USFSM: Building for the Future
by Sue Cullen
As local business leadership works to diversify and expand the region’s economic base, the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee (USFSM) is embarking on an ambitious program of construction and expansion to satisfy the need for well-qualified local talent in STEM fields. The need to prepare a workforce to support emerging economies is fueling USFSM’s plans to build the Sarasota-Manatee Science & Research Building where students and world-class faculty can collaborate using the latest technology to create solutions to issues locally and globally.
The new building is the cornerstone of this endeavor to expand education and research in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). “It’s merely a function of space. We have more students than we have classrooms, and the numbers of freshman and sophomore students continue to increase,” said Byron Shinn, Managing Partner of Shinn and Company, CPAs, USF System Trustee and chair of the USFSM campus board. “Employers are begging for talent in these areas. If businesses are to grow, they need these people, and we need to deliver them. If they can’t find what they need here, we risk losing those businesses.”
Bringing a new facility to USFSM’s campus on North Tamiami Trail will take about five years, and the planning is in preliminary stages. The Sarasota-Manatee Science & Research Building’s exterior design is a slightly more modern take on the current building’s Mediterranean revival style. Layouts of interior spaces are currently being designed. The estimated budget for the 45,000 square foot, multi-story building is $36 million, which includes construction along with the cost to equip and furnish it.
Local Economic Development Corporations and both major Chambers of Commerce have said the region needs more engineering, science and technology graduates. Community leaders such as Dr. Kumar Mahadevan, President Emeritus & Senior Scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory, also have spoken about the need. “In my 42 years living and working in this community, I have witnessed remarkable economic growth but somewhat limited in STEM fields due to the lack of locally trained professionals,” Mahadevan says. Community support is important because state officials see local financial support as a critical component.
Students also have proven eager to pursue education in the sciences as demonstrated by the immediate success of the biology program, which began in 2014. Because USFSM’s current building contains primarily classroom space, a partnership with Mote Marine Laboratory was formed to provide lab space for students and the opportunity to work alongside Mote scientists. Growth in the program was so rapid that two modular units were installed on USFSM’s main campus to house additional faculty research labs.
“I knew I wanted to pursue a career in medicine, and as a Sarasota native, to be able to stay in the community and attend a great biology program like they have at USFSM excited me,” said Brad Boserup, who graduated in December summa cum laude and plans to enter medical school. “It was a phenomenal experience and coming into the program, I couldn’t have imagined how instrumental the university and faculty would be in helping me meet my goals.”
While pursuing his studies, Boserup, who was named Most Outstanding Biology Major, was able to gain experience by working in the lab as a teaching assistant in general chemistry and organic chemistry. Following graduation, he is continuing to work on a research project at USF Tampa’s Morsani College of Medicine on an ultrastructural study of the stinging cells in the Portuguese Man of War jellyfish that may provide benefits to those suffering hearing loss. In the process, he also is earning a certificate in electron microscopy.
“It is a great experiential opportunity to hone my research skills. In general I feel my education at USF prepared me extremely well to take the MCAT exams for medical school and for my first year of classes,” he said. “A lot of high school students think they have to go away to school to get the true college experience, but at larger universities you literally are just one person of 300 in a classroom. The opportunities available at USFSM exceed many larger universities because of the low student-to-faculty ratio of 13 to 1 and the personal attention you get from the faculty. If you want to go on to graduate school or into research and need a letter of reference, the faculty can give you one because they know you.”
With critical physician shortages and difficulty finding quality candidates in other medical professions, having the ability to educate healthcare professionals locally, and retain them following graduation, is critical to meeting the needs of a growing and aging population. Dr. Anila Jain is a physician and medical consultant who is a USF alumna and currently serves on the USFSM campus board. Jain also has been involved with the campus in a variety of ways for more than 30 years and has served USF system-wide as former President of the USF National Alumni Association and Chair of the USF Women in Leadership and Philanthropy program.
One of her most rewarding endeavors is mentoring students who are interested in entering medical, dental or pharmacy schools. “Having strong math, science and technology curricula is an area of utmost importance if we want to keep up with the world in terms of technology and innovation,” she said. “We have to be sure our students are at par or above par, and we are at capacity with our small class size. If we had the building and infrastructure, we could take twice as many students. To support this endeavor is to see students with a bright future included in STEM fields and the chance to keep the best and brightest here in Sarasota-Manatee.”
Having a robust research program is a critical component to building a STEM program, and USF is a top 50 research university, according to the National Science Foundation. “USF is going to push research throughout the whole system, but at Sarasota-Manatee, we are going to take it to a whole new level. We are going into cybersecurity in a big way, and artificial intelligence is upon us. We’re building bridges with the local healthcare system and have seen how the biomed field here is growing. Our area has one of the fastest growth rates in Florida,” Shinn said. “Everything is moving so rapidly, and we have to stay current. To do that, we have to attract top notch faculty to teach, and to do that, we have to provide them a collaborative environment for high end research and partnerships with business because they want to do research that has real meaning.”
USFSM has a track record of delivering what the local business community needs, he said, citing the university’s successful new risk management program, which grew out of a need within the local insurance industry. Construction of the Sarasota-Manatee Science & Research Building is the next step toward providing the talent needed to support local economic growth. Shinn said the fact that USF graduates have one of the highest salaries in the state system is testament to the university’s dedication to listening to, and acting on, what the community needs.
“We talk about diversifying and building a more vibrant economy and being at the forefront of emerging economies like cybersecurity and artificial intelligence,” Shinn said. “If we really want to do that and prevent brain drain from our area, we must have affordable access to quality education, and building a strong STEM program here is the way to accomplish all of that.”
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