How voters helped Rutgers put up a new chemistry building

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

There’s a brand-new, gleaming building on the Rutgers campus in Piscataway. A scarlet ribbon cutting marks the opening of the state of the art Chemistry and Chemical Biology Building.

“We didn’t build this great building because we thought there would be a great department that could follow it in and develop from it. We had a great department before this. We had a great department that was doing great science in Quonset huts here for many years, leading the nation in terms of its research and its research funding. And it’s really important to remember that the buildings don’t make the faculty and the science. It’s the faculty and the science that make the buildings,” said Rutgers University President Robert Barchi.

Rutgers’ new Chemistry and Chemical Biology Building has 145,000-square feet and cost $115 million to build. Most of the money was approved by voters.

“This is a building that would not have been built without the help of the state. We all got together to push forward the Building Our Future Bond Act, and $85 million of this building came from that Building Our Future Bond Act,” Barchi said.

The state says it’s about creating jobs through innovation.

“That is a critical, critical area when we’re talking about growth, economic growth, for a state. The investment in STEM, and particularly the sciences, has been a top priority for the governor,” said Diana Gonzalez, deputy secretary for the Department of Higher Education for the state.

“This new building which is now incredibly well-equipped will help make great strides in scientific education and innovative research,” said Jean Baum, vice dean of research and graduate education for the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University.

The university says it’s the kind of research that’s already underway and can alter society.

“We have drugs that are in clinical trials for malaria. Drugs that are actually being used in cancer therapy. Drugs that are licensed for HIV/AIDS therapy,” said John Brennan, chair of the chemistry and chemical biology department at Rutgers.

Brennan took the media on a tour. The first stop, that was still under construction, was the instrumentation room where scientists measure the chemicals they make.

“The ground floor is vibration-free. We suffered for 30 years — we really haven’t had the chance to develop physical chemistry here because the old building shapes, the temperature fluctuates,” Brennan said. “And after 30 years of frustration, you can do your experiments in here, and if there’s a nuclear bomb going off in New York City, you won’t feel it. You’ll still be able to do everything you need to do.”

For graduate students, it puts the equipment of three buildings in one — no more inconveniently running between labs.

“It makes things a lot easier for us in terms of just being able to book time on equipment and being able to actually have the resources needed in order to do an experiment which would have taken maybe a week or so before,” said Rutgers research chemist Christopher Rathnam.

More than 6,000 students take chemistry courses at Rutgers every semester. The university says this new building will allow it to expand its programs in an attractive building where Larry Kirkland’s 27-foot stainless steel sculpture of a caffeine molecule out front may become the most photographed art work in America.