A New Home For Health Sciences

Renovated facility consolidates and energizes the college’s five schools

By Jim Raper

Andrew Balas says there seems to be only one thing missing from th rehabilitated jewel of a building that has been the home since April 2006 of the College of Health Sciences. “It happens on the tours I give,” the college’s dean explains with a smile. “People look around and they say, ‘You have a beautiful atrium, but where is your ventricle?’” Perhaps the mission of the building makes the atrium quip inevitable. Situated in the middle of the brick structure’s three stories and 82,000 square feet of floor space is a nurse and technician training facility known as Monarch General Hospital, or simply MGH, complete with model hospital rooms, operating room, intensive care unit, computerized patient-simulation mannequins and test labs.

Close by to MGH are state-of-the-art clinics and labs for the college’s programs in dental hygiene, medical laboratory and radiation sciences, community and environmental health and physical therapy. Classrooms are large and mediated, some with $30,000 worth of electronic teaching aids.

Offices for faculty and administrators are nicely appointed and roomier than the cubbyholes that the college sometimes provided in the past.

A two-story glass tower that was added during the building’s two-year, $9 million rehabilitation contains the “treehouses,” as they have come to be called. These are student lounges and study rooms on the north side of the building. Students in the treehouses actually feel as if they are perched in the branches of the two majestic willow oaks that rise between the tower and 47th Street. The pastoral view also encompasses a pond with a fountain in the center.

Ventricles aside, Balas finds nothing lacking in the college’s new digs. He proclaims, with a sweep of his arm, “This building energizes people.”

New facilities always are a big plus for a college, but seldom have bricks and mortar – and several million dollars worth of new instruments and equipment – meant so much to a division of Old Dominion University. Health Sciences, until early last year, was a house divided. Its seat of operations was historic Spong Hall, which is on the far northern spur of campus. Various schools within the college had offices and instructional spaces that were as many as six city blocks removed from Spong. The School of Nursing used rooms in Hughes Hall and the School of Dental Hygiene had offices in the Batten Arts and Letters Building. Most nursing and dental hygiene instruction was offered on the other side of Hampton Boulevard in what was formerly known as the Technology Building.

It was the Technology Building, an institutional fortress of brick and right angles, built at a cost of $400,000 in 1960 and expanded to include the University Theatre in 1968, that provided the shell for the College of Health Sciences Building. New construction accounted for only about 20 percent of the final floor plan, but Balas says the rehab design and construction was so well done that the entire building feels new. Handsome and larger windows all around made the building look more modern. New entrances on Hampton Boulevard for the theater, located on the building’s ground floor, and on 46th Street for the college also spruced up the exterior.

The college’s students – total enrollment is more than 1,500 in undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs – can now commune together, and the treehouses and other lounge areas invite it. “Learning is not something that happens only in classrooms,” Balas says. “We wanted students to be able to congregate.”

Because the college was so chopped up over the past few decades, very little informal interdisciplinary brainstorming could happen for students or instructors. Faculty members from disparate schools literally had to go out of their way to collaborate on research. But the new building has changed that. “I’m working with nursing colleagues on a project now, and before we really didn’t communicate,” says Scott Sechrist ’75, associate professor and program director in nuclear medicine technology. “We have a more collegial atmosphere. It’s easier to collaborate with colleagues when they’re only a few steps away.” All of the college’s schools, in fact, have some faculty who are involved in research – from nursing, where a Department of Health and Human Services-funded study, “Educating Culturally Competent Baccalaureate Nurses,” is headed by Richardean Benjamin, to dental hygiene, where Lynne Tolle is the principal investigator for a grant awarded by the American Dental Hygiene Association.

A new research emphasis at the college is demonstrated by fundamental anti-cancer studies of three faculty members in medical laboratory and radiation sciences: Patricia Hentosh, Sophie Thompson and Dennis Peffley. Their recent project, “Modeling and Testing Complex Interactions of Chromatin-associated Proteins in Cancer Cells,” won an interdisciplinary seed grant of $78,000 from the ODU Office of Research in 2006. Collaborators on the project are from ODU’s chemistry and biochemistry department and from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Sechrist, who is also a recipient of past Faculty Innovator Grants from the university, says he can appreciate the College of Health Science’s new home even more than most occupants because as a physical sciences student at ODU in the early 1970s he had classes in the old Technology Building. At the time, this was one of the few ODU structures on the east side of Hampton Boulevard. “It almost seemed like you were off campus. All of the bars and restaurants and yes, ‘head’ shops, were on this side of the boulevard. I remember dusty, crowded classrooms.”

With so few classes held on the east side of the boulevard in the 1970s, students of that era in the Technology Building’s Dental Hygiene Clinic had to scramble to find volunteers to practice on, Sechrist recalls. “They would recruit potential patients within the science labs. I had some pretty clean teeth during my years here as a student.”

Phyllis Barham ’71 (M.S. ’80), chief academic adviser in the School of Nursing, attended nursing classes in the old Technology Building as an undergraduate and master’s student, and she remembers “mostly scavenged” equipment, such as hospital beds. “But despite the lack of stuff, students were still able to learn and perform well,” she says.

Later, after Barham had joined the faculty and better equipment had been obtained, tight quarters presented a major problem. “Having seven beds crammed into a classroom space meant that students tripped over each other while practicing skills,” she says.

“Now, our newly renovated labs in the Health Sciences Building are wonderful, roomy and outfitted with up-to-date medical equipment and supplies,” Barham adds. “Students now have the advantage of practicing on models, or each other, with the same types of supplies and equipment they will manipulate in hospitals. We have moved into the 21st century of nursing education.”

Dr. David Young, a retired orthopedic surgeon who serves on the college’s advisory board, says he is most impressed with the high-tech simulation equipment in the new facility, which includes computer-driven human dummies that cost upwards of $100,000. “Colleges, such as this one, not attached to a working hospital have been at a distinct disadvantage,” he explains. “But this new equipment can simulate conditions and complications that are seen every day in a hospital.”

The Norfolk Foundation contribution of $350,000 was the lead corporate gift for the college’s transformation. Private donations for scholarship and programmatic support have also come from alumni, such as Linda Fox Rohrer ’72 (along with her husband Richard and mother Mary G. Fox), a dental hygiene graduate who is the president and CEO of DPS Inc. in Newport News, and retired faculty such as Helen Yura-Petro of Norfolk, a former chair of nursing, and her husband, Joe.

Young, who lives in Hampton Roads and is affiliated with Physicians for Peace, met Dean Balas in 2005 when the organization partnered with the college for a mission of mercy to the Dominican Republic. The surgeon was recruited during the trip to serve on the college’s advisory board. Service to humanity, as he sees it, can mean providing first-class medical attention to people in underdeveloped countries, and it can mean helping to provide your home community with the nurses, nurse anesthetists, physical therapists, dental hygienists and medical technologists that it needs. The new facility makes the latter mission more doable than ever before, he says.

Faculty and administrators of the college began meeting as early as 2002 to make floor-plan recommendations and other decisions about the new building. (Moseley Architects of Virginia Beach did the formal renovation plan.) Young says the success of the plan “shows that the faculty and staff had a great deal of input on how the building would work.”

Balas says he enjoys hosting visitors in the new building, such as Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, 1996 Nobel Laureate in Medicine Peter Doherty and various health care partners in the community. He tells them that the building is good for morale, that it is more than the sum of its parts. “It lets us know that the university’s administrators and trustees believe in the future of our college,” he says, “and we want to live up to their faith.”

Health Sciences Points of Pride
• Nationally accredited and competitive programs with an average student GPA of 3.2
• More than 500 graduates per year, most of whom are employed within three months
• Above average “first time” pass rates on national certifying and licensure exams
• Increase in research funding by 600 percent over the last three years
• Nursing program is the largest offered via TELETECHNET, ODU’s distance learning network
• Environmental health is the only nationally accredited undergraduate program in Virginia offering a B.S. degree
• M.S. in dental hygiene considered the premier graduate program among the nation’s 10 programs
• Physical therapy program ranked 34th in the country
• B.S. in health sciences degree one of the first baccalaureate programs in the U.S. (1986)
• Dental Hygiene Research Center is the world’s first and only clinical facility dedicated exclusively to dental hygiene research
• 100 percent job placement in nuclear medicine technology or related field over the past 12 years
• For the past eight years, School of Nursing has had the highest or second highest first-time pass rate in Virginia for baccalaureate-prepared students