Building for the Future

New Center for Environmental and Life Sciences to enhance research experience at Montclair State

Artists rendering of the proposed Center for Environmental and Life Sciences building.

After more than a decade of growth and success in scientific research and student enrollment, the College of Science and Mathematics is looking to the future with a planned 100,000-square-foot, $55-million, state-of-the-art research center.

“The hard work of our faculty and staff has moved us to a point of more and enhanced research, significantly greater grant support and much higher enrollments,” says College of Science and Mathematics Dean Robert Prezant. “But we’re out of room. We want to continue to expand our research programs to extend the opportunities for the discovery phase of education that in turn supports our students and their future opportunities.”

The proposed Center for Environmental and Life Sciences (CELS) will usher in the next generation of scientific research at Montclair State and is essential to attracting more students interested in careers in the sciences. “This Center is key to building upon our reputation as a growing research institution,” Prezant says. “It will mean ensuring recognition for our faculty’s research, and better placing us on the map. We have strong research-based science and teaching. But when we give tours to researchers and students who want to come here, we need a centralized state-of-the-art facility to demonstrate our continued commitment to scientific excellence.”

With the growing interest in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), students considering those fields often look at university options outside New Jersey. In fact, reports show 30,000 college-bound students, including many science majors, leave the state each year—placing New Jersey first, nationally, in the net loss of students. This outmigration of talent has negative impacts for the state’s economy and its higher-ed institutions.

University administrators and researchers hope that having a state-of-the-art research facility such as the Center will help change that. “Research brings science to life in a way that the mandatory laboratory courses cannot,” says Johannes Schelvis, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “Many top STEM students look for research opportunities before committing to a specific college or university. If we want to be in the race for these top students and want to keep top talent in New Jersey, it is essential to continue to enhance our research programs. The new CELS building will be a significant step forward in this effort.”

Preparing for Tomorrow

The Center will be devoted to environmental and pharmaceutical life sciences research and will allow the College’s collaborative culture to flourish, advancing science and technology—especially in areas of sustaining natural resources and improving human health.

While New Jersey has been a leader in pharmaceutical research, its environmental record is less impressive with a history of early unfettered industrialization and subsequent decades of cleaning up that unchecked legacy. Montclair State leaders see the Center for Environmental and Life Sciences playing a pivotal role in research that leads not only to medical breakthroughs but also to innovations that can be applied both locally and globally.

“We have researchers in environmental science and pharmaceutical and medicinal science,” Prezant says. “Both our research and education programs have been nurtured and designed with New Jersey in mind.”

While the University is engaged in fundraising for the building, administrators hope a portion of the Center’s cost will be funded through a statewide bond issue for public and private universities, which, if approved by voters in November, will be the first major state capital investment in higher education in two decades.

While construction has not yet begun, the design is the stuff of which scientists dream—from the innovative workspace for collaboration to updated laboratories and seminar rooms.

“We hope to spur on some cutting-edge research between disciplines here,” says Matthew Gorring, chair of Earth and Environmental Studies. “It will break down the silos that exist now, and, for us, it opens up interesting possibilities for working with our colleagues in chemistry and biology on interdisciplinary projects. The CELS building will be a tremendous recruiting tool.”

Montclair State researchers already collaborate across some disciplines, but the lack of sufficient up-to-date facilities makes that research logistically challenging and limits their ability to obtain some grants from the National Institutes of Health and private research funders.

The College of Science and Mathematics has existing scientific research relationships with pharmaceutical companies and environmental consulting firms that will be enhanced with the Center.

A Place for New Discoveries

Professor John Siekierka, director of the Margaret and Herman Sokol Institute for Pharmaceutical Life Sciences (which will have the top floor of the new building), already contracts with Celgene Global Health to study parasitic diseases. Researchers in his laboratory, along with Sokol Chair of Chemistry and Professor David Rotella in chemistry and biochemistry, perform research that could lead to new treatments for river blindness and elephantiasis, both of which are serious, debilitating diseases caused by parasitic nematodes in tropical regions, affecting millions of people.

“We need specialized labs for this work,” Siekierka says. “In our case, we’ve set up a collaboration with Louisiana State University, and we plan to send some of our work to their labs.” In short, he says, CELS is “sorely needed.”

The CELS building is also designed to accommodate “incubators” for private start-up research firms. Currently Montclair State has one such firm, housed in the basement of Richardson Hall, where researchers at SIROM Scientific Solutions specialize in environmentally friendly solutions to legacy contamination problems such as reducing the amount of lead in soil. The new building will have space to welcome more.

Rotella says that on the practical side, having modern labs and research facilities not only “allows us to be very competitive when trying to obtain research grants” but it also will be more cost efficient. “Richardson Hall is 30 years old; the serviceable lifespan of the building is coming to an end,” Rotella says. “It’s expensive to heat, cool and maintain. We shouldn’t spend money on things that don’t have a good return on the investment.”

On the scientific side, he says, the new building is “extremely important because that environment creates the opportunity to collaborate outside your discipline and to build on ideas and innovative research.”

Researchers are hoping the CELS building will be ready to move into in a few years. “The timing is excellent. We have a new major in sustainability science, that, if approved in Trenton this fall, would begin in September 2013,” Gorring says. “CELS is a building that will take us into the future.”

Prezant focuses on what it will mean for the students: “Discovery comes through research,” he says. “When students discover something new, something no one knew before, they are hooked. Creating opportunities for discovery is the life blood of STEM education.”