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Innovation celebration: Gov. Baker, local officials gather at UMass to tout new Physical Sciences Building

  • Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Physical Sciences Building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst last Thursday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Physical Sciences Building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Thursday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Physical Sciences Building at the University of Massachusetts, Thursday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Physical Sciences Building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Thursday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ebru Dogan, a graduate student, works in the Quantum Computation Physics lab during a tour of the Physical Sciences Building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Thursday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ebru Dogan, a graduate student, works in the Quantum Computation Physics lab during a tour of the the Physical Sciences Building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Thursday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ruolan Fan, a graduate student, works in the Wearable Electronics Lab during a tour of the Physical Sciences Building at the University of Massachusetts on Thursday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • S. Thai Thayumanavan, a professor of chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, talks to students Ann Fernandez, Ritam Das, Manisha Chahar and Khushboo Singh in his lab where they are doing research on how to make drugs that selectively affect and treat cancer cells while not impacting healthy ones. Tours were taking place for the new Physical Sciences Building. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kumble R. Subbaswamy, the chancellor at the University Of Massachusetts, in the Wearable Electronics lab during a tour of the Physical Sciences Building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Thursday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS



Staff Writer
Friday, April 12, 2019

AMHERST — Last Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker made his way out to western Massachusetts for a ribbon cutting at the University of Massachusetts.

It was more of a ribbon shredding, with Baker joined by other bigwigs, including state Reps. Daniel Carey, Natalie Blais and Mindy Domb, and state Sen. Jo Comerford, as well as UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and UMass President Marty Meehan. Each got their own pair of scissors and their own segment of the ribbon to cut to celebrate the opening of the $101.8 million new Physical Sciences Building.

The buzzwords on nearly every official’s lips were “innovation economy.” As each took a turn to speak, they all agreed that this building would improve, as Baker put it in a statement, “the STEM workforce pipeline here in Massachusetts.” STEM refers to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The state put forward $85 million for the project, with the rest financed through the UMass Building Authority.

“UMass Amherst has an enormous footprint in STEM across the commonwealth, as does the entire UMass system,” Baker told reporters during a brief Q&A session. “And this building, along with the other two science reconstructions that have taken place in this quad, really I think positions the university to continue to be a national — and, in some instances, global — leader in STEM.”

The building isn’t brand new. Many researchers have been working there since last summer, conducting research in fields ranging from material science to nuclear physics. There are no classrooms in the facility.

The building is also older in a different sense. The 95,000-square-foot space incorporates the West Experiment Station, one of the campus’s historic treasures that was built in 1887. The one-time agricultural experiment station was dismantled in 2015, and its reassembled facade became part of the new Physical Sciences Building.

The university is also touting the building’s green features: its naturally lighted spaces, energy-and-water saving qualities and Gold LEED certification.

“It’s just so much nicer,” assistant physics professor Chen Wang said of his quantum computing lab in the new building, the hum of cutting-edge technology filling the room. “Nothing against the old lab, but it was old.”

In his new lab, Wang and his students have much better control of the elements. It was more difficult to control the temperature in their last lab, and there were lots of unnecessary windows, Wang added: “These kinds of things all add up.”

Lining the halls are high-tech labs. Information about each individual research project is displayed on posters with titles that can be esoteric for outsiders entering the building: “stimuli-responsive molecular assemblies,” for example, or “anchoring transitions induced by absorbtion of amphiphiles at the liquid crystal/aqueous interface.” 

For Trisha Andrew, however, it wasn’t too difficult to cut through the jargon when describing her lab’s work.

“We make wearable electronics,” said Andrew, an associate professor of chemistry and chemical engineering. That means creating fabrics that can harvest body heat to power wearable biosensors, for example; other fabrics being developed can detect everything from the wearer’s heartbeat to their posture.

Faculty in the building have collectively been awarded $127 million in research grants, according to a university press release. 

Overall, research expenditures within the University of Massachusetts system grew $40 million to a total of $670 million in fiscal year 2017, with the vast majority of that research externally funded — largely by federal agencies, but also by institutional funds, industry, and state and local governments. That same fiscal year, UMass Amherst’s expenditures grew 2.5 percent to $219.9 million, according to the school.

“What’s happening here on our flagship campus is extraordinary,” Meehan said in his speech before the ribbon cutting.

It is that research, and those scientists, that the state is investing in with the new facility. UMass Amherst produces the majority of graduates in STEM fields in the state, Baker pointed out. 

“The role that you are playing in our economy,” he said to the crowd, “is incredibly powerful, profound and significant.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.