Building the Foundation of Science
What some of us envision as a science research lab recalls photos of beakers filled with bubbling, fluorescent liquids piled on small tables while students wearing bottle rimmed glasses look on. Although this old-fashioned image may be a source of amusement for today’s youth, it is no joking matter to the scientific community or to the future of the U.S. economy.
Scientific research is one of the cornerstones of America’s influence and economic growth, particularly in high-technology industries such as aerospace, telecommunications, computer hardware, scientific instruments and pharmaceuticals. These industries perform large amounts of research and development (R&D) and also employ significant numbers of scientists and engineers.
According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), beginning in 1996 and for each year thereafter, U.S. high-technology industries generated more domestic manufacturing activity than the 15-country European Union (EU) or any other single country. Estimates for 2003 show U.S. high-technology industry accounting for more than 40 percent of global manufacturing activity, the EU for about 18 percent and Japan for about 12 percent. Research and development make up a sizable portion of a company’s investments into new product ideas, with the expectation that results from their R&D will lead to profitable returns from sales of these new products and processes.
Universities like CSULB are major contributors to the nation’s science workforce. Biological Sciences Department Chair Editte Gharakhanian noted that 40 percent of her department’s master’s graduates enter doctoral degree programs, including medical school, while 60 percent go into science-oriented positions in industry, government or private agencies, or as community college science faculty.
A recent NSF study found that between 1995 and 2004, CSULB had the largest number of graduates among master’s-level universities in the nation who went on to earn doctoral degrees in research fields. Many of these students have been accepted to institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins and Stanford
Over the last 40 years, scientific research has changed not only the face of teaching, but classrooms and labs themselves. “The study of science has become much more sophisticated,” said Robert Loeschen, associate dean of facilities for the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (CNSM). “A lot of the easy problems (such as isolating a small protein or identifying its amino acids) have been solved. Today, the problems are not what is the protein made of and how is it made, but what its purpose is in the body. Where does it go? It’s a far different type of learning.”
Day to day, Loeschen experiences first hand the challenges of implementing changing technology and teaching methods, particularly when some of CSULB’s science buildings are what university President F. King Alexander describes as “pre-Sputnik era facilities.”
“Directions of research change,” Loeschen commented. “I can remember when I was in graduate school. The professor came in one day and said, ‘you know the stuff we’ve been teaching, it’s all wrong.’ Sometimes it changes that fast. Today, you have to have labs that are flexible, clean, dry, temperature controlled. If you have a big room with lots of students in it and they all use the same small instruments, well, that’s fine—if we were in the year 1960.”
One example of CSULB’s current research environment is the Institute for Integrated Research on Materials, Environment and Society (IIRMES), an interdisciplinary research center developed by the Colleges of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Liberal Arts. Faculty and students from biology, chemistry, biochemistry, geology, physics and astronomy, as well as geography and anthropology utilize its multi-million-dollar array of equipment to study organisms and materials, both natural and human-made. The instruments are obtained largely through the National Science Foundation and other public and private grants and donations, along with university funds.
CSULB took a big step forward when it opened the Molecular and Life Sciences Center in 2004. The 80,000-square-foot facility includes 19 teaching laboratories for general and organic chemistry, anatomy and physiology, and general biology classes; and 24 directed studies laboratories used by inorganic, organic, analytical, biochemical, and molecular biology faculty and students. The building also includes 42 offices.
“What they can do in the new building compared to what they can do in the old building is amazing,” Loeschen said. “For the first time in our history, we have the biochemists and the molecular biologists all on the same floor, with offices and labs adjacent to each other. There is so much more collaboration. You get many more biology students working with biochemistry faculty and vice versa. It’s been really useful in that respect to put everybody together so they can let their ideas bounce off each other and help train each other’s students in state-of-the-art technologies.”
As a teaching-intensive, research-driven university, Cal State Long Beach emphasizes providing hands-on research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. Students are frequent co-authors with faculty on research journal articles and often make presentations at research conferences.
Loeschen believes that research directed studies are vital to modern science and the preparation of science students for high-technology industries. “It’s been proven that the best education works on a one-to-one basis,” he added. “And with research directed studies, we have a lot of small (student) group interactions. For faculty in the physical and biological sciences, publishing and professional activities usually involve working with students in a laboratory and doing good research. Right now, we’re in a hiring mode. In the last 10 years, we’ve hired approximately half our faculty members, replacing those who have retired, and they’re all engaged in professional activities. This means the need of modern research labs to most of them.”
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