The Next Icon
By Brett Bralley
San José State University’s newest academic building is about to make university history — both for how it will change science teaching and research at SJSU, and for what it symbolizes for generations of Spartans to come.
As the oldest public university on the West Coast, San José State is abundant with history. Now, SJSU’s first new academic building in more than 30 years is about to transform its future.
The Interdisciplinary Science Building (ISB), slated to open in 2022, has all the makings of becoming a cultural icon for the university and even downtown San José — and not just because of its unique architectural design. The construction of the ISB symbolizes a defining moment in science teaching and research at SJSU, one marked by increased collaboration, innovation and discovery.
Though its eight floors are currently an outline of scaffolding, concrete and beams, the ISB will soon be home to the College of Science’s chemistry and biology labs, where learning and research will intersect. It will also house the interdisciplinary Center for High Performance Computing as well as data and science information labs and classrooms for the College of Professional and Global Education.
The $181 million project is funded by the California State University systemwide revenue bonds, SJSU campus funds and support from donors.
“Having a building designed to carry out science the way it is done in the 21st century will be transformative for the College of Science,” said Michael Kaufman, dean of the college. “It will provide opportunities for students and faculty members to approach scientific questions in ways that build on the exceptional work that we already do and propel the university to new heights.”
More than 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students make up the College of Science, majoring in biology, chemistry, computer science, geology, mathematics and statistics, marine science, meteorology and climate science, physics and astronomy, and science education. Of them, 45% are women, and more than 25% are traditionally underrepresented minorities — groups who are also traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. What’s more, the building will hold classes for thousands of students outside the College of Science.
So it was imperative from the start to design a flexible, integrated space that would allow these diverse perspectives to come together, said Miri VanHoven, associate dean for research at the college.
“We had really great collaboration between our team of faculty, students, architects and builders in designing the building — much more than what normally goes into an academic building design,” VanHoven shared.
She added that while many SJSU administrators, faculty, staff and students have contributed to the project, much of the collaboration was led by Annalise Van Wyngarden, associate professor of chemistry.
“She worked with the architects to design the approximately half of the building that will be dedicated to chemistry teaching laboratories, research laboratories, classrooms, support and equipment rooms, offices and collaborative spaces,” VanHoven said. “Her five-and-a-half-year investment will have an enormous impact on the success and research of College of Science students, staff and faculty for decades to come.”
“Having a building designed to carry out science the way it is done in the 21st century will be transformative for the College of Science.”
— Michael Kaufman
Rendering of biochemistry teaching lab. Illustration: Flad Architects
Rendering of synthetic chemistry teaching lab. Illustration: Flad Architects
The new paradigm
Much of the history of the College of Science is housed within the walls of three buildings: the Science building, which opened in 1957; MacQuarrie Hall, which opened in 1965; and Duncan Hall, which opened in 1972.
“When these were built, classrooms were designed to be faculty-centric and static,” explained Kaufman. “There were few spaces for students to interact outside of a traditional classroom, and research space — especially space for research involving students — was largely an afterthought.”
Nearly 50 years after the last science building was completed, the ways in which students are taught science have radically changed. In the ISB, teaching, research and collaboration will coexist in the same space.
“One of the big decisions we made about the building design was to place teaching labs, research labs and collaboration space on every floor,” Kaufman said. “We want a student taking an intro to chemistry class to look across the hall and see fellow students and faculty collaborating side-by-side on cutting-edge research. We want that introductory student to see that there is a place for them in the world of science and help them to get there.”
Kaufman called the ISB an “investment in our faculty, the future scientists that we train, and the potential of Silicon Valley. Its goal is to drive discovery and fuel diversity. This building is ripping us away from an old paradigm of isolated research and leading us into a new, collaborative and transformative paradigm of discovery.”
Harnoor Virk, ’21 Molecular Biology with Bree Grillo-Hill, assistant professor of biology. Photo: Robert C. Bain
Alberto Rascón, associate professor of biochemistry.
The undergraduate research experience
One of the College of Sciences’ priorities is to involved students in research early, sometimes as soon as their first year of college, noted Kaufman. The ISB will create even more opportunities to make that happen.
“Undergraduate perspectives and ideas are crucial to what we do,” he said. “We believe hands-on experience not only allows students to gain valuable skills for their future careers as researchers, but it also gives them the tools to collaborate, problem solve and think critically through processes — essential skills in today’s job market.”
That’s how Harnoor Virk, ’21 Molecular Biology, felt about her time researching cancer cell behaviors under Bree Grillo-Hill, assistant professor of biology.
“Guidance and mentorship from my professor have opened career doors I never would have known about,” Virk shared.
Grillo-Hill’s student researchers are trying to better understand how the acidic environment around cancer cells promotes disease progression to inform the development of more effective treatments. Many students have presented their findings at national and international conferences and gone on to pursue graduate and medical degrees or industry careers.
“Even if they don’t continue to work as bench scientists, they learn collaboration and critical thinking skills in research that will benefit them in whatever path they choose after graduation,” emphasized Grillo-Hill.
Alberto Rascón, associate professor of biochemistry, and his student researchers aim to limit the mosquito population and minimize their spread of viruses. Since he arrived at SJSU in 2013, more than 35 of his undergraduate students have gone to optometry, dental, pharmacy and medical schools, as well as to Ph.D. programs. He said that his students are key to the lab’s success.
“Without my students, our research lab would not be as successful in securing federal funding,” he said. “Their work has led to submissions of manuscripts for publication and presentations at local and national conferences, giving them the confidence to discuss science with peers and with science faculty from other universities.”
One of his undergraduate students, Muhammad Khan, ’22 Biological Sciences, started research with Rascón his freshman year. In May, he presented his work at the 35th Annual CSU Student Research Competition. Khan earned first place in his category, and he said he’s grateful for the opportunity to get started on this research so early in his college career.
“I’m thankful Dr. Rascón sets up an environment in the lab that allows for failure and allows every single student to grow, in our research and in person,” he said.
Muhammad Khan, ’22 Biological Sciences.
- Six floors of the building will be dedicated to biology and chemistry. Those floors will hold teaching and research labs, faculty offices and administrative and support areas.
- Each floor will offer collaborative space for students to brainstorm and work on interdisciplinary projects, connect with faculty and mingle with industry partners.
- One area will be dedicated to the interdisciplinary Center for High-Performance Computing, and will be open to students and faculty from different disciplines, across the college and the university.
- Another floor will be home to a data science information lab for the College of Professional and Global Education.
- Each floor will offer space that’s completely flexible, designed to be used simply for conversation and collaboration.
The transformation of science
One of the university’s goals in its Transformation 2030 strategic plan is to “rebuild and renew” by creating a campus with state-of-the-art infrastructure and technology. Another priority is to “engage and educate,” achieved by bringing together students, faculty and staff from different disciplines to learn from one another, engage in new experiences, and make life-changing discoveries.
The ISB is the strategic plan personified, said Charlie Faas, SJSU vice president and chief financial officer.
“The Interdisciplinary Science Building will quickly become one of the most iconic buildings on our campus, and, potentially, in downtown San José. It will serve as a vital place of scientific collaboration and research. Its campus location makes it a natural fit to further connect the campus to the downtown San José community.”
SJSU President Mary A. Papazian said the building will inspire future collaboration between San José State and Silicon Valley and beyond.
“The breadth of discovery and research in the Interdisciplinary Science Building will be astounding,” she said. “The College of Science will rightly take its place among the most modern and innovative science colleges in the Bay Area, and indeed, the country.
“The ISB will symbolize our growing bond and ongoing synergy with Silicon Valley and the tech industry,” she added. “It will symbolize our connection to the City of San José and to the entire region. It will symbolize who we are and what we want to be known for at San José State University.”
Kenneth Mashinchi, Melissa Anderson, Mike Janes, James Nguyen and the SJSU Research Foundation contributed to this report.
“The College of Science will rightly take its place among the most modern and innovative science colleges in the Bay Area, and indeed, the country.”
— Mary A. Papazian