by Gabby Budziszewski
Last night I saw Canisius’ new ad for the first time, gracing the time slot between commercial breaks on a thrilling new episode of Bones. While cheering on my college for their excellent new ad campaign and feeling a great sense of Griffin Pride, I couldn’t help but notice that the ad promised prospective students “top-level scientific research,” and think back to Darby’s editorial about investment in the liberal arts programs at Canisius. As a senior biochemistry major who has worked in Canisius labs for 3 years, the experience has been incredible—the amazing faculty of the Chemistry & Biochemistry Department have opened up so many opportunities for research students. However, we often have to scrape by, jerry-rigging experimental apparatuses (Apparati? Can someone in the English department actually check that for me?) and relying increasingly on generous donations from benefactors to our department. Although it is clear that it seems to Darby and other liberal arts majors that Canisius is investing disproportionately in STEM, the fact of the matter is that chemistry, biochemistry and biology are still housed in inadequate buildings, with old materials and infrastructure that affects the quality of our research. As a freshman, I was promised that the department would move to new facilities in Science Hall sometime in my career at Canisius, and as a weathered senior, the end is not in sight for us: for the foreseeable future, our department will be housed in Horan O’Donnell.
While superficially, a new building doesn’t seem all too important, facilities are crucial for science programs. Science is continually modernizing, and to stay at the vanguard of scientific education, like our new ad campaign boasts, requires significant investment and updates. Unfortunately I can’t speak from the perspective of Health Science and the biology labs (though I have heard they have similar complaints), but the chemistry building and labs are insufficient for the quality of research our faculty and undergraduates do. Currently, the biochemistry lab runs our biochemistry grade water (water without contaminants) through a cistern that is a marvel of undergraduate engineering: a giant plastic barrel on a plank of plywood that we parafilm anew every time it leaks (parafilm: think saran wrap, but stretchier.) Worse, though—the power in Horan O’Donnell is unreliable. A power outage can cause enormous difficulties with our most expensive instruments: for example, during a power outage over the summer, the -80 degree celsius freezer in the biochem lab began to thaw, potentially compromising the expensive bacterial samples that are vital to our research. Professors accepting undergraduate research students are limited in the number of students they can take on as a result of limited lab space. Much of this research is relegated to academic lab space, which becomes an enormous burden to set up and tear down, and limits the ability of certain labs to research outside the summer, as the academic labs are used full time during the semester. To the credit of the wonderful faculty of the department, they always find a way to work with what we can get, netting a $285,000 NSF grant from outside the auspices of the college to purchase our NMR instrument and continuing to work on groundbreaking research projects with undergraduate students.
Another reason new facilities benefit STEM programs is that STEM students spend a ton of time in the buildings in which they take classes. Between classes which meet 4 days a week, including an hour and 15 minute recitation, labs, which can last 3-6 hours, and research, many students average several hours in these buildings every day, whereas a liberal arts major may spend only his or her class time in an academic building. Horan O’Donnell, to put it frankly, is just an old building. Labs and classrooms on the second and third floors get stiflingly hot without adequate ventilation, creating a sweat-soaked learning environment and becoming a real issue when the organic labs need to use solvents whose potent smells leak throughout the building. The complaint I have heard from many a chemistry freshman is that these students were promised the bright halls and plant walls offered by Science Hall on campus tours, and ended up in the dank halls of Horan O’Donnell.
As Canisius students in STEM fields, most of us made a conscious decision to choose the liberal arts environment of Canisius College over technological research universities. We, too, are invested in the liberal arts character of the college and want these areas to thrive. Simply put, the College up to this point has invested only fractions of the amount it requires to sustain adequate science programs and facilities and Science Hall represents a game of catch up which so far has only included a token number of our STEM programs. If the College wants to claim that it can offer the prospective student “top level scientific research,” it already has the talented STEM faculty to do so, but needs to deliver on the facilities that were promised to us. And hey, maybe I can look forward to visiting the professors who shaped my future in chemistry in Science Hall one day—where I thought I’d be spending my undergraduate career when I sent in my enrollment deposit.