VALPARAISO — The new Center for the Sciences at Valparaiso University is, like you might expect from a chemistry building, ready to bond with other molecules.

The building is designed to be part of a foursome, joining the engineering building and two future buildings to form a quadrangle. No date has been set for construction of those buildings yet.

"The idea is to create a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) village right here," said physics professor Andy Richter, chairman of the faculty committee that helped design the building.

Collaborating with the engineering department, which is already housed at the nearby Gellersen Center, could bring new types of engineering degrees, Richter said.

The $30 million Center for the Sciences was built with borrowed money, not alumni contributions, with the aim of building interest in the sciences, Richter said.

"We’re hoping increased enrollment would essentially pay for it," Richter said. "You’ve got to plunk down some money to support the sciences every now and then."

The new building is 56,000 square feet and offers primarily wet labs for chemistry, biochemistry and biology. It features "safe, efficient workspaces," Richter said, and modern lab facilities like the students will be using at their places of employment upon graduation.

The interdisciplinary lab at the building’s core is designed to allow nine faculty members and students to work simultaneously. The lab has large windows so their work is on display.

Claire Mammoser, of Gaylord, Michigan, is a senior chemistry student at VU. Her current research is on incorporating unnatural amino acids, those not naturally occurring in the human body, into proteins in living cells. This is pure research, but it could have health applications in the future.

The large labs make a big difference for her, she said.

"In this case, just in terms of the spaces that we have that are available to us, it’s a lot easier to have big projects and multiple projects spinning in the same space," Mammoser said.

The interdisciplinary lab takes almost the entire first floor of the building.

"What we have here is really a lab that looks like the ones at big research schools," Mammoser said. She predicts it will be a good recruitment tool for VU.

Jennifer Holt, associate professor of chemistry, was involved in the faculty committee trying to design the building. Her office is near a place for students to study, and near the labs, so she is easily accessible to her students.

The new, modern equipment has the potential to change the way lessons unfold. In just the few weeks the new building has been in use for instruction, Holt said, she found herself showing a spreadsheet not just to a small group of students but to an entire class because of the large monitor in the room.

Movable tables allow students to pair up in different ways for more hands-on activities, which will bring more innovative teaching, Holt said.

"We have a lot more research area in terms of square footage and better equipment and opportunities," Holt said. That will be looked favorably upon by employers looking to hire college graduates, she said.

Holt hopes VU will attract more and stronger students because of the new building, too.

Jon Schoer, associate professor of chemistry, is involved in two areas of research — taking water samples in the community for analysis, but also collaborating with colleagues in the College of Engineering to see if water molecules can be split to create hydrogen for fuel.

The proximity to the Gellersen Center and solar furnace will make collaboration easier, he said.

Using more modern instrumentation helps, too. More advanced instruments are able to process more quickly and efficiently, Schoer said.

"It’s a gorgeous building, and it’s got spectacular lab facilities," he said.

The labs are the highlight of the new building, but the public art inside is also worth noting.

A large glass installation by Hot Shop Valpo represents water, a fundamental solvent for chemistry. The sculpture, a gift of chemistry chairman Steve Engerer, reflects light through the large windows in the lobby and is intended to remind visitors of the university’s motto, "In thy light, we see light."


Porter/LaPorte Editor Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.