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New building, USF's tallest, brings sciences together

By Lindsay Peterson
Published: August 26, 2011 Updated: March 20, 2013 at 07:45 PM
To understand the new science building at the University of South Florida, it helps to know a little nonlinear physics.Here's the basic idea, according to USF Physics Department Chairman Pritish Mukherjee:Natural systems generally do their own thing, each following its own, predictable pattern. But every now and then something happens and systems that normally are separate start interacting with each other. And that leads to "very exciting phenomena."Mukherjee sees the same potential in USF's new $80 million Interdisciplinary Sciences Building, now the tallest on campus. It opened with the start of classes on Monday, and Mukherjee and other faculty are as excited as kids on Christmas.It's "going to change the dynamics of everything in the sciences" at USF, said James Garey, chairman of the Department of Cell Biology, Microbiology and Molecular Biology.The building is part of a campus growth spurt that changed the face of USF, with new music, administration and recreation complexes. But this may be the last of any major university construction for a while.Florida Gov. Rick Scott vetoed nearly every university building and renovation project this year, saying the state couldn't afford the borrowing costs. And with the economy as shaky as it is, officials foresee the same restrictions for years to come.One exception was $35 million the Legislature and Scott approved for the first new building on the USF Polytechnic campus, in Lakeland. It came partly at the expense of the Interdisciplinary Sciences building, which will have to wait for money to finish the seventh floor.* * * * *USF science professors have been waiting for the new building for 10 years, Garey said, all that time trying to inspire future scientists in classrooms and labs built nearly 50 years ago.Not only were the labs and classrooms old and small, they were spread out among six or seven different buildings.Now for the first time, most of the students and faculty from physics, biology and chemistry will be in one place – a seven-story structure with enough space for dozens of researchers and more than 10,000 students.Researchers will have labs and equipment for the range of studies they do, from computational biology to magnetic nanomaterials.But this isn't just well-equipped space for high-level inquiry. The building reflects a different way of thinking about science, said Garey, a cave diver who studies how all organisms are related to one another. He helped plan the new building.Mukherjee said, "For too long we've tended to be compartmentalized. Physics, chemistry and biology were seen as separate. But we know there's a lot of interaction and interplay between them."Also, researchers tended to work in small labs, often alone. More and more, however, they're working in "big, communal labs" where they can share and feed off one other's ideas, Garey said.On the sixth floor of the new building, more than a dozen faculty members and research assistants in biology are together in a 4,000-square-foot room. Some are working on what makes bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Others are studying the cellular changes that enable worms to extend their lives, research that could lead to longer human lives.Across the hall, physics researchers are studying the physics of cell behavior.Before, these scientists were in different labs and different buildings, even though their work had a common thread.Now, "faculty who have been on campus for a decade or more" who may have seen each other only rarely, "are actually starting to talk to each other," Mukherjee said.And the building is designed so that when a conversation erupts, there's likely to be a place to sit or white board nearby to encourage the interaction."Whiteboards are ubiquitous" in the building, Mukherjee said."I really expect to start seeing new ideas and new proposals coming out."So what is in this for the students?"They were probably suffering the most" in the old buildings, Garey said.Biology space was so limited, students had trouble getting the classes they needed, and they did their lab work in rooms that were small, dingy and "frankly, embarrassing."* * * * *The new building has two 300-seat lecture halls and dozens of 1,200-square-foot labs, which are twice as big as the old ones.It also has study rooms for one-on-one tutoring sessions, which didn't exist in the old buildings.Mukherjee hopes to see these rooms in use 24 hours a day.He also hopes the open design of the building and abundance of study space will lure in some non-science students who'll end up enrolling in a science class or two.Already, they're wandering in to stare at the pendulum that swings slowly on a seven-story cable, stretching all the way down to a corner of the lobby.Mukherjee is sure the new building will make it easier to attract faculty.When he came to USF more than 20 years ago from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the physics department had big ambitions, he said. It pulled in some high-powered researchers.For years they worked in labs that could barely support the kind of research they were doing because the buildings were so old.For instance, they were "using lasers to grow materials that don't exist in nature," and they had to retrofit the space just to create the necessary exhaust systems.Now, he said, the university has made good on many of the promises that were made over the years."We're in very uncertain times. Our manufacturing base has shifted outside the country. We're losing our edge in science and technology," Mukherjee said."I think we've realized that if we're going to have a global presence at USF, we needed to start thinking seriously about the science facilities."