Photos by Adam Ewing and Suzanne Carr Rossi ’00
Where a surface parking lot once greeted drivers and pedestrians on College Avenue, a three-story wall of windows now opens like a proscenium stage.
But it’s not Shakespeare on display here; these floor-to-ceiling glass expanses give passersby a view of geology labs, physics classrooms, mapping courses, and other examples of science in action at the University of Mary Washington.
This is the 40,000-square-foot expansion wing of the Jepson Science Center, part of a nearly $28 million project that also included renovations to 30,000 square feet of the original science center. Project Manager Leslie Johnson said nearly all of the project cost was covered with funds allocated by the Virginia General Assembly.
As the academic year opened Aug. 26, science faculty busily unloaded materials from storage and set furniture in place so classes could begin in the new space. All had roughly the same exclamation when asked about the project’s benefits to the educational experience:
The original Jepson Science Center opened in 1998, and Department of Biology Chair Lynn Lewis said it was almost immediately too small.
“One of the things that we really didn’t have much of in old Jepson was space for undergraduate research,” she said. “We have significantly increased that space everywhere in the renovation and expansion.”
That is helpful to Carmen Cantrell ’20 as she conducts hydrology research on various wells on campus, looking for variances in trace metals and other elements in water where swimming pools, Civil War battlefields, and other past occupants have left a mark.
“The past few years we’ve been kind of cramped,” she said. “I think this new facility will give a lot of people more access to lab space.”
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Geology Professor Grant Woodwell said the placement of the new lab space will allow faculty to engage in new and creative teaching methods.
Before the expansion, many classes met for lectures in other buildings around campus and came to labs in Jepson when they could get space. Now, labs connect to classrooms throughout the building.
“Faculty will be able to blend lecture and lab work and engage in innovative new methods of pedagogy,” he said.
New features like proximity locks that turn student ID cards into lab keys when students are enrolled in a class will allow classes to leave materials out and conduct longer-term research projects.
The modern new wing of the building looks strikingly different from many of the other buildings on the Mary Washington campus.
That’s by design. Commonwealth Architects took a nod from the boiler plant across the street in designing the new wing of Jepson, Johnson said, which is meant to put “science on display” on College Avenue.
Large corner glass windows bring light pouring in to classrooms and labs, while curtains drop with the touch of a button to keep all that sunshine from raising the temperature during sensitive experiments.
The building’s interior design also enhances the student experience, Woodwell said. Interaction spaces and conference tables built into the science center’s corridors help promote the skills of collaboration and communication that today’s employers seek.
“I think they learn from each other. It’s an interactive process,” he said. “You like to see students working as teams. That really reflects how they are likely to be working in the workplace.”
A new loading dock is designed specifically to accommodate the needs of research teams who take boats out on local waterways to collect samples. An institutional-sized version of a mud room gives them a place to stage muddy gear and preserve samples in a refrigerated room when they return from field work.
Landscaping being installed this fall will reflect the lessons students learn in the classroom – especially those in the new conservation biology major track that debuts this year.
The hillside leading down from College Avenue will be planted with native meadow grasses and pollinator plants as a no-mow buffer. Signs along the sidewalk will explain that this reduces stormwater runoff and protects water quality.
A dozen new fume hoods were added to labs and lab prep rooms, improving safety and allowing students to more efficiently cycle through research activities. Four new laser labs in the physics department feature a high-tech safety system that ensures no one can accidentally enter a room while laser activity is in progress.
In addition to having better features, these labs are bigger and accommodate groups of students much more comfortably.
“It literally gives the students more elbow room to work in,” Johnson said. Instructors have more office and conference space as well.
Lewis and Woodwell have been at Mary Washington since the days before the original Jepson Science Center opened, when science classes were based in Combs Hall. Both say this new facility will vastly improve the undergraduate research experience.
“Our research spaces have grown by leaps and bounds,” Lewis said.
Paired with the smaller classes and low student-faculty ratio at Mary Washington, that will lead to valuable experiences for students.
“It gives us the opportunity to expose our students to more sophisticated instruments than they would typically have at a large research university,” Woodwell said. “I think our students have a real advantage from that standpoint.”
Thanh-Binh Duong ’20 agreed. As a major in earth and environmental sciences, with a chemistry minor, Duong has been studying the presence of microplastics in the lower Chesapeake Bay and their impact on an invertebrate species that is foundational to the health of the bay’s ecosystem. She has been working with two mentors: Professor of Earth and Environmental Science Ben Kisila and Assistant Professor Tyler Frankel.
Duong said Jepson’s expanded area for earth and environmental sciences allows for distinct laboratory space for research in geochemistry, paleontology, hydrogeology, and aquatic toxicology.
“The geochemistry and aquatic toxicology labs are exciting to me as they have provided me with a wide range of professional scientific equipment that will vastly improve the quality of my research,” she said.
Duong aspires to graduate work after she completes her studies at UMW, and she believes the work she’s done here has prepared her well.
“As an undergraduate, I have already been able to conduct my own independent studies as well as attend and present my research at local and national conferences,” she said. “These experiences have allowed me to build a strong workflow and skillset, which will set me up for success in graduate school and beyond.”