Corner of Buckman Drive and University Avenue

Joseph Hernandez Hall, the university’s new chemistry/chemical biology building, is a testament to science, technology, and tenacity.

By Gigi MarinoPhotography by Betsy Hansen Brzezinski

The first time former UF president Bernie Machen visited the chemistry labs on campus, he was appalled. He himself had been a chemistry major at Vanderbilt in the 1960s and didn’t see much of a difference between those mid-20th-century spaces he used as an undergraduate and those he was viewing in the 21st century in Leigh Hall. “Chemistry has a huge presence on this campus,” he says. “We have a big, diverse graduate program that is punching all the right buttons. Chemistry is one of our star departments, and they were suffering from poor resources to deliver their mission.”

Machen made it his mission to upgrade the facilities. In 2009, architectural plans for a new building were drawn, and underground utilities infrastructure had been laid. “The problem was,” says Machen, “we were in this darned recession. Construction was shutting down everywhere.” Indeed, construction on the chemistry building halted in 2010.

In 2012, Machen announced he planned to retire the following year. UF had hired a firm that was conducting a national search when Governor Rick Scott phoned Machen late one night asking what it would take for him to stay on as UF’s president. “I didn’t think he was serious,” says Machen. “When I knew that he was, the first thing I asked for was faculty funding. We had cut faculty and staff, and no one was getting raises. I had one chip left for negotiation. I asked for the chemistry building to get back on track. UF had committed substantial funding to the project but needed the state to provide the rest, and the agreement was set.”

a lab table with fume hoods surrounding it
The new chemistry/chemical biology building has more than twice the number of fume hoods than Leigh Hall, which will allow for more ample lab time and more flexibility in scheduling.

The official groundbreaking ceremony for the new building took place October 10, 2014, just two months before Machen retired. “The groundbreaking was very important for me. Yes, it’s just a building, but it’s more than that. It shows that we care about the arts and sciences, which have taken a lot of guff,” he says. “Chemistry is a symbol for what a 21st-century land-grant university should be. Even on our own campus, people don’t realize what a good chemistry department we have. This is a celebration, not just of a building but of a department, not just for what we’ve done, but for what we’re going to do.”

The striking new building, Joseph Hernandez Hall, sits on at the old facilities offered. the corner of Buckman Drive and University Avenue as if it always should have been there. Dave Richardson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and former chair of the chemistry department, has called it “magnificent” and “marvelous.” He says, “We are going to have an amazing space for our students to learn, for our researchers to broach new frontiers in chemical research.”

“Chemical biology is a new field that requires very specialized research spaces — clean rooms, autoclaves, cold rooms, rooms for dealing with radioactive materials. we’ve had professors waiting for facilities like this for 10 years.” — Bill Dolbier

Covering 111,552 square feet, the building consists of six levels, with four being used for teaching and research, and has the capacity to support 650 people at any one time (the entire fifth floor is storage and mechanical space). The ground floor holds undergraduate general chemistry labs that can house 250 students at one time, and it is these labs that will have the greatest use. Because general chemistry and organic chemistry are required courses for a large number of majors across the university, 8,000 undergraduates a year, including more than half of the freshman class, will use the new facilities. Currently, Leigh Hall’s general chemistry labs are bursting at the seams with labs scheduled five days a week, from morning until night, and this has been the case for the last decade.

Bill Dolbier, professor and chair of the chemistry department, says the new labs “will give students a tremendously favorable impression of the campus. Right now, we don’t show them the undergraduate general chemistry and organic chemistry labs and just hope they don’t notice them. The new labs are going to blow them away.”

Dolbier credits the building committee, particularly then-chair Dan Talham; professor Phil Brucat; John Flowers, chemistry director of operations; Dwight Bailey, manager of departmental IT; and Tammy Davidson, undergraduate coordinator and director of organic chemistry laboratories, with ensuring that the labs have the latest IT, instrumentation, equipment, and storage space, providing flexibility, maneuverability, and environment optimal for both learning and collaborating. There are 700 cubbies outfitted with beakers, test tubes, and pipettes specifically for undergraduate use. The building contains 134 fume hoods and 128 mini-fume hoods, appropriately called “hoodies.” These glass enclosures ventilate noxious and volatile chemicals, dust, and particulate matter. There also are nearly three dozen snorkel fume hoods that allow for benchtop ventilation. The paucity of fume hoods in Leigh Hall (66) was a major reason labs were overbooked.

According to the senior project manager Frank Javaheri, the ground-floor labs contain a sophisticated AV system “capable of starting, stopping, broadcasting, and switching live, experimental video with instrument data streams to a single or to many displays, allowing instructors to enhance the collaborative learning environment by sharing teaching moments in real time with the class or specific groups of students.” This system uses 60 percent less energy than conventional lab computers.

Javaheri, who’s been working on this building since it was first discussed, is a numbers man. He will tell you that 6,777 yards of concrete have been poured into the new construction. “That’s enough to build a four-foot sidewalk from the building to Micanopy and back,” he says. (Micanopy is roughly 13 miles from campus.) Structural and non-structural metals? 165.25 tons. Number of bricks? 380,000. Vinyl tiles? 42,480 (deemed “green,” of course). Javaheri is particularly proud of the fact that LED lighting has been used throughout the building, and he anticipates LEED Gold (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for building certification conferred by the US Green Building Council. A total of 643 people have put in nearly 41 years’ worth of work (357,867 hours, to be exact) to make the dedication happen on April 21, 2017.

While there are many stakeholders in the new building, the one thing that is absolutely true is that this new space is student-centered. There are few administrative offices, and even the chemistry chair will not have an office there. Undergraduate organic chemistry will have its home on the second floor with room for 120 students at a time. Dolbier points out that the new facilities allow for new curricula, which are being developed by the new undergraduate director of general chemistry, Melanie Viege. Together, she and Davidson will implement the new curriculum for the general chemistry and organic chemistry laboratories.

lab desk with flasks and fume hood overhead
The new building contains nearly three dozen snorkel hoods. One is pictured above.
archway entrance to chemistry building with fullerene sculpture
As part of Florida’s Art in State Buildings program, UF contracted with UK artist Tony Stallard to create “Fullerene,” based on the structure of a “buckyball,” or a carbon-60 molecule.

With four buildings devoted to chemistry – in addition to the new building, Leigh Hall, and Sisler Hall, there is the Chemistry Laboratory Building – Dolbier says the department is committed to fostering creativity and innovation across all of its programs. Says Dolbier, “We intend to create an undergraduate program that others will want to emulate. We will be national leaders.”

UF Chemistry’s graduate programs also will get quite a boost with the new building. The third and fourth floors are dedicated to graduate research. The third floor is specifically designed for research in the area of chemical biology, and the fourth floor contains labs for research in synthetic organic chemistry, along with separate conference rooms. Dolbier notes that recent UF hiring initiatives have specifically contributed to two areas in chemistry: smart polymer nanomedicine and chemical innovations in cancer research.

rows of lab desks
Students have access to twice the amount of space that the old facilities offered.

“Chemical biology is a new field that requires very specialized research spaces — clean rooms, autoclaves, cold rooms, rooms for dealing with radioactive materials,” says Dolbier. “We’ve had professors waiting for facilities like this for 10 years.”

Zhongwu Guo, who was recently hired as the Steven M. and Rebecca J. Scott Professor, does research in a relatively new field called glycoimmunology, which in its very simplest terms aims to create disease markers and cancer drugs from carbohydrates. Says Dolbier, “Everyone we hire within the cancer initiative will do research that is highly collaborative and translational. The new building has a tremendous impact on our ability to hire top people.”

Indeed, Guo was attracted to the opportunities the research spaces offer and was one of the first people to move in. He says, “The new building, which offers combined state-of- the-art spaces for chemical and biological studies, should be a perfect fit for and will significantly benefit the interdisciplinary research program of my lab.”

Aaron Aponick, associate professor of chemistry, has been at UF since 2006, and has been involved with the discussion of the new building since the very beginning. Aponick is a synthetic organic chemist, and his research group will occupy labs on the fourth floor. He, like other researchers in the building, will reap the rewards of having modern, pristine research space; however, the benefits exceed sheer functionality, he says.

“There’s a lot to be said for students from different research groups interacting and intermingling,” says Aponick. “At the graduate level, having a cadre of people exchanging ideas is invaluable. You’re no longer compartmentalized. At this point in your education, the more you see and think about, the better your education. You broaden your knowledge base.”

Ashley Erb ’17 is an undergraduate research and teaching assistant in Aponick’s group who has been admitted into UF’s graduate program. She says she loves the history of the older buildings – Leigh Hall was built in 1926 and Sisler Hall in 1966 – but is excited about the opportunities that the new building will provide for both teaching and research. “The new equipment in the teaching labs is way more advanced,” she says. “Although, one of the greatest impacts is going to be on undergraduates who’ve had a hard time getting into a research lab. You don’t know how to do research until you actually get into the lab and do it. Clearly, this opens new avenues for UF Chemistry.”

Graduate coordinator Ben Smith PhD’77 remembers Leigh Hall in its original state, before it was renovated in 1992. “There was no air conditioning, no temperature control, power issues, which was problematic for large lasers. I did not realize it at the time, but they were not state-of-the-art labs.” By contrast, Smith will now be recruiting graduate students to work in labs he says “are the best in the country. The building committee did a great job of looking at what modern chemistry labs need and put it there.” He also notes that 20 years ago, having infrared spectrometers and NMRs (nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers) in teaching labs “was unheard of.” Smith believes the new facility is going to be a great recruitment tool. “That we have four large buildings dedicated to chemical sciences, all next to each other, makes a fabulous impression,” he says. “Hernandez Hall is just stunning. It’s beautifully designed, very well built, and will last a long time.”

Javaheri, the numbers man, says that the final cost of the building is $66.6 million. The university contributed $24 million, and the state provided the remainder. A number of generous donors also contributed to the building. “One of the huge gifts that has momentum-building benefits comes from Joseph Hernandez, who gave a $10 million endowment,” says Dolbier, “which will build and enhance our programs, both graduate and undergraduate, in the department.”

Joseph Hernandez Hall is named in honor of him, and the endowment that will benefit this generation and beyond.

“In terms of the impact of the endowment on the Department of Chemistry, these are rare and exceptional opportunities that only a few programs get to have, where their future can be improved and enhanced through a gift that can keep giving to the students, to the research, and to the scholarly enterprise of the department,” says Dean Richardson. “When the world demands a new kind of technology, a new chemistry, a new approach to solving problems, UF Chemistry will be ready to invest and move forward. This is what the income from the endowment can bring.”

As a student, Joe Hernandez ’96, MS’98, MBA’98 knew early on that he wanted to be a medical scientist. His passion and curiosity were recognized, encouraged, and nurtured at UF. For the last 20 years, Hernandez has worked in the pharmaceutical and biotech world, creating a number of startups. Says Richardson, “Joe has a probing, questioning mind. He believes you always have to educate yourself.”

“I’ve been inspired to give to UF. There’s an absolute link between chemistry and its importance to my work,” says Hernandez. “The flexibility to jump from chemistry to neuroanatomy in attaining knowledge was very attractive to me. I don’t like rigidity. My endeavors were well suited for the liberal arts and sciences.”

rows of lab desks
The photo below may look like a mirror image but is actually rows and rows of lab desks in the undergraduate general chemistry lab, a welcome sight for professors and students alike.

Dean Richardson has been at the helm of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences since 2015, but has been a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry since 1983. Dolbier, who has witnessed the department’s fine years and lean years much longer, says, “Hernandez Hall is the culmination of the efforts of all of the chemistry chairs from the 1980s. It’s been a dream to find funding for such a building – an asset that cannot be overemphasized. It will enable us to move forward by building our faculty, attracting top grad students, and allowing our programs remaining in the other three buildings to expand research and move chemistry faculty from the Quantum Theory Project into the chemistry complex.”

Finally, a big, beautiful place where chemistry and chemical biology can dance in the moonlight, making molecules that might one day stop cancer and other deadly diseases in their tracks.

Townes R. Leigh, the namesake of Leigh Hall and the man who brought pharmacy to UF way back in the roaring ’20s, would be pleased to know what’s in store for the new era at UF. Finally, a big, beautiful place where chemistry and chemical biology can dance in the moonlight, making molecules that might one day stop cancer and other deadly diseases in their tracks.