Scientists make move to Israel Building

August 28, 2000

Mary Ann Travis

"Science is fun," says Gary McPherson. It's especially fun when scientists, whether up-and-coming researchers or first-year chemistry students, have spacious, modern, clean and safe laboratories to conduct scientific exploration.

The new Merryl and Sam Israel Environmental Sciences Building on Tulane's uptown campus fills the bill for an ideal, functional scientific research and teaching facility, says McPherson, associate dean of the liberal arts and sciences and professor of chemistry, who has been honchoing this building project since 1994.

Completed last spring, the $14.5million building boasts undergraduate chemistry labs on the bottom and top floors and laboratory space and offices for cell and molecular biologists, ecology and evolutionary biologists, environmental engineers and other researchers on the middle two floors. The Israel labs are light-filled and well-equipped, reflecting a different sensibility from the adjacent Stern Hall, the primary science building on campus, whose halls and labs are small and poorly lit. Stern has been in operation since 1971.

"Stern was designed by architects known for designing prisons," says McPherson. Open walkways on all the upper floors and a palm-tree patio on the ground connect the new building to Stern.

Chair and professor of chemistry William Alworth says, "They coupled the two buildings in a way that I did not think possible." The new building meets the pressing need for undergraduate chemistry lab space. More Tulane undergraduates take chemistry-the cornerstone of environmental sciences-than any other lab science, says McPherson.

The 600 freshmen each semester in general chemistry include the approximately 30 percent of Tulane students who start in the premed program and all engineering students, except for computer engineering majors, who are required to take chemistry, a science that McPherson and Alworth both admit is "hard on buildings."

The freshman general chemistry labs in Stern's basement, with an awkward arrangement of counters and safety-ventilation hoods, offered no visibility for an instructor to see students or students to view the instructor, say McPherson and Alworth. Sophomore organic chemistry labs on Stern's fourth floor were even worse, says McPherson.

Here, too, students-up to 300 each semester in lab sections running from morning to evening-squeezed into deteriorating and dismal labs. All is different in the Israel Building. Seventy-two students at a time can now comfortably work in the general chemistry lab, and the organic chemistry lab allows more than four dozen students at once to safely and productively do their lab experiments.

Sections to accommodate the almost 900 students taking chemistry labs can be scheduled in the prime morning and early afternoon hours. From the vantage of Israel's top-floor organic chemistry lab, McPherson looks out the ceiling-to-floor windows that present a sweeping view of Tulane's front quad.

He says, unequivocally, "There are no better instructional labs anywhere in the nation." Throughout the planning process, McPherson kept undergraduate teaching needs paramount, but he wanted also to make sure that Tulane research facilities propelled the university's expansion in the biological and environmental sciences.

The result is open lab space occupied by top-notch researchers busily engaged in investigations using elaborate computers and instrumentation. McPherson consulted closely with the Boston-based architectural firm Wilson and Associates during the design process. And, perhaps most importantly, he set the parameters for lab space assignments. Chairs of academic departments recommend who is allocated lab space in the new building.

"My only criteria," McPherson says, "is that faculty getting lab space in Israel have to have strong research records in terms of funding and productivity. "We tipped toward those scientists with their most productive years ahead."

Israel researcher Glenn Boyd, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, studies pharmaceutical contaminants discharged into the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Jay Gulledge, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, is looking into bacteria in the natural environment and greenhouse gases.

Associate professor Tom Bianchi, another ecology and evolutionary biologist, is studying global climate change. Professor Ken Muneoka heads up the Israel group of cell and molecular biologists, including assistant professors Yiping Chen and Carol Burdsal, who are exploring genetic defects.

In addition, Liang Ma, assistant professor, who has just arrived at Tulane, is investigating developmental biology at the cellular and genetic level. He says the "collaborative spirit" of the new building drew him to Tulane.

McPherson tells these researchers, "You have to play well in the sandbox." He adds that there is still lab space available for a few new faculty hires-those "talented and motivated individuals" who want to have fun with science.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000