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New FDA Lab Whets UCI's Appetite for Student Enrichment

The agency prepares to move into a $40-million center next to the Irvine university, which sees it as a source of research and jobs.

June 25, 2003|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

Near the heart of UC Irvine, the new federal Food and Drug Administration building is all sharp angles, sweeping arcs and windows. Inside are labs able to pinpoint where a disease broke out or whether produce trucked across the border was tainted by pesticide.

The FDA has planned only five such centers nationwide -- where labs handling caseloads from several states are next door to enforcement officials who can halt production and seize questionable products. In the next month, the center will be filled with scientists from an aging Los Angeles lab and FDA officials who had been working in rented space nearby.

Its location next to UCI is unusual: Only one other FDA center is nestled near a college campus. There may be profit in proximity.

The FDA will own the new facility, far from the overcrowded Los Angeles neighborhood that has been the lab's home for about five decades. And close at hand will be a research university whose professors and students are eager to collaborate with the FDA. The plan has a forerunner in New York City's York College, which houses the Northeast regional lab.

Alonza E. Cruse, director of the FDA's Los Angeles district, was in New York when that lab opened in Queens. Students since fall 2001 have funneled through FDA programs, and agency staffers have worked as adjunct professors at the small college.

Long before Tuesday's 70-minute dedication ceremony, Cruse and UCI leaders were talking partnership. UCI envisions field study or part-time work for those majoring in the biological sciences, chemistry or environmental analysis, said Jonathon Ericson, who leads the UCI faculty committee working to mesh the FDA and university's plans over the next six months.

"It makes a good bridge -- between state and federal government, from lab to lab, between intellectuals," Ericson said.

Both sides have talked of further tapping the academic talent pool down the street -- again, as is done with York. When the City University of New York board approved the sale of its land to the FDA, it was on the condition that the college's 6,500 students benefit academically. A dozen students work in the FDA labs each semester, said Edward Weil, York's provost and vice president for academic affairs.

So it shouldn't hurt that the nearly $40-million Irvine building holds the latest technology. Nozzles and spigots line pristine countertops in the two-story, 135,000-square-foot building. Scientists will be able to scan for hair and bugs in food, and screen imported produce in what's known as a "pesticide kitchen."

The FDA's 100 or so researchers and technicians will join the nearly 95 administrative staffers who have worked in Irvine since 1995 in a leased office across from the new facility.

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