhD, Associate Professor, Division of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

“Returning to R&T after two very long years felt like going back to a renovated home after a necessary but very hard exile during which we had to deal with the consequences of the radioactive spill and, on top of it, also with all the issue caused by the pandemic. Now my research will proceed at a much faster pace because we no longer must commute between buildings across three different campuses. I am very grateful to all those that helped us during the journey that led us back to repopulate one of the best research facilities at UW.”

May Reed MD, FACP, Section Chief, Division of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine

“It is tough to grasp the amount of mental and physical effort that was expended to get this large building back into usable space. The numerous steps required to move everyone out and now back in, are also difficult to fathom. I would also like to applaud the tenacity and commitment of my research colleagues and their staff who have moved so many of their items — large and small, personal and research-related — all over the city to keep their research enterprise alive.”

Gwen Wood, PhD, Research Assistant Professor, Division of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

“While we are very grateful to the researchers in the Ninth and Jefferson building for sharing space and equipment with us for the past two years, it is a great relief to be back in our own lab in the Research and Training Building. My lab has been able to resume experiments that have been on hold and to accommodate additional research students. The new equipment and revitalized research spaces have really improved productivity and morale.”

Photo caption: Research and Training Building at Harborview. Photo courtesy of Anna Mowell, RD.