At the Montana State University Billings Science Building, space limitations mean a $100,000 microscope that allows students to view cells five one-millionths of a meter wide must be kept in a converted closet — and paired, incongruently, with the building’s only roof access.
An organic chemistry lab for up to 15 students has only three vented hoods.
“Students have to line up,” explained Kurt Toenjes, department chair and professor of microbiology. “It means you teach less.”
On Tuesday, campus officials, including Ron Larsen, the university’s interim chancellor, and Bill Kennedy, president and CEO of the MSU Billings Foundation, showed a lone representative of the Billings City Council, Mike Yakawich, around the 1947 building that they hope to renovate and expand.
MSU Billings has asked the council to contribute $50,000 toward the $18.4 million needed to construct a new science facility and renovate the current one. To date, $12 million has been secured, but a $10 million legislative appropriation will be redirected if fundraisers can’t meet their goal within two years.
Council members said Monday they’ll consider the university's request during their June 26 meeting. The council’s contingency fund is large enough to cover the contribution, said City Administrator Tina Volek.
Yakawich said he believes council members will approve the request during their last meeting of the 2016-17 fiscal year.
On Monday, Kennedy told the council that “big donors are watching for one thing: Do you have the support of the community? Major donors have told us they want to make sure everyone is on board, that this is a viable project in the community.”
“It’s a very nice building,” Larsen told the council. “It was state of the art in 1947. It’s got great bones, but the bones are the only thing good about it.”
About 200 science majors crowd into the 70-year-old facility annually, with science enrollment having grown 6 percent over the previous year.
The new building will allow the university’s Allied Health program into the Science Building. Some of the jobs those students pursue armed with a four-year degree in medical laboratory sciences can land them in-demand jobs at Billings hospitals, where they’re paid $29 per hour along with a $15,000 signing bonus.
At nearly every stop during Tuesday’s tour, Toenjes laid out challenges that faculty and students face, including lack of space, the odor of bacteria being cooked under high pressure in an autoclave, and cryogenic freezers that must be kept at minus 80 degrees Centigrade — a challenge in a room with balky air conditioning.
“Think what we could do,” he said, “in a renovated facility.”
The building holds millions of dollars in equipment, he explained, the result of grant-writing, successful research and a pair of patents, with one more potentially on the way.
“We don’t need more equipment,” he said. “Where would we put it?”