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New science palace bugs entomologist

U of W prof decries water quality, restaurant

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THE University of Winnipeg's new science building is bugging the school's best-known entomologist, who claims the water isn't clean enough to conduct experiments and dislikes the proximity of labs to a restaurant.

But the university is swatting away the concerns of biology professor Rob Anderson, who describes the $67-million Richardson College for the Environment and Science complex as not conducive to science.

Anderson, an associate professor of biology, claims poor water quality at the university's two-year-old science facility on Portage Avenue has prevented him from culturing mosquitoes. He said problems with brown water first appeared in 2011, then worsened this summer when many areas of Winnipeg were afflicted with discoloured tap water.

"You can go out in the field and find mosquitoes in dirty water, but when you're raising them, you want clean water," Anderson said Tuesday in an interview.

"The U of W's claims to have a world-class, state-of-the-art research and teaching facility is not backed up by their willingness to provide mediocre conditions for faculty," he added. "I had better research conditions in a remote field station in Kenya."

'I had better research conditions in a remote field station in Kenya'

-- biology professor Rob Anderson, in front of the U of W's Richardson College

Anderson said Richardson College opened without a central water-filtration facility for its science labs. A reverse-osmosis filter installed later does not yield water in sufficient quantity for all the college's needs, he added.

He said the university does not test its water to determine what microbes and chemicals are present, thus depriving researchers with a baseline to control experiments.

Anderson said he's been told he must install filters on the taps himself. "It's an asinine institutional policy to insist faculty do plumbing," he said.

University administrators, however, say it is Anderson who has resisted efforts to resolve the problem.

"We have been working some kinks out of the building and we've talked to Rob about putting filters on his taps and he couldn't seem to get his head around that," said James Currie, the university's dean of science.

Currie said other researchers have been able to do experiments at Richardson College without incident, using the same water.

"In this same building, we have Charles Wong, a chemist, who is doing ultra-fine analyses of water. You can't even wear perfume in his labs, his measurements are so fine," Currie said.

He said Anderson has been unhappy with the design of Richardson College since the beginning, citing the biologist's dislike of the presence of the Elements restaurant near the entrance.

Anderson said he believes it's unwise to have Elements face the same atrium as toxicology laboratories. He also expressed concern that chemicals, pathogens and live animals are brought into the building using the same corridors Elements staff use to bring in food.

The biologist expressed annoyance students taking samples from lab to lab must remove their lab coats to comply with food-safety regulations.

Ben Kramer, executive chef at the university's Diversity Food Services, which runs Elements, said he would no sooner allow a student to wear a lab coat in his restaurant than allow a chef to cook in street clothes.

Kramer said Anderson simply opposes the idea of a restaurant inside the same building as science labs.

"He doesn't want us to receive food in that building because he believes the building is a biohazard," said the chef, adding inspection after inspection has proven his restaurant safe. "We can't open a restaurant and operate it without being (health) board-approved, and we've passed with flying colours. Everyone is satisfied except for him."

Jino Distasio, the university's associate vice-president in charge of research and innovation, said some scientists are unaccustomed to working in a mixed-use space.

"It's new to the professors who are used to working in isolated labs," Distasio said. "It's a new building and there will be all sorts of growing pains. I think it's the best freaking building I've ever seen in my life."

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 25, 2013 A4

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Updated on Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 7:22 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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