Proposed addition scheduled for 2012
After it received the OK Jan. 23 by the University of Texas System board of regents, a new science building could be in the works for UTPA to help accommodate the growing number of science students.
If funding is approved by the Texas Legislature at the end of May, the new facility would be completed by December 2016 and available for students January 2017. The $98 million project would be funded by tuition revenue bonds, funds generated through state-issued bonds with future tuition as security.
The 162,600-square-foot annex would support science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines, including biology, chemistry, health sciences and environmental studies.
John Trant, dean for the College of Science and Mathematics, said the proposal for a new facility resulted from an increase in science majors.
“The number of majors in my college are growing faster than the University,” Trant said. “The UT System considers a building fully occupied when it’s 80 percent full. Our current science building is filled 110 percent of its capacity.”
WHAT’S IN STORE
In a presentation given at the board of regents’ meeting last month, UTPA President Robert Nelsen called for an addition to the new Science Building that would add three auditorium classes to seat a combined 450 students, plus the following: 30 research labs, 19 instructional labs, five specialized labs (imaging, instrumentation, tissue culture, herbarium and radioisotope), two biosafety level-3 labs, six environmental chambers and a vivarium (an animal care facility). Office space for additional faculty will be included as well.
UTPA’s current $26 million building, 156,700 square feet in shape of the letter ‘U,’ was completed in 1997. With the $98 million funding proposal, the existing edifice would receive an addition, or annex, that would turn it into a rectangular facility. The Department of Physics and Geology would also be moved into the annex, while the planetarium is expected to be enhanced or replaced.
With a new facility, Trant said students will have access to new specialized bachelor’s programs such as biochemistry, as well as more Ph.Ds.
Along with The University of Texas at Brownsville merger, Trant said the new science building will be an important step to helping place the University as an emerging research institute.
“In my opinion the best learning experience is experiential,” Trant said. “Our best opportunity to provide that experiential learning is through undergraduate research.”
According to the UT System website, emerging research universities are eligible for the National Research University Fund established by the 81st Texas Legislature in 2009. The funding program financially assists emerging research universities who spend at least $45 million in research.
As of now, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has designated seven institutions in the state as emerging research universities. The three that are the most recognized are University of Texas Austin, Texas A&M and Rice University as Tier One, or high-performing, nationally competitive research institutes.
District 40 State Rep. Terry Canales said the UTPA science building would be an asset to the University’s proposed merger with UTB and the creation of a new medical school in the Valley, also up for consideration this Legislative session.
Because the new building proposal and merger between UTPA and UTB are two different projects, a science facility can still occur with or without the unification, Canales explained.
He also said a new structure will be a benefit to students and the Valley.
“In general, the new facility will have cutting-edge technology to empower UTPA students with the resources needed to compete nationally in the field of science,” Canales said.
The new building would contribute to the UTPA administration’s goal of enrolling 30,000 students by fall 2021. With a new science facility to compliment a medical school in the Valley, the number of students interested in a health career will double, according to Trant.
“There is no question in my mind that the programs, degree plans and research will be bringing more students from the region and across the state to study here,” he said.
WORD ON CAMPUS
Martha Salazar, a senior biology major, hopes the new annex will address classroom capacity issues in the current building.
“In my cell biology lecture we had about 50 students, some would end up sitting on the floor due to the lack of chairs and space until they moved us to another room,” Salazar said.
The 22-year-old Brownsville native expressed enthusiasm regarding the bachelor’s program for biochemistry that could result from the construction.
“There’s not much you can do with a biology major besides teach or work for wildlife research,” Salazar explained. “Biochemistry is more industrial, it’s a great complement to pharmaceutics, dentistry, pre-med and research. I’m actually reading about that right now.”
Although the completion of a new science annex along with its new programs might come in late for Salazar, she said more research labs may convince future students to stay closer to campus.
“Professors are really selective when it comes to choosing students’ assistance in research,” Salazar said. “But with more research labs available, students won’t have to leave to other universities to gain the experience they need.”
Adrian Guerrero, a junior chemistry major currently working on cancer biology research at the Edinburg Regional Academic Health Center, believes in the importance of adding more research labs on campus.
“I used to work with Dr. Banik along with 20 other students in a large lab, but at the same time it was too small for all of us,” the 20-year-old from Sharyland said. Bimal Banik is a chemistry professor at UTPA.
Guerrero, who came to UTPA with the hopes of majoring in biochemistry, said he’s glad the University is pushing more specialized science programs.
“The idea of adding biochemistry as a major has been around for quite a while,” he explained. “This is actually really exciting news. A larger science building will bring a larger science community.”
Mayra Olivarez, a pre-dental biology major, said a new science home will be a great addition to the possible medical school. The Hidalgo native also hopes more lab courses will open as a result.
“This semester I didn’t get the chemistry lab on the day I wanted, it got canceled,” the 18-year-old freshman explained. “It would be great if more labs are available at times that are the most convenient for students.”
Junior biology major Esthela Jimenez said although the new science building may not affect her by graduation, it will be a good prospect for students.
“I think it’s going to be great for the Valley. It will bring a lot of opportunities and recognition in the fields of science,” the 18-year-old McAllen native said. “Creating a larger facility will encourage more people to study here.”