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Faculty, students move into
new chemistry building
September 28, 1998

As spectacular as UConn's new chemistry building is, inside and out, the most meaningful aspect for Harry Frank was the department's decision to place faculty offices directly between the building's research and teaching wings.

"It was a conscious decision, a statement that research and teaching are of equal importance, a statement to our undergraduate students that both are important," says Frank, a professor of biological and physical chemistry.

The building also is a statement that the world of chemistry is changing - morphing - becoming more interdisciplinary. That statement is visibly reflected in the research wing, where the dozens of research laboratories, 16 to a floor on each of four floors, are connected by doors to the rear of each lab. Rather than traditional chemistry building designs that group labs according to discipline - organic, inorganic, analytical, and physical chemists - the four are integrated, arranged to allow regular interaction between the various professors and students.

"We've found that people interact regularly with others who are out of their discipline - the inorganics and analytical chemists work together on biological research, for instance. The biological chemists overlap a number of areas, and there's a large group that wants to interact on environmental issues," says Art Dimock, assistant department head. "Our hope is that it will create a cross-germination process, that they'll learn from each other - faculty and students - as a result of the ongoing collaboration this will help foster."

One reaction the new, 200,000-square-foot, $56 million project will undoubtedly foster is smiles. And those were abundant last week as movers carted research equipment for the department's 30 faculty members, support staff and graduate students into the building, in preparation for the official spring semester opening of classes in the new facility. Faculty research will begin in the new labs almost immediately, says department head Gary Epling, adding that he expects all faculty to be working from their new offices by Columbus Day.

The first building to be designed and built entirely through the UConn 2000 program, its first public viewing will occur October 14-16, during the Randolph T. Major Memorial Lecture Series, which will bring internationally known chemists to campus for a three-day event focusing on oxygen. The event opens with tours of the new building, on October 14, from 9-10 a.m. Frank, who is coordinating the event, says people interested in joining a tour should register for a guide on the department website. Tours also are being offered October 24, during Homecoming Weekend. To join one of those tours, which will begin at 9:30 a.m., register on the UConn Alumni Association's website at or contact Amy Camassar at (888) 822-5861..

The tours are worth attending. Upon entering the building, visitors may be awed by a four-story atrium and, by the time the tours begin, a four-story mural that will present a different look depending on the floor from which it is being viewed. The large, open first floor, which also will have a food kiosk, opens into two lecture halls, one offering 248 seats, the other 120, and entrances to the research and teaching wings.

Once into the laboratory and teaching areas, the quality of the construction is clear, from the textured walls to the hundreds of fume "hoods," sliding glass partitions that allow researchers to protect their faces and bodies while working on a project. Spaces for four graduate assistants in each laboratory offer privacy for the students to work or advise undergraduates, while a glass wall lets them keep an eye on their research projects and on undergraduates working in the lab.

"It offers us a great expansion in our capability for accommodating student needs, especially at the general chemistry level," says Epling, referring to the about 1,000 first-year students who need chemistry to fulfill requirements. "And it offers major improvements at the service level and the advanced level, where our graduate students will be able to work in the type of laboratories they will see in the workplace."

Though the research labs vary only slightly for the most part, there are differences based on the preferences of each faculty member, many of whom were pleasantly surprised by the technical knowledge displayed by the interior designers, Harley Ellington Design. The design team, led by Alex Shirshun and Louis Hartman, met individually with each faculty member - three or four times - and with a number of graduate students, to make sure their designs complemented each research activity. That work was done both before - and after - ground was broken in November 1996.

"We earned our stripes by focusing on laboratory facilities, the whole science spectrum," says Hartman, director of Harley Ellington's laboratory design group. "This group does nothing but labs - we've designed more than five million square feet of lab space just in the past eight years."

In addition to 64 labs in the research wing, the building offers faculty and students 20 more labs in the teaching wing, as well as seven classrooms of varying size, though none holds more than 60 students; two computer labs, each with about 20 Macintosh PowerPC's, more than twice the number available in the Waring Chemistry Building; a large multi-media room, with mobile plug-in stations so that, once prepared, a presentation can be carted into the classroom; a series of seminar and conference rooms; a reading room, student lounge and, on the top floor, a graduate student lounge that features a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over Horsebarn Hill and the agriculture buildings to the horizon. Several reading areas conducive to discussion and interaction in the administrative wing, where each faculty member has an office, lead to another room that will offer space for eight emeritus faculty.

Small, thoughtful details appear throughout the building. The doors to storage closets and coat racks double as dry erase boards; several rooms were built to offer the flexibility of a conference room, seminar room, classroom or faculty lounge; chilled water that is fed into each fume hood and sink will circulate through the system and then return, saving potentially millions of gallons of water during the next decade; hallway floors are striped in alternating shades of green, with differing widths of color leading to emergency areas, so that in the event of an accident students or researchers whose eyes may be splashed with chemicals can find their way to safety.

In the lecture rooms, besides full audio, video and technological capabilities, an enclosed laboratory complete with a mobile, glass-sided fume hood allows professors to perform experiments in front of the class. There are also ample seating areas in the halls and a special laboratory on the ground level, with sinks, desks and worktables, and several fume hoods for research, built close to the ground, at a level that will accommodate students in wheelchairs.

The new building also offers facilities tailored to the department's outreach programs for children from elementary and high schools across the state.

"To my knowledge, and to the knowledge of people I've spoken to in the American Chemical Society, our outreach facility is unique, including the child-proof chemistry lab. We've lowered the chemistry a bit from our level, but it offers more than one could receive in the high school or the lower levels," Epling says. "We'll be able to offer programs both in summer and during the year."

Richard Veilleux