‘Phoenix rising from the ashes’ – world-leading biomedical lab re-opens after devastating fire

Tuesday 2 May 2023
BMS plaque unveiling (from left) Professor Dame Sally Mapstone, Professor Lesley Yellowlees and Sir Mike Ferguson
BMS plaque unveiling (from left) Professor Dame Sally Mapstone, Professor Lesley Yellowlees and Sir Mike Ferguson

The world-leading Biomedical Sciences (BMS) facility at the University of St Andrews was officially re-opened last week (Wednesday 26 April) four years after a devastating fire ripped through the hi-tech laboratories.

Following the fire in February 2019, which destroyed labs and research facilities, the University undertook a £21 million investment project to refurbish and modernise the BMS building. The redevelopment and restoration, which started just before the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, was completed in the summer of 2022.

Professor Dame Sally Mapstone FRSE, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University, welcomed staff, students and invited guests to the official re-opening in the presence of distinguished honorary graduates, Professor Lesley Yellowlees CBE and Professor Sir Mike Ferguson, Regius Professor of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee.

The new design of the BMS building centres on efficient spaces that facilitate collaborative working within modern research and teaching laboratories, along with workspace and breakout areas strategically located in a warm and welcoming building.

Reflecting on the fire and the efforts of staff, students, and the St Andrews community to restore the facilities, Professor Mapstone commented: “The re-opening of our world-class BMS building is, therefore, an occasion for celebration and for looking forward to the future. However, I do wish to acknowledge the difficulties that had to be overcome for us to arrive at today’s event, because it is only against this background that we can truly appreciate the hard work and dedication that so many members of our community have demonstrated over the past four years.”

Sir Mike Ferguson added: “The biomedical sciences building is like a phoenix rising from the ashes. The new building is even better than the old one and I am delighted to see the amazing interdisciplinary work being carried out here by the world-leading scientists and students who call St Andrews home.”

In the months following the fire, a dedicated University project team undertook the careful removal of 500 crates of personal possessions; 12,000 separate chemical compounds, biohazards and radioactive sources; and 2500 items of scientific equipment with a total value of approximately £7 million.

Immediately following the fire, 40 percent of BMS functions were moved into existing University spaces, while 60 percent required purpose-built emergency laboratories and ancillary spaces. Within eight months of the fire, installation of the Willie Russell Laboratories, a pop-up laboratory facility built to help staff and students affected by the fire, was completed. The temporary facility, built by Portakabin, offered state-of-the-art teaching and research facilities. It was commissioned by the University to allow valuable research to re-start, although this momentum was challenged by the eruption of Covid-19.

As the refurbishment and restoration neared its final stages, focus shifted to preparing the BMS building to re-open, which once again involved a complex logistical operation. Moving research groups back from the Willie Russell Laboratories, and from across the University, took around five weeks during the summer of 2022.

Professor Mapstone added: “It is a source of great happiness and relief to have the BMS building returned to us, particularly in its new and improved condition, as the reconfiguration of the labs, offices, and write-up areas has yielded approximately ten percent extra usable space.

“Such a huge project and its efficient delivery would not have been possible without the support of staff and students from across our community to whom we are extremely grateful and thankful for their unwavering dedication to ensuring world-leading research continued, developed, and thrived.”

Timeline of the fire. 

Further details about the development of the Willie Russell Laboratories.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

Category University news

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