groundbreaking event for new frost building

The College of Arts & Sciences’ Chemistry Department Takes a Major Step into the Future

By Richard Westlund

The College of Arts & Sciences’ Chemistry Department Takes a Major Step into the Future

By Richard Westlund


For many decades, chemistry research and teaching has been conducted in self-contained laboratories under the guidance of an individual professor. While this traditional model has led to remarkable discoveries in fields as diverse as medicine, building materials and consumer products, collaboration is rapidly becoming the key to future breakthroughs. 

Now, the College of Arts & Sciences Department of Chemistry is moving into that bold new era following the May 3 groundbreaking of the Phillip and Patricia Frost Science and Engineering Building.

“The new Frost Institute will lead us on a path to new scientific discoveries, innovative teaching, and collaboration across disciplines,” said Dean Leonidas Bachas. “As a hub for boosting scientific breakthroughs in chemistry and molecular science, our talented faculty and students now have a place to develop interdisciplinary research across multiple fields and make new groundbreaking advances in the sciences."

Reflecting on the vital importance of collaboration among chemistry and engineering faculty and students, Jean-Pierre Bardet, dean of the College of Engineering, said, “We have always been great partners.  We now have a great opportunity to build a high-tech economy in South Florida through this collaboration between our two colleges.”

Noting the importance of the new building to the College’s science programs, Marc Knecht, associate professor of chemistry, said, “This is a great day for our department. It will help us reach the next level of STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education and facilitate our collaboration with engineering from the laboratory benchtop to developing new applications and taking them into the field.”

An in-depth planning process
Planning for the new Frost Science and Engineering Building began several years ago, according to Angel Kaifer, senior associate dean for research and graduate education, and professor of chemistry.  “Our university leaders recognized the need for a new science facility that would foster multidisciplinary collaboration,” he said.  “Now, we are translating that basic concept into a wonderful new facility that will provide a 21st century home for our University’s chemistry and molecular science programs.”

Kaifer said the new facility will help break through traditional academic silos, bringing together chemists and engineers with different viewpoints, skills, and insights. “There is great value in fostering collaborative studies that may involve biochemistry, bioengineering and biomedical research,” he said. “Scientists today work in teams, and our new building will support that approach.”

In a traditional laboratory setting, an instructor stands at the front of a classroom, while students formulate hypotheses, conduct experiments, and discuss the results and conclusions. Professors and students work in a closed environment, and leave it behind after the class or project is completed. 

“If you walk into a new science building, you will see a very different design,” Kaifer said. “There are large open spaces with comfortable seats, movable chairs, whiteboards, and charging stations.  That makes it easy for students to discuss their work with each other, and connect with their classmates on site or in different locations.”

Scientific laboratories are also changing to support collaborative teams.  Glass walls, moveable partitions and shared bench spaces bring different research groups closer together and provide more efficient use of instrumentation.

“We are seeing a dramatic shift in the culture of science and engineering,” Kaifer added. “Today’s students are used to working in groups, and being a good team member is an important skill to cultivate in both disciplines.”

‘Igniting the spark’
With its location just east of the Ashe building on the Coral Gables campus, the Phillip and Patricia Frost Science and Engineering Building will serve as a physical and symbolic link between the two colleges.   It was made possible by a landmark $100 million gift from the namesake UM benefactors for the Frost Institutes of Science and Engineering.

“Today, we ignite the spark that will ensure that the light of discovery and innovation will shine at the U far into the future,” said UM Provost Jeffrey Duerk at the groundbreaking ceremony. “Dean Bachas and Dean Bardet have been entrusted with leading their schools into this new era and implementing the Frosts’ vision that supports scientific collaboration across disciplines.”

Noting that science today is “a contact sport” that benefits from face-to-face discussions, Duerk said it is fitting that the building is the first of the individual institutes to be created.  “Chemistry is the central science,” Duerk said. “Everything in the physical, life, and applied sciences intersects with chemistry. It touches on everything from biology to engineering, and from medicine and health sciences to oceanography.”

At the groundbreaking event, about 300 invited guests watched University of Miami President Julio Frenk and Patricia and Phillip Frost push down three “detonators” that set off fountains of orange and green foam shooting up into the air. They also got close-up glimpses of some of the innovative work being conducted in UM labs.

“Our vision is to become a powerhouse for scientific research, attracting world-class students and faculty, while supporting new enterprises,” Frenk said. “This new building will be a striking addition to our beautiful Coral Gables campus that will put science on display and engage our entire community.”

The Power of Philanthropy
The creation of the Frost Institutes, patterned after the National Institutes of Health, is the backbone of STEM@UM, a transformational initiative designed to stimulate interdisciplinary research and promote Miami as a hemispheric innovation hub. Along with supporting the new building, the Frosts’ gift includes $30 million for the creation of at least 13 chairs in STEM fields, and $3 million for graduate student support. 

Frenk noted that the Frosts’ gift will also facilitate collaboration between the University and the Frost Museum of Science, which opened last year in downtown Miami. “Our researchers can share their work with more than 1 million museum visitors each year, and invite them to participate in their studies,” he said. “It will deepen our partnership in other ways, including developing joint exhibits and activities, and communicating the importance of STEM education throughout South Florida and beyond.”

Richard Fain, chair of UM’s Board of Trustees, praised the Frosts for their landmark gift. “The Frosts could support whatever causes they want,” he said. “We are lucky to have them.”

In return, Phillip Frost spoke briefly about his support for the University, including serving as a trustee for 35 years.  “We are all visionaries,” he said. “It’s up to us to either give what we can or convince other people to get involved in good causes. That is my message for today.”

To read coverage of the Frost groundbreaking from University of Miami News, click here.

Written by Richard Westlund


May 18, 2018