Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Emory chemistry making new space for mixing ideas

A glass-fronted atrium, leading out onto a park-like area, will serve as the new heart of chemistry and a hub for the campus science commons.

By Carol Clark

Chemists study the interactions of atoms in order to create new molecules. Emory chemists also like to experiment with the interactions of people and ideas, so they are creating space to foster new ways of teaching and research.

A $52 million expansion and renovation of the Sanford S. Atwood Chemistry Center, largely funded by the proceeds of a discovery of an HIV-AIDS drug made in the building, will transform the concrete exterior and boxed-in labs of the past into the sunlit foyers and communal spaces that reflect the department’s vision of its future.

“The building project sits right in the middle of Emory’s growing science commons,” says David Lynn, the chair of chemistry. “It was important to all of us that the architecture have an open, welcoming feel. This space is a great opportunity to pull the sciences together.”

“It’s really an expression of the collegiality of Emory,” adds Todd Polley, a materials scientist and the director of operations for the department. “Discoveries are being made at the interface of different disciplines, so we want to provide the best possible space for that interaction.”

The imposing concrete front of Atwood, facing onto Dickey Drive, will be replaced by a more welcoming facade.

Groundbreaking is set for May 14, the day after Commencement, with completion expected in early 2015. About 40,000 square feet of existing space in Atwood will be renovated, and 70,000 square feet of new space will be added to the existing 200,000 square-foot chemistry complex of Atwood and Cherry L Emerson Hall.

The imposing concrete walls of Atwood’s lecture hall, nicknamed “the bunker,” will be replaced by a more welcoming fa├žade of windows and glass doors looking out on to Dickey Drive, next to the Psychology and Interdisciplinary Sciences building and across from the Math and Science Center.

The raised walkway along the west side of Atwood will be removed and replaced by a five-story, glass-fronted atrium. The atrium will house a library on the ground floor, facing out onto the grassy area between Atwood and Emerson. Instead of a traditional library, this open, interactive learning space will be filled with computer stations and conversational nooks to encourage collaboration. The library space and the park-like area of grass that it will open onto will serve as the new heart of the chemistry complex and as a hub for the campus science commons.

“In developing the concept, it was important for us to not only create great interior spaces, but also an open, transparent exterior so that people are drawn into those great spaces,” Polley says.

The view from a glass-walled faculty office into the new atrium.

The tiered lecture hall is being replaced by an interactive teaching space. Students will sit at round tables, surrounded by large video screens connected to computers. Each tableful of students will tackle problems as a group, mentoring and teaching one another. The solutions from each group can be projected onto the surrounding screens, so that the class as a whole can evaluate the different approaches and learn from them.

“It’s a simple concept,” Lynn says. “Rather than having students compete with one another, they collaborate in the same way we do research. The challenges we face have many facets and everyone brings new perspectives and ideas that are critical to the best solutions. The ways we teach science and do research are blending and becoming more seamless.”

Both the teaching space and research labs in the addition will have glass walls. “You’ll be able to look around and see the research actually happening,” Polley says. “It will give you context for why you are studying the subject.”

The long rows of sterile benches in the general chemistry lab will also get a makeover. The fume hoods will be outfitted with cameras, so that everyone can see demonstrations clearly, much like on a cooking show.

The entire second floor of Atwood can morph to create ideal spaces for poster presentations, seminars, guest lectures or other activities as they arise. Natural light and wood floors will warm up the atmosphere and many of the existing narrow hallways and opaque walls will be removed to create a more fluid and connected feeling.

Cooper Carry architecture of Atlanta worked closely with the department to plan the project, which is designed for certification by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

Watch the video about the Center for Selective C-H Functionalization, below, to learn more about how chemistry research and teaching are evolving.

The Atwood addition is another major milestone for a department that began at Emory in 1919, in what is now the North Callaway building on the Quadrangle, and moved into Atwood in 1974 when that building was completed.

During the 1980s, the first AIDS lab at Emory was established in Atwood. It was there that organic chemist Dennis Liotta, in collaboration with post-doctoral researcher Woo-Baeg Choi and biochemist Raymond Schinazi, developed Emtriva. The breakthrough antiviral drug for the treatment of HIV is now used by more than 90 percent of HIV/AIDS patients in the United States, and by thousands more around the globe.

The Cherry L. Emerson Center for Scientific Computation was established in the department in 1991, and moved into Emerson Hall in 2001 when that building was completed. The department is also home to the Emory Bio-inspired Renewable Energy Center and two national Centers for Chemical Innovation: The NASA/NSF Center for Chemical Evolution and the NSF Center for Selective C-H Functionalization.

“Chemistry is foundational to solving many of the most critical problems facing society, but these problems need to be viewed from differing vantage points,” Lynn says. “The expansion and renovation of Atwood is designed to capture new and creative ideas, while strengthening our connections to the rest of the University.”

About 60 percent of all entering Emory College students take a chemistry class during their first year. The department currently has 21 faculty members, 120 graduate students and 237 undergraduate chemistry majors. “We must be doing something right, because twice as many students choose to major in chemistry at Emory than at any of our much larger peer institutions,” Lynn says.

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  1. I believe it is the case that, in 1927, Chemistry was housed in what is now North Callaway, not the old Psychology building. At the time, North Callaway was a two-story building.
    Jim Morey

    1. @Jim Morey: Thanks for catching that, the article has been corrected.

  2. This is good news. Walking into the chemistry building circa 1978 felt like passing behind the Iron Curtain