Colwell and the Columbus Center

July 25, 1993

Rita R. Colwell's decision not to seek the presidency of a large Alabama university is impressive testimony to the impact she believes the Columbus Center will have on the international scientific community. Few ambitious academics with a flair for administration could turn down a university presidency, least of all for a small research institution that is still two years from coming into its own. The Center of Marine Biotechnology, one of six research and teaching units that make up Dr. Colwell's Maryland Biotechnology Institute, will be the centerpiece of the $160 million complex that bids to become the latest jewel in the Inner Harbor.

Viewed as pie in the sky by some skeptics when the idea of a world-class marine research center on Piers 5 and 6 was broached six years ago, the Columbus Center is designed to combine the metropolitan area's growing preoccupation with high-technology and its fascination with things that reside in the water. Construction funds for the striking building, a large architectural step beyond anything else on the harbor, are virtually all in hand. The center's leadership needs to shift its energies to what may be the more daunting task of raising the money to equip and staff the complex.

To this point the Columbus Center has been a monument to the political clout of Maryland legislators, notably Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Rep. Steny Hoyer, who occupy key places in the congressional appropriations process. Most of the construction is covered by federal appropriations, though more than two-thirds of the total capital cost will come from state, local and private funds.

Now comes the hard part. Under Stanley Heuisler, the center's president, it is launching a $17 million campaign to equip the biotechnology center and companion Center of Marine Archaeology, exhibition halls and education facilities. That such quests are not always easy in the relatively new world of high-tech research is evidenced by the difficulties of the planned bioprocessing center here, which saw a prime sponsor back out at the last minute because of financial reverses.

At the same time, the University of Maryland has launched a search for the director of the marine biotechnology center, now dominated by Dr. Colwell. For all the grandeur of the Columbus Center, with its billowing roof and modernistic design, what goes into the building will be far more important. That will determine what comes out of it, in the form of pioneering research, young scholars and an entranced and better-informed public.

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