Augusta University isn’t trying to be like Georgia’s three other research universities, but it definitely wants to look like them, especially through the eyes of an 18-year-old freshman seeking the quintessential collegiate experience.

That’s why Augusta University President Brooks Keel is so intent on getting through a 10-year master plan that aims to transform the downtown Health Sciences Campus—ground zero for all future expansion—from a hodgepodge of buildings in a sea of asphalt to a place where young people might actually want to hang out.

“Right now, it looks like a concrete jungle,” Keel says. “Students want pedestrian opportunities for walking and biking. They look for common areas, places where they can put up a hammock or lay on a blanket. That’s the college feel we want to have.”

Recent construction on the south end of the campus, such as the J. Harold Harrison, M.D. Education Commons building, already incorporates open space into the design, but older sections of campus will need to undergo greenscaping. That means moving parking lots, such as the large lot in the center of campus between the Greenblatt Library and the Ronald McDonald House, to the campus periphery.

One could dismiss the improvements as merely cosmetic if not for the intrinsic transformation the university has undergone since its creation in 2012 through the amalgamation of the former Augusta State University and the former Georgia Health Sciences University.

The merger of the traditional undergraduate liberal arts college—with its large number of nontraditional commuter students at the Summerville Campus—with the graduate-level health sciences university in the downtown medical district has created a top-tier institution boasting 128 academic programs spread across three campuses and nine colleges, including the storied Medical College of Georgia.

In uniting the disparate institutions under the “Augusta” name (it was Georgia Regents University until last year) Keel and his administrators aim to change the university’s undergraduate culture from fallback option to first choice.

Doing so requires more than just changing signs and stationery. It involves the wholesale shuffling of various departments and units, and relocating the entire the College of Science and Mathematics from the landlocked Summerville Campus to downtown.

The move not only frees up much-needed space in Summerville for the Pamplin College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences and the Hull College of Business, but gives science- and tech-focused undergrads a chance to rub shoulders with their graduate-level peers in the university’s medical, nursing and dentistry programs.

“It puts those undergrads who aspire to be doctors and nurses right in the middle of the white coats,” Keel says.

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A 24-HOUR ENVIRONMENT

A university can’t attract more students if it has no place for them to live. Augusta University has addressed its lack of on-campus housing by building a 700-bed residential complex on the south end of the Health Sciences Campus.

Just footsteps from the recently renovated Student Center—which houses dining facilities as well as the Wellness Center—the residence halls will let students live, eat, play and study all in the same place.

“I think it will bring sort of a breath of life to the medical campus because you’re going to have young people living and studying in the area who will be out and about doing things,” says David Barron, Augusta University associate vice president for student services. “So rather than just people going to class and going home, it will be a 24-hour living environment.”

The new rooms are split between two five-story buildings, a 312-bed undergraduate residence consisting of two-bedroom suites and a 412-bed graduate residence made up of studio and one-bedroom apartments. Both will be open in time for the start of the fall semester.

The facilities will include academic meeting spaces, study rooms on each floor and coin-free laundry rooms featuring “smart” washers and dryers that can text-message students to let them know when their loads are ready.

Barron says the new facilities, part of the master plan’s phase one, will take care of the university’s existing housing shortage. To take on additional students, the master plan’s phases two through four propose new residential buildings near the Student Center and on the northwest corner of Laney-Walker Boulevard and 15th Street.

The existing University Village apartments near the Forest Hills Campus off Wrightsboro Road would be earmarked for upperclassmen, athletes and those spending most of their time on the Summerville Campus.

“As we grow, there is going to be demand for more housing,” Barron says. “About half of our population was from out of area last year.”

The influx of students and their disposable income likely will spur the private sector to build and renovate additional housing in the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as develop new retail businesses in the downtown medical district, Barron says.

“Entrepreneurs are always watching our campus,” he says.

BUILDING BRIDGES

The new housing wouldn’t be possible if not for the university’s 2008 acquisition of land formerly occupied by the city’s Gilbert Manor public housing project.

The 15-acre tract is home to some of the university’s most recent construction, including the Dental College of Georgia and the Harrison Education Commons. It also borders the newest facility of all: the M. Bert Storey Research Building.

The $62.5 million addition-renovation project that was launched in May will add 72,000-square-feet of new space to Augusta University’s Cancer Center complex at Laney-Walker and R.A. Dent boulevards by 2018.

Named after the noted Augusta philanthropist and university supporter, the Storey Research Building will connect to the adjacent clinical cancer facility across Laney-Walker via a three-story enclosed and elevated walkway.

“It will literally and figuratively bridge the clinical research on the north side with the basic science research on the south side,” says Dr. Michael Diamond, Augusta University senior vice president for research. “It provides a fertile opportunity to generate new ideas and new hypotheses while allowing us to learn more about the patients being seen so that, potentially, we may help these patients and those patients in the future in the CSRA and beyond.”

Cancer is one of Augusta University’s three key areas of clinical and translational research; the other two being cardiometabolic disease, which includes type 2 diabetes, and neurological disease, which includes stroke. All three key areas disproportionately affect the health of Georgians.

Diamond says the increased collaboration the Storey Research Building enables is a crucial component to the university becoming a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, while its addition of new research space helps move the university toward Gov. Nathan Deal and Dr. Keel’s goal of making the Medical College of Georgia a top 50 medical school.

The college is currently ranked 70th in National Institutes of Health funding for medical schools, up from No. 74 the previous year, Diamond says.

“Space for investigators is something we desperately need as we grow our faculty,” Diamond says. “We need to have a place for these individuals, and they need facilities that are going to look like facilities at other leading institutions.”

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LEADING IN CYBER

A university can’t grow simply by expanding its physical footprint; it’s what’s inside the buildings that makes the institution a destination.

And one of the things inside University Hall on the Summerville Campus—Augusta University’s Cyber Institute—has potential to make the institution a destination for security-focused information technology students well into the 21st century.

Launched in 2015 in the wake of the Pentagon’s decision to make Fort Gordon home of U.S. Army Cyber Command, the institute aims to coordinate and improve the university’s cyber curriculum and make Augusta one of the—if not the—premiere cyber cities in the nation.

“I hate saying ‘the Silicon Valley of Cyber,’ but Augusta certainly is in the running for that,” Institute Director Joanne Sexton says.

The university’s institute, which graduated 22 last spring, already is on its way to regional and national prominence, having received a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense designation from the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

The designation, held by 124 institutions nationwide and four others in Georgia, sets the stage for an even more exclusive accolade: the National Security Agency’s Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations designation.

Only 14 institutions nationwide, and none in Georgia, have met the “Cyber Ops” criteria, including Mississippi State University, Auburn University and the University of Cincinnati.

“Getting a Cyber Ops designation is not easily done, and they don’t give that out to just anyone,” says Sexton, a U.S. Navy veteran who served as the first commanding officer of what is now Fort Gordon’s Navy Operations Information Command.

Augusta University’s undergraduate computing degree program could be complemented with a graduate-level one as early as this fall, with a master’s in information security management program expected to be ready in 2017.

Drawing on the expertise of the university’s academic medical center should help make the Cyber Institute a pioneer in health care information security, though Sexton hopes robust partnerships with government and business entities throughout the community can make it an innovator in all things cyber.

“We want to be the national leader,” Sexton says. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but that’s what the goal is.”

Sexton sees the Cyber Institute growing into its own building and, eventually, being designated as a stand-alone college within the university.

That’s probably not a stretch, given how much cyber encompasses—and will encompass in the future.

“The way I define cyber is anything that is connected to the internet,” Sexton says. “When you look at our world today, everything is connected to the internet of things. And we’ve got to secure all that stuff.” u

HIGH-TECH, HIGH-TOUCH

Augusta University’s local name belies its statewide impact. Few things illustrate the university’s statewide reach more than its Children’s Hospital of Georgia.

Every corner of the state was represented last year in the 75,000 outpatient visits and 4,000 inpatient visits to the facility, which is the state’s second-largest children’s hospital and its only free-standing one outside metro Atlanta.

“We touch pretty much every county in Georgia,” CHOG Administrator James Mumford says.

With a staff of nearly three dozen specialists in pediatric surgery, cardiology, oncology, neurology and emergency medicine, the 154-bed facility in the heart of Augusta University’s academic medical complex has earned a reputation statewide for healing the “sickest of the sick” at its Level 1 pediatric and Level IV neonatal intensive care units.

Part of the reason the hospital ranked No. 1 for pediatric quality and safety among Vizient’s consortium of academic medical centers is that CHOG has tools at its disposal that few other facilities have, including extracorporeal membrane oxygenation systems.

Known as ECMO, the technology provides cardiac and respiratory support to children and babies whose heart and lungs are unable to work on their own. The pediatric forerunner to CHOG established the Southeast’s first ECMO program in 1985. Since then, the life-saving technology has treated more than 530 patients in Augusta, including newborns.

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And when minutes count, the nonprofit CHOG’s dedicated air transport service can rush those critical patients to Augusta 24-7.

But the hospital doesn’t just bring patients to Augusta University’s experts—it brings the university’s experts to the patients. In addition to telemedicine services, CHOG operates more than 60 pediatric satellite clinics throughout the state, sending its doctors to places where pediatric specialists are few in number.

“The reason behind that is we want to keep kids in the communities in which they live and where they have their support,” Mumford says. “If they need surgery, or if there is any reason they need to come here, our goal is to quickly get them back to their communities.”

Indeed, studies show children recover best when they are in a comfortable environment, so all the hospital’s fancy technology would be for naught if kids felt threatened by the surroundings. To ensure that doesn’t happen, CHOG employs a team of “child life” specialists dedicated to making hospital stays less intimidating.

For example, one of the benefits of the hospital’s partnership with Dutch technology giant Phillips NV is the installation of lighting that can change an entire room’s interior color.

“If the child’s favorite color is green, we can turn the entire room that color,” Mumford says.

Another hit with youngsters is the “kitten scanner,” a miniature play version of a CAT (computer-aided tomography) scanner that helps alleviate a child’s fear of undergoing the procedure. Mumford says the toy has enabled radiology staff to perform scans on some children without sedation.

And, of course, there’s the CHOG indoor playground.

“Laughter is the best medicine in kids,” Mumford says. “When you see a child on chemotherapy get into a video game or put on a cape and be Superman, it changes their whole demeanor. It is such a healing thing for kids. You see miracles happen before your eyes.”

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