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UA breaks ground on $99M research building, optical sciences expansion
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UA breaks ground on $99M research building, optical sciences expansion

The University of Arizona is on track to open a $99 million research facility by February 2024.

When Kitchell Contractors Inc. of Arizona is done building it, the 115,000-square-foot Grand Challenges Research Building will be connected to the Meinel Optical Sciences Building.

Located on North Cherry Avenue between East University Boulevard and East Fourth Street, the planned seven-story facility will include study and research spaces, meeting rooms and laboratories, as well as three floors of laboratories and offices designated to help grow the faculty and research initiatives of the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences.

Construction is underway on the University of Arizona's new $99 million, seven-story Grand Challenges Research Building, which will house laboratories and flexible research space for cross-campus interdisciplinary programs designed to address society's most pressing questions, possibilities and issues as they arise and evolve. Located on Cherry Avenue between East University Boulevard and East Fourth Street, the nearly 115,000-square-foot facility will connect to the Meinel Optical Sciences Building. The building is expected to be completed in February 2024. Video courtesy of the University of Arizona

University leadership — including President Robert Robbins, Provost Liesl Folks and Betsy Cantwell, senior vice president for research and innovation — met with other dignitaries at the construction site Tuesday morning for a formal groundbreaking ceremony as the building project gets underway.

“Every square foot of the Grand Challenges Research Building has been thoughtfully designed to promote the university’s culture of collaboration and innovation while imparting up-to-the-minute knowledge and developing cutting-edge technology in optics, quantum information science, advanced communications and biomedical technologies,” Cantwell said.

The intended use of the research space will help the UA uphold one of the five pillars of its strategic plan: tackling grand challenges in the areas of “space, human and intelligent systems, natural and built environments, health care technology, and disease prevention and treatment in ways that will fundamentally shape the future.”

“Our strategic plan prioritizes building a well-rounded innovation ecosystem, which is one of the ways the University of Arizona is driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution to ensure technological innovation is human-led and human-centered,” Robbins said. “This building will help us expand our interdisciplinary research capacity in areas such as optics, quantum computing, advanced communications and biomedical technologies.”

One of the specific initiatives that will happen within the Grand Challenges Research Building is expanding optical science research and education.

Last year, the UA received a five-year, $26 million National Science Foundation grant to establish and lead the Center for Quantum Networks, which will be housed in the new research building and overseen by the College of Optical Sciences. The center will lead efforts to lay the foundations of the quantum internet and create the curriculum for the new discipline of quantum information science and engineering, in conjunction with partners at Yale, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Additionally, the Grand Challenges Research Building will also work with James C. Wyant Endowed Chair initiative to fund 13 optical science faculty positions, with the intention of growing the department’s research and teaching footprint, and building a talent pipeline of scholars in a field that has practical applications in many other disciplines such as physics, engineering and photonics.

In the world of optical science at least, the new building, said Thomas Koch, dean of the optical sciences college, will enable the college “to expand its leadership and realize our land-grant mission by developing opportunities for optics and photonics to improve our everyday lives.”

With students back at UA for the fall semester, here's a look at the Tucson campus over the years compared to now.

Kathryn Palmer covers higher education for the Arizona Daily Star. Reach her at

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