UW News

March 9, 2006

Jimmy Carter, Bill Gates brave howling winds to open new bioengineering and genomic sciences building

VIDEO: see the dedication on UWTV’s website
Neither wind, nor rain, nor chilling cold could stop the official opening of the new William H. Foege Genome Sciences and Bioengineering Building on the UW campus Wednesday afternoon.

But they came pretty close.

More than halfway into the dedication ceremonies, which featured former President Jimmy Carter as the keynote speaker and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates as a participant, a powerful gust of wind picked up the corner of the large tent set up to shelter the overflow crowd from the elements. Members of the audience gasped in alarm as the tent poles crashed back to the ground, remaining upright, and guy lines inside the tent went slack.

No one was injured and the crowd of more than 800 was moved from the tent and inside the new building, where the ceremonies concluded.

At a press conference just before the dedication, Carter blasted the Bush administration for the war in Iraq, saying it was “unnecessary,” “unjust,” and initiated on “false pretenses.”

During the dedication, the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize laureate called building namesake William Foege a friend and a mentor.

“For many people, maybe for all of us, there are a few others who have literally changed our minds and changed our lives,” Carter said. For him, he said, William Foege is one of those few.

“But he has not only changed my life; he has successfully worked to change the lives of people around the world.”

Foege, a graduate of the UW School of Medicine and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during Carter’s presidency, has saved the lives of millions through his efforts to wipe out such devastating diseases as smallpox, river blindness and Guinea worm, Carter said. He spearheaded efforts to encourage childhood immunizations. “And there are thousands of newborn babies who will not die in Pakistan because he taught their mothers not to cover their umbilical cords with buffalo fat.”

Gates credited Foege with helping set the direction of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an organization that experts in the field agree has set the pace for medical research to tackle health problems in underdeveloped nations.

“We turned to Bill early in the history of our foundation,” Gates said. “He shared with us books he thought we should read. We are avid readers, and that was a great way to help us. Our program wouldn’t be anything like what it is without his guidance.”

The Gates Foundation contributed $50 million to help fund the $150 million structure.

The new 293,000-square-foot building consists of two halves: one for the Department of Bioengineering, which is jointly administered by the College of Engineering and the School of Medicine, and the other for the Department of Genome Sciences. The halves of the building are joined at each floor by a bridge, with abundant meeting areas and conference rooms where researchers can easily gather to discuss their projects, find commonalities and work together.

That design mirrors the collaborative spirit that suffuses the UW environment, according to UW President Mark Emmert.

“This building is of course a wonderful exemplar of what the UW is all about,” Emmert said. “It’s an exemplar of what the UW can do in terms of interdisciplinary collaboration. It’s an exemplar of this University’s willingness to step up to the table and take on the most significant global challenges.”

Acting Dean of Engineering Mani Soma added that some of the best work being done at the UW involves collaboration between engineering and medicine.

“You may be surprised to know that what we are doing in engineering today is not your grandfather’s engineering,” he said.

As the dedication progressed, some members of the crowd peered about anxiously when the tent creaked and rippled as it was buffeted by the blustery winds of the incoming winter storm. Paul Ramsey, dean of the School of Medicine, picked up on the anxiety while introducing Foege, who was the final speaker.

“I should reassure everyone that the tent is certified to 50 mph winds,” he said, to laughter from the audience.

Minutes into Foege’s address, the end of the tent blew several feet into the air, prompting an orderly evacuation to the building.

Once inside, Foege continued in an auditorium that seats about 100 people. Others gathered in spaces throughout the building and listened in via speakers.

He quoted a number of history’s greatest philosophers and scientists on the role of science.

“The summary of these greats of the past is to say that there is something better than science,” Foege said. “That is science with a moral compass, science in the service of humanity, science that makes current deeds responsive to future needs.”

That, he said, is how he envisions the contribution the building that bears his name can make.

“It will be, in the words of the poet, a love letter to the children of the future: We loved you, even when we knew we would never meet you.”

Before the dedication, during a question-and-answer session with members of the news media, Carter blasted the Bush administration when a reporter asked for his assessment of the situation in Iraq.

“It was a completely unnecessary war. It was a completely unjust war. It was initiated on the basis of false pretenses,” he said. “All of that is true, but we are already there. We can’t preemptively withdraw. It would cause a civil war. We are on the verge of a civil war.”

The violence in Iraq is escalating every month, he said. “My prayer is that we will see some kind of stable democratic government evolve.”

If that can be accomplished, he added, he would like to see U.S. troops coming home as soon as possible.

“Other than that,” he joked. “I think things have gone well.”

Research being done at the new facility includes:

  • Engineering the growth of new tissues that could patch or someday even replace vital organs.
  • Manipulating molecules and designing nanotechnology devices to deliver medication to targeted areas in the body.
  • Medical imaging technology that could spot signs of disease before symptoms appear.
  • The miniaturization of medical diagnostic devices to make them highly portable — essentially a “pocket lab” that medical professionals could pack into remote areas.
  • The comparison of genomes across species.
  • The genetics that govern human disease and how susceptible people are to those diseases.