Forgotten Science: What Georgetown is doing to improve its waning science program

October 5, 2006

The facilities date back to the 1960s. The microscopes have outlived some of the teachers. Chronically under-funded and crammed into buildings too small to hold them, Georgetown University’s science programs can hardly measure up to the nationally renowned security studies major, the Jesuit standbys of philosophy and theology or the guaranteed-to-make-money business degree that have traditionally distinguished Georgetown as an institution.

“We are way behind the curve in having a competitive science program,” Biology Department Chair Douglas Eagles said. “We have less floor space, more students to serve and less money to do it with than the top 25 schools in the country that we like to compete with.”

All this is about to change. Within the next three years, the foundations will be laid for a new science center in the parking lot south of the Leavey Center that University administrators and science buffs alike hope will put the science programs here back on the national scene.

The quality of the University’s research laboratories, many of which have not been renovated for decades, is so poor that department heads have seen prospective students rethink their applications after a visit to campus. It has reached the point, Physics Department Chair Jeffrey Urbach said, where the physics program is having trouble attracting majors.

GU’s Resident Glass Master

Surprised to hear that the top floors of White Gravenor are filled with laboratories instead of discussion sections? Get ready for another surprise: the fourth floor is also home to Georgetown’s Master Glassblower.

Earl E. Morris has been blowing glass for Georgetown’s chemistry department for the last 40 years, providing customized glassware tailored to the needs of various experiments.

He first entered the world of glassblowing in an apprenticeship program with six other students at the University of Virginia in 1959. But don’t be deceived by the word apprentice: he is no artisan in a DuPont basement. The items that come out of Morris’ workshop are tools, constructed to exacting specifications. These include everything from test tubes to beakers to vessels that look like something out of Frankenstein’s laboratory.

“Glass is an extremely versatile material,” he said. “Most of our things are very precise.”

Dominating a room hung with pincers, shaping tools and glass bric-a-brac of all sorts is a huge, mechanical green lathe (think horizontal, industrial pottery wheel) that, along with steady hands, is Morris’ main tool.

“You cannot do it without the precision that the lathe allows,” he said.

But, like the rest of the chemistry department, Morris is suffering from a lack of space. Despite how impressive his workshop seems to a layperson, he says that his current facilities are smaller than his storage closet was at the University of Virginia.

“This is the minimum size that a shop could be,” he said. “This building is very ancient, and not really designed for modern science.”

But Morris isn’t concerned about whether or not the new science building will have room for a larger glassblowing facility. He says that 40 years is enough, and hopes to move on in the next few months, but has no plans to stop glassblowing.

When asked whether he was going to pursue the more artistic side of his trade, he said that he was sticking to what he knows.

“I have no interest at all in art. If it doesn’t contribute something to science, I’ve no interest in it.”

Chemistry majors Sarah Swigart (CAS ‘08) and Marion-Vincent Mempin (CAS ‘08) complain that the scales in their labs don’t work, despite paying $140 per semester in lab fees. Biology major Teresa Schuessler (CAS ‘07) gripes that even in the Medical Center lab where she’s been helping a professor research the effects of stress on the immune system since freshman year, some of the machines are too antiquated to connect to a printer, making it impossible to print data.

This year, U.S. News & World Report ranked Georgetown’s medical school 46th in the nation, well behind any of the Ivy League universities. Of these, only Dartmouth and Brown had medical schools finishing below the top 20. The majority of Georgetown pre-meds go on to attend Georgetown Medical School, according to Eagles.

“In retrospect, I don’t know if it was the best decision to come here, because they don’t have money,” Schuessler said. “Things here are really old. There needs to be a lot of improvement.”

To put it in perspective: In 2005, the Georgetown Medical Center was awarded $158.8 million in research grants from the National Institute of Health, traditionally a major source of funds for university research initiatives nationwide. In the same year, top-ranked Harvard Medical School received more than seven times as much, according to data published in the 2007 of U.S. News & World Report ranking of American graduate school programs.

Whatever their drawbacks, the science programs at Georgetown still attract a sizeable percentage of the student body. Together, the biology, chemistry and physics departments boast about 360 students. Physics and chemistry are smaller, each producing about 15 undergraduate majors per year, yet both have a full complement of tenured faculty.

Not all the feedback from students is negative, either. Particularly in physics and chemistry, students rave about the small class sizes, the personal attention from department administration and the numerous opportunities to work one-on-one with professors.

“It’s not a huge department for undergraduates, but it’s turned out to be good because we all know each other,” Swigart said. “Teachers seek me out for research.”

Nick Malaya (CAS ‘07) had similarly good things to say about his experience studying physics at Georgetown.

“I’ve done three years of research here and I pretty much got to pick who I wanted to work with,” Malaya said. “I don’t know anyone in physics who didn’t get to do research.”

But despite the pluses, the fact stands that Swigart and Malaya will graduate without ever enjoying the benefits of state-of-the-art equipment or facilities fully able to accommodate their needs.

“We are desperate for a new science building,” Eagles said. “Reiss was not constructed to support research.”

Struggling to meet the demands of its students and faculty, the biology department recently converted two teaching labs and the entire former animal facility in the Reiss Science Building into spaces for research.

In the new science center, these problems will no longer be a concern.

The spacious laboratories will be furnished with the very latest in research equipment. Professors from different departments who are working on related topics will be clustered together to promote inter-departmental collaboration. Large introductory science classes will benefit from brand-new, generously outfitted teaching labs. Lounges and common areas will encourage faculty and students to mingle and share ideas in an informal setting.

“Chemistry, biology and physics are working very hard together right now,” Timothy Warren, director of graduate studies in chemistry, said. “This is an opportunity for all of us to grow together.”

Associate Provost Marjory Blumenthal hopes the center will help bridge the gap between science and the rest of the campus, allowing for the development of sophisticated cross-disciplinary programs in bioethics, public policy and other areas of concern to more than just the science community.

“With the new building, we can think about serving more majors and minors, and more of the non-majors as well,” Blumenthal said.

Urbach, meanwhile, dreams of being able to offer classes in astrophysics, a specialization that currently exceeds the resources of the University.

In a meeting with science faculty last week, President John J. DeGioia estimated the cost of the new building, slated for completion in 2010, at $100 million. According to Blumenthal, three-quarters of this money will come from the University itself. The remaining $25 million is the target of Georgetown’s next major fundraising campaign.

To date, donations have generated $8 million, according to figures from Senior Vice President Spiros Dimolitsas.

But Eagles, for one, is concerned that this will not be enough money to fully furbish the new center. He foresees a disappointing result: a six-floor building with only three floors useable, the rest left without gas, water or compressed air when funds prove insufficient to complete the project.

Where the rest of the money to finish the building might come from, he said, is unclear. On top of the challenges of traditional fundraising, the NIH—the primary source of research grants and equipment for the University—is strapped for cash these days because of federal budget cutbacks.

The science departments do not share the distinguished history of the McDonough School of Business, the subject of another recent campaign, making administrators cautious of asking too much from philanthropy, Blumenthal said. $100 million is what President DeGioia thinks is feasible, and planners must work with that.

Administrators are in meetings right now to hammer out the details of the new building and are working with architects to design a blueprint for the site. A draft of a master plan for the building is due to be completed in the next few weeks, with final modifications to be made by May of next year.

“We are currently working on defining the program and required square footage for the new science center,” University Architect Alan Brangman said in an e-mail.

Eagles, whose modest office on the fourth floor of Reiss overlooks the parking lot where the new center will one day stand, said he does not expect to be around to see it open. He has taught at Georgetown for 33 years, and he plans to retire at about the same time the building is completed.

“Science is risky,” he said. “It’s a long way to get from a rat to a person.”

Additional reporting by Michael J. Bruns and Alison Gillis

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