Carleton neuroscience students fear building move could harm research, careers

Students in Carleton University's neuroscience department are worried that two upcoming building moves in the span of less than a year could bring a halt to important brain research — and also hamstring their careers.

Construction projects could force department to relocate twice in 2017

Natalie Prowse, a master's student in Carleton University's neuroscience department, says the university's plan to relocate her department could seriously affect both her research and her job prospects. (Judy Trinh/CBC)

Students in Carleton University's neuroscience department are worried that two upcoming building moves in the span of less than a year could bring a halt to important brain research and hamstring their careers.

The department is scheduled to temporarily relocate to an as-of-yet undetermined location when renovations to their current building get underway next March — and then settle for good in the university's new health sciences facility when it opens.

It's a plan, however, that could pull the plug on painstakingly-precise research projects and potentially delay students' graduation dates, said John Stead, the chair of Carleton's neuroscience department.

"For many of those students, the research they're going to be doing is critical for their degrees, critical for their futures," Stead said.

"And at the moment, we don't know whether the students are actually going to be able to continue their research next year."

Uncertain future

The neuroscience department currently has approximately 500 undergraduate students and 50 or so master's and Ph.D. students, as well as a handful of post-doctoral researchers.

The current problem, Stead said, ironically arises from "two pieces of very good news": the construction of the new Academic Health Sciences facility, and the renovation of their current home into the forthcoming Institute for Advanced Research and Innovation in Smart Environments (ARISE).

The future the success of those students is, unfortunately, going to be despite Carleton. Not because of Carleton.- John Stead, neuroscience department chair

The ARISE building's construction is slated to begin on March 1, 2017, but the health sciences building won't be open by then — necessitating two moves rather than a more manageable single relocation, Stead said.

That could throw students' research into disarray, he noted. Some experiments take "six to eight months from start to finish," and others — because of the time required to properly set up and calibrate highly-precise equipment  — can't just be moved.

"If you stop one of these experiments mid-stream and try and continue it in a different location, then often the experiment becomes invalidated," said Stead.

"We're in a situation where the future the success of those students is unfortunately going to be despite Carleton, not because of Carleton."

John Stead, the chair of the neuroscience department at Carleton, is critical of a plan that would force the department to relocate twice in less than a year. (Judy Trinh/CBC)

Degrees could be delayed

The neuroscience department was already preparing for a significant upheaval, said Stead, as they knew they would be relocating permanently to the new health sciences building.

But the March 2017 move has made what was already a "massive disruption" even more difficult, Stead added. Students have told him they've suffered anxiety and panic attacks at the thought of losing months' worth of research, he said. 

On Thursday, a petition appeared online calling for the launch of "all-party consultation" to figure out how to manage the move.

It jeopardizes everything. It jeopardizes all of my experiments.- Natalie Prowse, master's student

Natalie Prowse, a master's student who studies depression and stress, said both her future career and her current research could be affected by the disruption.

For instance, Prowse said, she's expecting to collaborate with a U.S. researcher at her lab in Ottawa next year — which may not even exist.

"It can delay my degree. It can delay my ability to finish a study. If I don't get that publication, I don't get the grants I need to fund my research. And that grant — to a graduate student, to someone in the sciences — is like having a really hot job on my resume," she said.

"It jeopardizes everything. It jeopardizes all of my experiments."

This is an architectural rendering of the Academic Health Sciences building at Carleton University, the future home of the university's neuroscience department. Before moving in there, the department is being asked to move into temporary accommodations at the University of Ottawa. (Carleton University)

'Simple solution'

Construction on the roughly 120,000 sq.-ft. Academic Health Sciences building, which will house both the neuroscience program and the university's recently-launched health science program, is expected to wrap up by June.

In a statement, Carleton University spokesman Steven Reid told CBC News that the relocation plan will likely be made known in the next few days.

"Carleton has been working to resolve the issue of acquiring appropriate research and office space until construction of new buildings on our campus is complete," Reid said.

​"We are finalizing the plan and will be sharing it with those affected in our community before making it more widely public. We expect to be in a position to share the plan in the next couple of days."

Regardless of what that plan is, Stead said he sees a "very simple solution": delay the opening of the ARISE building by nine months.

"That would allow the experiments that we have ongoing already in this building to be completed," he said. "It would absolutely minimize the disruption, and would set the students up for success."

With files from Judy Trinh