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New Physics Building to support advanced research and teaching

Dream come true for 40-year veteran of physics department
27 July 2020

Penn Staters are accustomed to seeing construction cranes on the horizon, be they renovating old buildings or raising new structures. It’s a sign of progress, and it’s also a sign of the University’s dedication to ensure that topflight researchers have state-of-the-art facilities to make groundbreaking discoveries.

While the Millennium Science Complex is a prime example of such modern facilities, other science buildings on campus are not so new. In fact, a new physics facility has been the dream of Moses Chan, Professor Emeritus and Evan Pugh University Professor of Physics, for as long as he can remember.

“Every time our department head wanted to prove to a new dean or provost that we needed a new physics building, they would bring them to my lab in the subbasement of Osmond Laboratory,” said Chan. “While the lab space was renovated, we have no daylight and no replenishment of fresh air, and since we are in the subbasement with a drainage system built in 1938, we have had quite a few floods in the lab over the years.”

Osmond Laboratory circa 1930
Osmond Laboratory in its prime.


Nitin Samarth, George A. and Margaret M. Downsbrough Department Head of Physics, recalls the dire circumstance Chan has faced in his subterranean workspace. “It is very prone to flooding,” said Samarth. “On days when it would rain heavily, I would go down to check on it only to find Moses and his grad students dutifully mopping the floors, but what I recall most was Moses’s calm, uncomplaining nature. He would always advocate for better facilities, but he never complained. In fact, he was always able to conduct excellent science and innovate even in substandard conditions.”

The dream of a new physics facility is becoming a reality, as last year Penn State announced that it will begin construction of a new Physics Building in 2021.

“This is a dream come true. It really is,” said Chan. “For 30 years or more, I heard about a new physics building on the horizon, but now it looks like it’s really going to happen.”

The new building will be located on what is currently the Osmond parking lot, at approximately 105,000 gross square feet, and will house a significant number of research laboratories, faculty and graduate student offices, administrative support areas, and a 350-seat lecture hall.

The new building is more than just more space devoted to physics. It is a qualitatively different space, designed to provide the right conditions to conduct 21st-century physics. It will be temperature controlled within plus or minus one-half a degree centigrade, humidity controlled, and free from vibrations. It will also have 15-foot ceilings, high enough to accommodate the types of instruments required to do modern physics—specifically quantum information science, which utilizes advanced computing technology that, for example, allows scientists to sense magnetic fields with exquisite precision.

Beyond improved laboratory space, a new large classroom will support the active learning techniques that Penn State physics faculty currently utilize. There will also be collaborative spaces where faculty, students, and postdocs can meet to develop new ideas.

In the most recent rankings by the National Research Council, the physics department ranks 13th nationally for its doctoral program. The department also has internationally recognized researchers. A new building will only improve upon this status.

“It’s difficult to recruit competitively these days without these types of facilities,” said Samarth. “But this building will let us do precisely that—attract new faculty to the University.”

Following construction of the new building, the project will proceed to renovate the east wing of the existing Osmond Lab, perpendicular to Pollock Road, and to demolish the existing rear lecture hall wing of Osmond. The renovation of the east wing will encompass approximately 47,000 gross square feet that will be converted into new teaching labs, support space, and seminar rooms, as well as provide a renovated building core. The project also will include a new subsurface stormwater detention facility, something Chan greatly appreciates.

As Chan looks toward retirement, he will keep his low-temperature physics laboratory going in the subbasement of Osmond Lab. Although he personally will not have space in the new building, he eagerly awaits the more modern laboratories and teaching space for the next generations of students and researchers in the physics department.

Chan is not only enthusiastic about the plans for the new Physics Building, he is also one of its first benefactors. He has donated to Penn State in support of the building so that generations of undergraduates and graduate students will have a comfortable and welcoming environment to explore the wonders of the physical world under the mentorship of current and future colleagues.

“I’m not rich, but I have more than I need,” said Chan, “so I am more than happy to do my part. I am making this modest contribution to pay tribute to the support and friendship of the numerous wise and generous colleagues past and present I have enjoyed in the past forty-plus years. I also want to acknowledge the friendship and fun I shared with my fifty-plus brilliant and dedicated former undergraduate advisees, graduate students, and postdocs. I am grateful they did not complain too much about the subpar condition of their lab. I hope that my contribution will trigger others who have connections to Penn State physics to consider contributing as well.