With three massive wings topped with towers and connected by columned porticos, the half-million-square-foot Baylor Sciences Building makes a bold architectural statement on University Parks Drive. But bolder still is the statement the building makes about Baylor’s focus on scientific scholarship and research.
The Baylor Sciences Building (BSB) is home to the departments of biology, chemistry and biochemistry, environmental science, geosciences, physics, and psychology and neuroscience. What’s more, it houses core research centers where state-of-the-art instruments and expert staff are available to undergraduates and researchers across the spectrum of sciences.
“It’s an interdisciplinary science facility established to foster collaboration and research. It’s actually pretty common now, but Baylor was one of the first universities to try to put so much under one roof,” said Dr. Christopher Becker, BSB director.
In its 16th year of operation, the BSB is nearing full occupancy but is well-positioned for the future thanks to a flexible design and visionary leadership.
Room to grow
Baylor’s Marrs McLean Science Building and Sid Richardson Building were state-of-the-art when they opened on Fountain Mall in the mid-1960s, but by the late 1990s they were bursting at the seams with outdated classrooms and patchwork labs. A new building to house multiple science departments was first suggested in the early 2000s in then-president Robert Sloan’s 10-year Baylor 2012 emphasis.“We did research before 2002, but when the Baylor 2012 vision was rolled out, this building was one of the many ways that we turned the corner from mainly undergraduate teaching to both teaching and research,” said Dr. Lee C. Nordt, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.
While Sloan’s vision may have seemed unrealistic given the complexity of such a huge project, ground was broken in May 2002 for what would be the largest and most expensive building project on campus at the time and the largest academic building to this day.
“The cost was around $103 million, which for 508,000 square feet is, by today's standards, a bargain,” Nordt said.
The BSB opened on Sept. 24, 2004, with move-in staged over the summer so as not to disrupt summer classes and ongoing research, as well as to protect equipment that was expensive, sensitive and vital to scholarship and research.
Among those who had a personal stake in a successful move was Dr. Craig Moehnke, assistant vice provost for research and research facilities, who at the time was a chemistry doctoral candidate. “
We moved over in the last year of my grad career, which means that’s when you’re really getting a lot of your data and you’re trying to crank out research so you can write your dissertation,” he said. “The moving crew was really good, and they hired a special company to handle the hazardous materials and the instrumentation.”
Moehnke finished his PhD and went on to become the assistant director of the BSB under the building's inaugural director, Dr. James Karban. Moehnke later succeeded Karban as director and was followed in that position by Becker, whose responsibilities range from daily operations to planning for future development.
"We facilitate and interface between faculty needs, construction needs and trying to keep the timelines on task,” Moehnke said. “We also have five interdisciplinary research cores — we’re working on cores six and seven — that support a broad range of research groups."
Top tier research
With more than 200 labs, the BSB hosts research ranging from studies that help students develop their research skills to projects impacting many facets of life on our planet. Funding comes from industry partners and private foundations, as well as from government entities such as the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas and the U.S. Department of Defense.
All of that is important to achieving a key priority of the University: Research 1/Tier 1 pursuits.
Research 1 or R1 is a category established by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education for doctoral-granting institutions with the “highest research activity.” Baylor currently is categorized as R2 — “higher research activity” — but the BSB has the University on its way to the top tier.
While R1 is propelling research in the BSB, “engaged learning” that gives students hands-on research experience is driving undergraduate education.
Dr. Tamarah Adair, senior lecturer in biology, has three freshman lab classes where engaged learning is in full force. In one of those labs, students learn how to find viruses that infect certain soil organisms and then sequence their DNA.
“In the Molecular Biosciences Center, students use DNA analyzers and large centrifuges — things we couldn’t afford to put in the teaching labs,” she said. “They use the same tools that are used to do medical research for the human genome or microbiome.”
Education that leads to research begins in the classroom, and the BSB was designed with an array of classrooms and teaching labs. Dr. Lorin Matthews, professor of physics, was on the classroom task force for the BSB and knew what was needed after doing her undergraduate and doctoral work in Marrs McLean.
“At Marrs McLean, I had some classes in the physics conference room with five to six students around a large conference table, or in a converted lab where you had to stand on a chair to get around a workbench to get to the blackboard,” she said. “A lot of the classrooms here have tables instead of fixed chairs, which makes it easier for students to collaborate and discuss. Or if you have physics demos, you put them out on the tables.”
Matthews has used the full range of BSB classrooms. She’s taught Baylor Interdisciplinary Core classes in the auditoriums but now spends most of her time in 30-seat classrooms. “We use the larger, 68-seat classrooms for seminars and colloquiums,” she said.
Recruiting across the spectrum
Sit in the bustling, four-story atrium of the BSB for a while and you’ll see green-shirted student guides leading groups through the building.
“Tours for parents and perspectives students all go through the BSB. Even tours for recruiting athletes take them through there. Alumni love going through it too,” Nordt said.
Indeed, the BSB is a major draw up and down the spectrum — from undergrads to world-class researchers.
“The core facilities and some of the other centers throughout the building are a huge recruitment tool for incoming faculty and research groups,” Becker said. “A startup research funding package may be $500,000 to a few million dollars, and if they don’t have to spend all of that on resources that are already in place, they can spend that funding on other things.”
Dr. Patrick Farmer, chair and professor of chemistry and biochemistry, first stepped into the BSB in 2009 and was impressed.
“It was and is magnificent. Not just the façade. That’s nice but not as important as the internal layout,” said Farmer, who came to Baylor after 14 years on the faculty at the University of California, Irvine. “I found the BSB just as good as those facilities at UCI, especially in the lab design and common use areas. I was well familiar with science buildings at Texas A&M, UT-Arlington and SMU, and the BSB was arguably better in design and quality.”
Farmer said having all the sciences in one building promotes collaboration between faculty as well as students.
“We share some facilities like the Molecular Biosciences Center, and my students rub shoulders with others students and post-docs in biology and neurosciences,” he said. “They learn from each other, share tips and techniques. This promotes their development and maturation as scientists, as well as increasing the productivity and quality of their research.”
Ready for tomorrow
While designed almost 20 years ago, the BSB is ready for the future.
“The building was designed to be extremely flexible. You could theoretically take out every wall in a wing and make it one big open area,” Moehnke said. “Since we opened in 2004, we are often taking out walls more than we are putting them up. The focus now is on more open, flexible space than everybody having their own little area.”
At the close of 2019, there was $1.3 million in construction projects underway inside the BSB. Some of that is make-ready for new faculty with specific needs for labs and equipment, and some of it is expansion and renovation of core research centers.
“When you put $3 million worth of instrumentation in a 600-square-foot room, and the heat load is high, you’re stumbling over each other, and the user base is growing because the research base is growing, the University is going to invest in appropriate areas for that,” Moehnke said. “It says we’re serious about doing research at Baylor.”
Baylor Sciences Building by the numbers
- 508,000-square-foot building
- Four floors and a fifth-floor penthouse
- 75,000-square-foot building plaza
- 2.5 million pounds of structural steel
- 7 million pounds of reinforcing steel
- 4,700 truckloads of concrete
- 815,000 square feet of sheetrock
- More than 200 individual laboratories, with approximately 150 dedicated to research
- Machine shop creating tools for research
- Electronics shop helping repair and maintain research equipment and instruments
- 6,500-square-foot vivarium certified by the American Association for Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care
- $1 million in annual energy costs
- More than 260 fume hoods
- Can move 1 million cubic feet of air per minute with 18 air handlers
- Seven high voltage electrical substations in the building
- Inventory of 35,000 to 40,000 chemicals