Biology faculty give Brooks Hall low building rating, waiting for approval of $30 million in state funding

CMU may not receive the $30 million in state funding it was counting on to fund a new biosciences building.

But university officials are still working on plans for the project, which they say is desperately needed by the biology department.

“We have been having meetings quite a bit recently,” said Steve Lawrence, director of facilities management.

Biology faculty say the department’s current facilities in Brooks Hall are outdated and do not have enough space for the growing program. The building opened in 1965, when space discovery exploration was just beginning and the structure of DNA was just being discovered, said Steve Roberts, department chairman.

“We’ve been behind the ball for decades," Roberts said. "The labs are just not set up for modern biological research and methods."

CMU will find out in April if the biosciences building will receive state funding. If they are not approved, they may reapply.

John Scheide, associate professor of biology who served as the department chairman from 1999 to 2005, said the building is not suitable for the latest research equipment. The equipment requires significant temperature control to function properly.

“The building has some major problems,” Scheide said, citing the building’s single-pane windows and lack of buffer doorways.

The building’s ventilation system and water lines were replaced over the summers of 2008 and 2009. Roberts estimated the cost of the renovation to be around $3 million. This improvement was originally scheduled as part of the construction of the Dow Science Complex and its connection to Brooks, but the project ran out of money and had to be postponed.

“Right now it’s in a constant state of flux,” Roberts said. “It’s one project after another.”

The construction has also caused some graduate students and professors to lose research materials.

A construction-related power outage shut down an “ultra-low freezer,” that maintains a temperature of -80 degrees Celsius and contained samples for several research projects, which were ruined.

The graduate students affected by the loss had to extend their studies at CMU.

The building now has a generator system to prevent further power outages.

Roberts says the university does its best to “stay on top of” the state of the building, but there are still problems.

For example, he said, a water pipe broke last summer, spewing 45,000 gallons of water in a few minutes — the amount of three backyard swimming pools.

“It’s hard to point to one or two (problems) when there are so many to point at,” Scheide said. “Space is the big one.”

Brooks lacks sufficient lab and classroom space to keep up with the rapid growth of the biology program. Roberts said the program currently has around 850 signed majors, up from 450 two and a half years ago. About 1,050 students are taking BIO 110: Concepts of Biology this semester.

Brooks also houses the Earth and atmospheric sciences department, which adds to the crowding.

Scheide said  Brooks 176, the building’s largest lecture hall, gets extensive use between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day.

If the biosciences building is built, all the department’s research operations will be located there and biology classes would be held in both Brooks and the new building.

“There just isn’t a building budget big enough to fit it all in one building,” Roberts said.


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