New science center will promote collaboration.

By Brian Maffly

The Salt Lake Tribune

March 8, 2010 – A highly visible anchor of the University of Utah’s Presidents Circle will become a state-of-the-art interdisciplinary science hub under a $75 million plan to renovate the building soon to be vacated by the Utah Museum of Natural History.

Officials today are to announce a seed gift of $10 million from Utah entrepreneur and longtime U. adviser Gary Crocker and his wife, Ann, who is the daughter of philanthropist Beverley Sorenson.

The renovation, which will accommodate the U.’s fledgling Center for Cell and Genome Science, will leave intact the 75-year-old George Thomas Building’s exterior and U-shaped footprint. But the interior will be utterly transformed into a transparent and open network of labs and classrooms designed to promote collaboration across the disciplines of math, physics, biology and chemistry.

“This is a turning point for the College [of Science] that will enable us to push forward our ideas about innovative and new ways of teaching,” said college Dean Pierre Sokolsky.

Calling the college one of the state’s most fruitful, yet fragile assets, Gary Crocker said the gift is intended to protect the U.’s research capacity and explore a new paradigm of science instruction that entails small, collaborative classes and hands-on learning.

“The future of Utah’s wealth and job creation will be determined by the way we educate scientists, foster cutting-edge research, and produce intellectual property,” he said.

Gary Crocker has founded medical device companies and is currently chairman of Boston-based Merrimack Pharmaceuticals. Scientific advances, particularly the type that benefit society, are best achieved when researchers work across disciplines, so the science college’s new headquarters should reflect that, he said.

The College of Science occupies eight lower-campus buildings, some in serious lack of repair and ill-suited for modern research. The sorry lab conditions raise concerns about the U.’s ability to continue supporting top-flight research that attracts millions in research grants and nationally renowned faculty.

The university now embarks on yet another campaign to raise private funds to support a major construction project, but President Michael Young is angling for a substantial state contribution, given the future Crocker Science Center’s importance to the Utah economy and the university’s core mission.

With the long-anticipated departure of the museum from one of the most prestigious pieces of campus real estate, various U. departments have expressed an interest in moving into the stately Thomas Building, which went up in 1930s to house the U. library. But the concrete building suffers from water line breaks and other vexing infrastructure problems. It cannot be trusted to protect the museum’s archaeological treasures in the event of a major earthquake.

The renovation is in effect an expensive act of historical preservation in which the building’s seismic integrity will be shored up. Its neo-classical façade, containing art deco elements and a striking series of lion heads rimming the parapet, will remain. But inside, only signature elements, such as the splitting central stairway and vaulted reading room, will remain.

“It will act as gateway so we want to make it an architecturally welcoming building,” Sokolsky said. “You won’t see large auditoriums. Classrooms will be for 20 to 40 students. Everything is moveable, everything is reconfigurable. It will be transparent so students can see through the research labs.”

When the Crocker Science Center opens in 2014, it will stand opposite a freshly renovated Gardner Hall, which houses the School of Music. The pairing will frame the U.’s historic entrance with structures representing the arts and sciences, two vital components of higher education, Young noted.

The museum will move into a new home near Red Butte Gardens next year. Construction on the Thomas makeover is to begin in 2012, once all the collections have been moved.