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Sciences Take Center Stage

by Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85

$22 million Life Sciences Center to support research, teaching on campus

Throughout the 120-year history of Calvin College, the science departments have quietly made a name for themselves, especially within the science community. A gifted teacher and scholar, John De Vries was among those first faculty members helping to gain recognition for Calvin's science programs. His book, Beyond the Atom, was a significant contribution to the education of his students during the middle of this century.

More recently, many Calvin professors have been involved in significant research efforts that have gained national attention. Exceptionally high acceptance rates at medical and dental schools (87 percent for pre-medical students and 93 percent for pre-dental) have testified to the solid experience that Calvin has provided in the sciences. And Calvin's ranking among 925 private, independent colleges for the number of graduates who go on to earn Ph.D.s in all sciences is in the top five percent, with physics topping the list for the last ten years, ranking 13th overall.

"The difference is that we don't have the same kind of science program that you will find at big, high-powered institutions," said Peter Tigchelaar, Calvin biology professor and medical school advisor. Calvin is different: there are active research programs, but they include students; there is excellent equipment, but it is for teaching as well as for research purposes; and most importantly, according to Tigchelaar, "We spend more time with students."

Apparently this pays off for Calvin graduates who, after beginning medical school, have repeatedly told Tigchelaar that their lab experience and academic capabilities are equal to or above that of their colleagues. At Calvin, undergraduates have the opportunity to work with professors on front-line research projects. Last summer 33 students worked with science professors on research projects.

"Research and lab experience are a big issue for undergraduates," he said. "One of the first questions prospective students ask is 'What are the opportunities for research?'"

Calvin's already impressive answer to that question is about to be even more emphatic with the addition of the new Life Sciences Center. Ground breaking for the $22-million structure is expected to occur in February. The new building, a tandem to the current science building built in 1969, will house new laboratories, offices, classrooms and a state-of-the-art animal care and research facility. A portion of the funds will also be applied towards the remodeling of the current science building. All funds for the project will be raised from major donors, including foundations, corporations and individuals.

The need for the building was created by inadequate ventilation, particularly in laboratories, in the current building; expanded student and faculty research; an increase in instrumentation and technology; an inadequate animal care facility and a growing science program which now includes 25 percent of the student body. "I think it will be appealing to potential students who come in and see the resources we have available for research," said Mark Muyskens, chemistry professor and chair of the committee to design space for the chemistry department.

Additional research space is one of the key components of the new building plan. Calvin's need for research space has progressed rapidly. The college currently ranks sixth nationally among undergraduate institutions in securing National Science Foundation Instrumentation and Laboratory Improvement grants. Calvin science faculty have more than $2 million in external research support.

"There is more and more demand by students to be involved in research," said Muyskens. "We are hoping to offer more opportunity for that in the new facility."

Because of the design (with biology and chemistry sharing a floor) there will also be more interfacing between the two departments.

"That is really exciting," he said. "Biochemistry is a growing field and a lot of our chemistry majors are interested in it."

Another necessary change is the addition of an organic chemistry laboratory in which all students can work under a fume hood. This will make it possible to do some larger scale experiments which are not possible now because of ventilation restrictions. Currently, the largest lab facility has only six fume hoods; the new facility will house a lab with 18 hoods, which can be expanded up to more than 20 hoods.

"What's really innovative is the flexibility the lab will have," said Muyskens, "making it possible for a larger number of students to all be working simultaneously."

Other departments also stand to gain substantial space because of the shifts that will occur with the opening of the new facility and the renovation of the old building. Physics; engineering; nursing; computer science; psychology; and geology, geography and environmental science all stand to make much-needed space gains. Biology, as a partner with chemistry in the new facility, will also profit from more research space and laboratories. The biology department will occupy the first floor and share the second floor with an emphasis there on biochemistry.

But space and proximity are not the only gains to be made because of the new addition. One of the key benefits--increased research opportunities--will come as a result of a collaborative effort between Calvin, Blodgett Memorial Medical Center and Butterworth Hospital, under the auspices of the Grand Rapids Area Medical Education Consortium (GRAMEC) on the animal care facility, to be housed in the building's lower level. This innovative joint endeavor came about in response to a need by Calvin to improve its outdated facility and a community need for increased space and updated facilities for animal research.

"This type of facility is very expensive," said Larry Baer, director of the office of research for GRAMEC. "We got together and decided it would be a good idea to share the costs. It made sense to approach Calvin because some researchers at Calvin are already working with medical programs in town on projects of common interest." One of those researchers, Calvin biology professor David DeHeer, has spent the last several years studying joint replacements. He and numerous students have worked with orthopaedic surgery residents and surgeons from west Michigan on the project which ultimately will benefit patients who have had joint replacements.

DeHeer's most recent project involves researching factors which influence fracture healing. His research includes the use of animals, which help determine the effect of nutrition and certain drugs on fracture healing. Involving students in this type of research at the undergraduate level and having such a fine facility to work in is "exceedingly unusual," said DeHeer. "This will give them a greater breadth of experiences in the undergraduate world," he said. "Having three organizations come together like this for the good of the entire community is to be commended."

It will definitely mean more opportunities for students and faculty," said Gordon Van Harn, former provost of Calvin and an initiator in the project. "Each of us will have the facilities that none of us could have alone."

Biology professor John Ubels is also applauding the efforts of Blodgett and Butterworth to work with Calvin in this endeavor.

Ubels has done ground-breaking work in the study of a condition known as dry eye. About 200,000 Americans have severe dry eye problems; another two million have moderate problems that require clinical attention.

Ubels has done significant research on artificial tear solutions and much of that testing has occurred on animal models. He was involved in the production of a product called Bion Tears which has been on the market for four years and because of its unique chemical properties and effectiveness has become popular among ophthalmologists and patients for the treatment of dry eye disease.

In a related project, funded by the National Eye Institute (a division of the National Institutes of Health), Ubels has been studying the cornea and conjunction of the eye and more directly how Vitamin A affects the function of these tissues. Ubels discovered Vitamin A in tears in 1983 and has since been researching how the lacrimal gland metabolizes and transports Vitamin A into tears.

Animals have been used as a source of tissue for cell cultures and biochemical assays for this work. In terms of research like Ubels', what the new facility really does is allow for more efficient and more extensive research on projects that are already going on, said DeHeer.

The current facility, a small rodent room in the center of the science building, can only house mice and rats. Other animals need to be transported from a limited housing facility at Blodgett Hospital.

The new facility will allow for chronic studies because of housing capabilities. It will also give students interested in pre-veterinary studies experience in animal care which is a veterinary school admissions requirement. In addition, students will have the opportunity to work side-by-side with medical researchers and practicing physicians.

"It is a definite benefit to Calvin students," said Baer.

"I think our partnership with the hospitals will particularly favor students with medical school applications," said Tigchelaar. "I also think it will serve very well as a recruiting tool. Medical schools are getting harder and harder to get in to. Any research experience gained as an undergraduate is a big plus."

For Ubels the facility will hopefully have an impact in the renewal of his NIH grant.

"It is somewhat unusual for a college of this size to receive this type of grant," he said. Ubels first received the grant while at Wisconsin Medical College. He then took it with him to the University of Pittsburgh and finally to Calvin. It is up for renewal next year.

"I think having the animal procedure rooms and larger labs will be an advantages in terms of the grant renewal," he said.

Calvin could be more competitive in other grant programs because of the new facility as well.

Because of the NIH grant and two smaller ones from industry, in the last two years Ubels has been able to involve 11 students in his work with seven of the students co-authoring abstracts and papers on the results of their research.

Chemistry professor Larry Louters' research on insulin action especially as it relates to a new drug called Rezulin and exercise is another example of expanding opportunity.

Louters has been looking at muscle tissue that has been exercised to determine how insulin is distributed and whether Rezulin is effectively doing the same thing.

"Both the drug and exercise tend to do the same thing, which is make the tissue more sensitive to insulin, which then makes insulin more effective," said Louters. "Doctors who are prescribing the drug do need to know how much exercise, if any, to recommend while someone is taking this drug."

Louters believes the new facility will allow him to expand his research in this area and, perhaps, extend into others.

"I'm looking forward to a lot more synergism between biology and chemistry because of the new situation," said Louters.

As a partner with Blodgett and Butterworth, Calvin will also gain some visibility as a community partner--a long standing goal of the college.

"There's been a lot of talk in higher education about cooperation with the community and businesses," said Van Harn. "This is a first-rate collaboration. It fits all of the parties very well."

Lynn Bolt Rosendale is Managing Editor of Spark.


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Last revised by Nathan Vandenbroek on 12/7/97.