UI Hygienic Lab looks to future expansion


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In light of a recent announcement by University of Iowa President Sally Mason for expansion of funding for the State Hygienic Laboratory, a group of proponents gathered Thursday evening at the Hardin Library to discuss the past, present, and future of the lab. Officials have hopes for an improved facility.

Mason went before the Iowa Legislature’s education appropriation subcommittee on Feb. 12, focusing on the university budget for fiscal 2014, including allocations for the lab.

Since state cuts in 2009, the lab has been forced to reduce the equivalent of 32-full-time positions and freeze equipment replacement in the facility.

Lab Director Christopher Atchison said the facility now has its sights set on improving relations with area students, UI Research Park businesses, and Kirkwood Community College, pending the completion of a $900,000 fundraising initiative.

“What we’ve tried to do is position this laboratory in its new facility to be more contributory to both the academic responsibilities for the university and its research commitments,” he said. “We want to have young people come through and see research in action. We’re in an era now where information technology is allowing us to be far more sophisticated in understanding environmental influences and human health effects.”

Once the remaining funding has been secured, Atchison said the goal is to finish portions of the building’s lower level, adding a 150-seat auditorium, biological and chemical wet labs, and upgraded video-conferencing equipment.

He said the UI is currently in discussions with Kirkwood and businesses in the Research Park in a partnership that would allow students to take advantage of the facility’s offerings. To date, a $560,000 grant from the Carver Trust has been secured for a $2.2 million project.

Kathy Fait, a UI librarian and historian, emphasized the long-standing history of the Hygienic Lab. She pointed to its role as a facility that hired female workers in the early 1900s to aid in the treatment of rabies, tuberculosis, and diphtheria.

Today, the lab is responsible for testing newborns in all 99 state counties, and nearly 20,000 in North Dakota and South Dakota combined.

“The State Hygienic Lab has always been more than a testing lab,” she said. “It’s been an educational lab.”

Pat Blake, the lab’s public-information officer, said that although the facility has moved into a number of locations since its inception at the UI Biology Building in 1904, its mission has remained the same.

This year, it will celebrate a number of nationwide accomplishments, most notably the 50-year anniversary of newborn screening.

“From a few drops of blood from a newborn, we can now detect more than 50 conditions,” she said. “If they were undetected, it could result in comas, severe developmental delays, and even death. Whether you’re tested for influenza or if you’re wondering what the quality of your well water is, or if a new baby is born into a family, we do all of this and much, much more.”

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