Hygienic Lab settles into its new digs


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After years of planning and construction, officials at the at the University of Iowa Hygienic Laboratory can finally enjoy their new state-of-the-art facility.

Workers began moving in on Nov. 12 from the lab's old location in Oakdale Hall, but today is the first functional day in the $37.75 million facility.

"Finally, it's here," said Michael Wichman, the associate director for the lab's Environmental Health Program. "It's so much different; it's so much better."

All operations in the administrative offices and disease-control department will begin in the new facility today, as well as in the sample receiving department, which will acquire the first test samples at the new lab in the UI Research Park in Coralville by the day's end.

Officials said they anticipate to have almost every department at the new lab by Friday.
For equipment that deals daily with testing samples and newborn screenings, there can be no downtime.

"It could be critically important, because children don't stop being born, and we need to continue to be taking environmental samples," Wichman said.

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Officials had originally hoped the move would take place in July. However, a controlled temperature environment is vital for testing at the lab, and officials had to guarantee a precise atmosphere.

"It took longer than any of us anticipated," Wichman said. "But we wanted to make sure that when we move in that everything is functioning properly."

A quick transition from one building to the other is important, he said, because the lab's public and environmental health functions need to be running at all times. The remaining equipment at Oakdale Hall — the lab's home for more than 30 years — must be turned off, transported, and operational again as quickly as possible.

On the first floor of Oakdale Hall, in a room with green carpet and yellow, orange, and red mix-matched cabinets and drawers, members of the Environmental Health Program packed in a flurry of movement on Nov. 12. Equipment was shut down, wires and cords labeled and taped up for the short move to the new 113,000-square-foot building, which boasts a football field-sized open laboratory, mobile cabinets and tables, and specialized rooms with controlled environments.

Oakdale Hall, built in 1917 as a tuberculosis hospital, transitioned from the state's leading defense against the illness into Iowa's environmental and public-health hub as the UI acquired the property and moved the Hygienic Lab to the hall.

While the hall has served the UI for several decades, the historic structure was not built for laboratory functions, so crowded rooms plagued even the simplest processes. Oakdale Hall is slated for demolition in mid-December, said Pat Blake, the lab's public-information officer.

While the building may not have been the most ideal lab, employees at the old hall can't help but feel a little nostalgic about its inevitable demise.

For laboratory supervisor, Terry Cain, 50, who has been with the UI Environmental Health Program for 26 years, the move is bittersweet.

"To leave [Oakdale] behind is, in a way, sad to see it's going to be leveled," he said. "On the other hand, it's falling apart."

Others are a little more emotional regarding the end of Oakdale's 93-year legacy.

"Am I going to cry when they tear the building down?" said Sarah May, who has been at Oakdale for 25 years — more than half of her lifetime. "Yes."

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