W&J science building gets major overhaul

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Serious side effects -- including the death of laboratory animals -- from an unventilated science lab spurred officials at Washington & Jefferson College to seek state funding last year for a major overhaul of an academic building.

College officials and members of a local legislative delegation announced last week that the 231-year-old school had received a $1 million state grant to help pay for nearly $9 million in improvements to the Dieter-Porter Life Sciences Building.

The grant was part of the Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program and was approved in October by outgoing Gov. Ed Rendell. Funds from the grant, which includes another $15 million for various other Washington County projects, were released after a review by Gov. Tom Corbett's administration.

Officials at the four-year liberal arts college in Washington said the grant was necessary to install air conditioning in the 30-year-old building, along with other essential upgrades, after it became apparent that high summer temperatures were endangering projects and animals.

"The problems with Dieter-Porter came to light last summer when extremely high temperatures in the un-airconditioned building caused the deaths of lab animals," said a statement released by the college last week. "In addition to problems with the animal lab, the building's fire alarm and electrical systems do not meet code. The building's drains are also not adequate; therefore there is regular flooding and mold accumulates, causing the scientific results of valuable student work to be called into question because we are unable to keep equipment sterile."

Dieter-Porter is home to the college's biology and psychology departments, which play an especially important role in the college's ranking as the third-highest producer per capita of physicians in the nation, said college president Tori Haring-Smith.

"The science program at W&J benefits all of Southwestern Pennsylvania," Ms. Haring-Smith said. "Not only do the doctors we train stay in the region, but faculty working in Dieter-Porter bring millions of public and private dollars to the region. These dollars support top-notch science education, along with community outreach programs in the sciences."

Ms. Haring-Smith said conditions in the building have hampered the college's ability to recruit faculty and students, because the school is ineligible to publish animal-based research or apply for federal funding.

Students and faculty previously had done nationally recognized research for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the National Science Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

The state of the building also jeopardizes W&J's community outreach efforts, including its U.S. Department of Defense-funded Combat Stress Intervention Program, which conducts research and works to address barriers to health care for National Guard and Reserve members returning to the region.

Though the grant represents public funding for a private college with just 1,460 students, state Sen. Timothy Solobay, D-Canonsburg, said the amount is little more than a "drop in the bucket," compared to what W&J is planning to spend privately to finish the project, along with $32 million that the school recently invested to construct the John A. Swanson Science Center.

Former Democratic state Sen. J. Barry Stout of Bentleyville, who retired at the end of last year, was also on hand for the announcement last week and agreed with Mr. Solobay.

"W&J is a very important part of our community," said Mr. Stout, a 1964 alumnus of the college. "They stepped up and invested money in this project; it's not just public funds."

Mr. Solobay said he was glad Mr. Corbett's administration decided to move forward with the funding, especially in a year that saw public education funding slashed.

"America has been losing ground in the competition to educate the next generation of scientists," Mr. Solobay said. "Our economy and our national security are dependent on our ability to reverse that trend and keep pace with emerging nations. I'm pleased that we are able to make this investment in science education right here in our community."

Repairs on the building are expected to begin over the next several weeks and should take about a year, Ms. Haring-Smith said.


Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1512.


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