Inside USD

Science Building, Department Create Great Chemistry

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tammy Dwyer, a chemistry professor at University of San Diego since 1994, still remembers the conversation amongst science faculty regarding the need to have one unified place on campus.

“I saw the strength of our faculty in the department when I got here,” Dwyer said, “but the sciences were spread out in different buildings. (Chemistry classrooms and labs) were in the basement of Camino Hall. I remember people saying, ‘Someday, we’ll be in a new science building.’”

Fellow chemistry professor and current department chair Debbie Tahmassebi, at USD since 1999, concurred. “We’d talk about it all the time.”

Talk finally gave way to action while Dwyer served as chemistry department chair from 2001-09.

Donald P. Shiley and Darlene Marcos Shiley generously provided a $10 million gift toward what all science faculty craved: The Donald P. Shiley Center for Science and Technology. The 150,000 square-foot facility, spread over four floors, opened in fall 2003.

The center has state-of-the-art teaching facilities for biology, chemistry (and biochemistry), physics and Marine Sciences and Environmental Studies. The layout integrated the science curriculum and encouraged interaction between science faculty and their students while promoting a collaborative teaching and learning environment. Special features include labs for individual faculty and space for Geographic Information Systems, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, Computer Modeling, Hydrodynamics and a greenhouse on the roof of the building.

Dwyer said the building’s setup was unique because faculty had input into its design. “We were all allowed to dream. The board of trustees allowed its users to dream big; they allowed us to be innovative as scholars and professors.”

It was worth the wait, Tahmassebi said. “There’s no way we’d be here without (the Shileys’ gift). We never cease to be proud when we walk around the building ourselves or when showing it to prospective students and parents. This place is pretty spectacular.”

The building has transformed all of USD’s science programs, but Tahmassebi and Dwyer firmly believe its existence has been important in the rise of the chemistry and biochemistry department.

In spring 2003, prior to moving into the new building, Tahmassebi said USD graduated 15 chemistry majors. In spring 2009, USD graduated 40 majors, more than San Diego State University and many other undergraduate chemistry programs that year, she said. The opportunity to do significant undergraduate research while working closely with a faculty member has been a boost for students who desire to transition into post-graduate programs.

“The students we’ve been able to get here are spectacular,” said Tahmassebi, who oversees USD’s Creative Collaborations event each April. “From day one the students come here and they’re excited.”

Dwyer said her students are eager to participate in the research requirement. “It’s now to the point that our students have chances to present their research with graduate students and doctoral students, not just at the undergraduate level.”

The Shiley building has served a valuable role in securing grants and financial assistance from corporations and foundations.

The department landed a highly sought $500,000 development award from the Tucson, Ariz.-based Research Corporation in 2008. It was one of only six national awards made by the foundation in the last decade and required extensive evaluation, site visits and submitting a five-year development plan. The university matched the gift for a $1 million-plus investment in USD’s science program.

At the same time, Dwyer and Tahmassebi secured nearly $600,000 from the Henry Luce Foundation and established the USD Clare Booth Luce Professorship to hire a top female chemistry professor, Lauren Benz, who is in her second year.

The many milestones reached since the building’s arrival has “strengthened everything,” Tahmassebi said. Science faculty members are proud to work within its confines and students have access to quality equipment, facilities and faculty to help them excel academically.

Donald Shiley, who passed away July 31, helped USD’s science programs rise to a level that, according to Dwyer, “rivals the best undergraduate research programs in the country.” The Shileys’ gift continues to aid the development of tomorrow’s scientists.

“They bought into the vision and it meshed very well,” Dwyer said. “You don’t just give money without having the vision yourself of what it means to walk through these glass front doors. This building is a living tribute to him.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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