Dr. Brian Druker, the busy discoverer of the cancer blocker Gleevec, and his rapidly growing team of researchers will soon be spread across three buildings at Oregon Health & Science University. Druker’s own lab sits atop Marquam Hill, but he sees many patients at the Center for Health and Healing in the South Waterfront.  

And by 2014, he will be viewing powerfully magnified images of his patients’ cancer cells at the new Collaborative Life Sciences Building. Lots of science and healing happens in all three posts. But the discoveries, Druker says, are most likely to come on the commutes: the short strolls down the hall and rides on the streetcar or the aerial tram in between.  

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“The way science happens is we have our formal interactions ... with people who are anywhere from Boston to China,” Druker explains. “But where the real action occurs is when you’re walking down the hallway with someone, just kinda free-associating about something.”

The new center on the South Waterfront will be a first for Oregon higher ed: one facility serving three universities (OHSU, Portland State University, and Oregon State University). The brief treks between offices and floors will be thick with the kind of potentially discovery-laden conversations Druker prizes. “We’re going to put a bunch of people together from different disciplines and force them to interact,” he says. “That’s where the next breakthrough will happen.” 

Over its history, the entire OHSU campus has taken shape through dynamic connections: every building and discipline on Marquam Hill, no matter where or how high, is linked together in a single-level network of busy hallways and skybridges known simply as “the Ninth Floor.” In 1992, the university built the longest suspended pedestrian skybridge in North America to extend the Ninth Floor to the nearby Veterans Administration Hospital. In 2006, the city and OHSU completed the aerial tram, connecting the Ninth Floor to the long-fallow industrial lands of the South Waterfront. On slow days, more than 4,000 ride the tram, a number destined to rise with the future campus of labs, lecture halls, and outpatient treatment centers OHSU is planning around the Collaborative Life Sciences Building. 

But fertile connections don’t stop with OHSU. A 10-minute streetcar ride lands you in the middle of PSU. Soon, a new car-free bridge will put the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and Portland Community College’s Southeast Center within a short walk, pedal, or MAX trip. In the history of medical universities, commuter science is nothing new—it dates back to the Middle Ages, when the first hospitals began as annexes to churches. But in the history of American cities, Portland is verging on something more original: an urban research, development, and education district that, with all its soaring bridges and moving parts, is as inspiring for a tyke trading ideas with Mom on the MAX to OMSI as it is for a potential Nobel Prize–winning scientist soaring with a colleague on the aerial tram.