The tabletops where Joan Slonczewski, Robert A. Oden, Jr. Professor of Biology, conducts her experiments are made of pressed asbestos. She and her students enjoy a $90,000 microscope provided through government grants, but it is inside a former darkroom with rusted fittings, a space Slonczewski said is slowly deteriorating.
“If you look at the laboratory equipment we have, much of it is state of the art … but that equipment is housed in a decaying, falling-apart structure,” Slonczewski said. “One time, the shelving on one of the tabletops literally fell down and nearly clunked a student.”
Slonczewski requested the shelving in the Higley labs be removed after the incident, but the College told her that because they were made of asbestos, it could not be done. Professor of Biology Siobhan Fennessy said getting rid of the asbestos would require hazmat removal, which would shut down the building for months.
“It is student experiments and faculty work that bring in really outstanding things,” Slonczewski said. “But the building that houses it is inadequate.”
Since its construction in 1977, Higley Hall’s original structure has remained mostly untouched. That changed this summer, when Lincoln Construction — which is based in Columbus, OH — began renovating three of Higley’s laboratories: room 307 and two rooms in Higley’s basement, according to Associate Professor Andrew J. Kerkhoff, who is chair of the biology department. These renovations will include repairing some of the older equipment while also updating lab safety by adding chemical hoods and venting systems for experiments. The two rooms in the basement will be combined to create one larger laboratory and teaching space, according to Kerkhoff. Chief Business Officer Mark Kohlman said these projects will cost approximately $500,000, and will be completed some time in the next few months.
Kerkhoff said a complete renovation of Higley may be ideal, but would cause major delays or even the termination of certain experiments. This could burden biology students interested in graduate schools who specifically consider student research as a major factor during the admission process.
Slonczewski believes that single-room renovations are a temporary solution to a bigger problem with the building. Three years ago, Kerkhoff said the College had plans for a total renovation of Higley Hall. These plans eventually fell through, but, according to Slonczewski, this is because Graham Gund’s ’63 H ’81 architecture firm GUND Partnership wanted to focus on the library instead.
“Graham Gund had no interest in the project,” Slonczewski said. “Basically we were told that Graham Gund wants a new library, and does not want a biology building.”
The GUND Partnership referred all questions regarding Higley Hall to Kohlman. Kohlman said he could not speak to Slonczewski’s comments. The Board of Trustees met three years ago to update the Master Plan, according to Kohlman, and they marked both Higley and the Olin and Chalmers Libraries as high-priority projects. Kohlman said these are still ongoing conversations within the board and that he cannot comment on them any further.
President Sean Decatur said Gund and other donors have some influence on the College’s construction decisions.
“A donation may not bring something that’s not in the priority into the priority,” Decatur said. “But it may change the order of something that’s already in our top five.”
Decatur added that Higley would benefit from a complete overhaul, but he thinks that renovating single rooms is the most viable option at this time, considering faculty and student need for research space in the building. He said a complete renovation of Higley could happen in the future, and that he was dissapointed current renovations weren’t completed over the summer.
Erick Ditmars ’18, who is majoring in molecular biology, said his main concern with Higley is the lack of proper chemical hoods in some of the labs.
“Whenever you’re doing an experiment with DNA extraction, which is something I do a lot, you use phenol, which is a pretty toxic compound,” Ditmars said. “The way you are supposed to do it utilizes a ventilated hood that creates negative air pressure, so none of the vapors from this volatile toxic compound can get into my lungs.”
Ditmars said Slonczewski bought a secondary hood to use for toxic experiments, but he still thinks Higley has a long way to go.