By Katie Meyer
Steven Romanelli, FCRH ’16, is a chemistry major and biology minor who is currently studying, as he puts it, the “synthesis and application of nanoscale peptide-based amphiphiles.” In layman’s terms, he is working on creating new materials for use in bone and cartilage tissue regeneration, as well as drug delivery throughout the body. It is not an easy area of study, and it is made even harder by the fact that Romanelli often commutes for two hours just to get his research done.
That is because the equipment he has to use for that research, like atomic force microscopes, optical and fluorescence microscopes and circular dichroism, are expensive, and nowhere to be found in Fordham’s chemistry labs, on the upper floors of John Mulcahy Hall. That means he has to travel for a lot of his research, and has used the facilities at Queens College, City College of New York and Bronx Community College.
He usually commutes to one of those labs at least once a week, if not more, and Dr. Ipsita Banerjee, a professor of biochemistry and nanomaterials, often accompanies him. Her research focus is similar to Romanelli’s—designing, as she said, “nano-scale biomaterials that are potentially capable of regrowth [or] regeneration of tissue such as bone or cartilage… as well as targeted drug delivery to cells such as cancer cells.” Because of her expertise, she often serves as his mentor, and they, as well as a few other students in the same area, do a lot of research together.
Banerjee has been a professor at Fordham for 10 years, and in that time, she said. Fordham’s lab facilities have been a source of frustration.
“The research labs for the most part have not seen much upgrade or reconstruction (except a paint job here and there) over the years,” she said in an email. “For the most part basic infrastructure of the research labs in the [department] hasn’t changed.”
The “basic infrastructure” she spoke of includes aesthetic concerns, like dusty cement floors, peeling paint on walls and cabinets and stained ceiling tiles. Some professors, like Paul Smith, an assistant professor who specializes in molecular biophysics and protein biochemistry, have taken it upon themselves to fix these things. When Smith first became a Fordham professor in Fall 2013, he overhauled his entire lab.
It was a labor intensive process—Smith scrubbed wax off his floors and painted over them with garage floor coating, stripped the old veneer from his cabinets, then sanded and painted them and wire brushed the built up rust off his heaters.
But that was just the surface-level work.
Smith also took it upon himself to install new vents throughout his lab and office—he considered it a necessary measure.
“They’re old, and full of soot,” he explained. “[They] spew dust.”
But there were other things he couldn’t fix so easily.
“If I were in a place to pressure the administration, what we need here is better HVAC, better heating, ventilation and air conditioning. Because the temperature control in these rooms is terrible,” he said.
As is the tap water, apparently.
“It’s just filthy,” Smith said. “I can’t use it for my work because it’s purely biological—pure water is absolutely key. We have good water purifiers, we just need more of them so we don’t have to go to another floor to fill our tanks.”
Despite these issues, though, Romanelli and Banerjee remain most concerned about equipment. Romanelli said having more sophisticated machines readily available would really make a difference in the quality of the lab work that Fordham students produce.
“There are many eager science students who, given the opportunity and materials to perform research, would place Fordham on the map in the scientific community,” he said. As it is, he continued, “our lab [department] alone has won several awards and placed students at top-notch graduate and medical schools.”
Romanelli himself has been awarded for the work he has done while at Fordham. In 2014, he was named Senior Presenter at the Sigma Xi International Research Conference in the Cell Biology/Biochemistry category for that year, a prestigious honor. Banerjee thinks that students like Romanelli justify improving Fordham’s facilities.
“I have had some wonderful and extremely hard working students in my research lab over the years,” she said. “Needless to say, if we had better science facilities, more students would have access to more sophisticated instruments.”
Ideally, she’d like what most other institutions have—either a core research center or science building, where a lot of equipment can be housed within a certain area. This, she said, fosters “interdisciplinary research and discussion, and also is mutually beneficial to many faculty and students.”
Banerjee and Romanelli both concede that the equipment they need is expensive, particularly because, unlike state universities, Fordham does not have steady grants or funding for such things.
But despite this, Banerjee said that the quality of work her students are capable of justifies improving the science program on their behalf, at least to the level of most other colleges and universities.
Over the years, the chemistry labs have seen some improvements, like the recent addition of a new electron microscope that Banerjee and Romanelli said is extremely helpful.
Banerjee noted this gratefully, but still added, “I feel this is just the beginning.”
She’s hopeful that change comes soon—rumors that the facilities might be redone, she said, have circled the labs for a long time.
And the reconstruction of the biology labs last year, she noted, seemed like a promising step, one that was corroborated by a statement from Fordham’s Vice President of Facilities, Marc Valera.
“We’re going to be doing some science improvements in the labs, particularly the chemistry labs,” he said. “We’ve had such a great demand for STEM [science, technology, engineering and math education].”
As far as Smith is concerned, it’s just a matter of waiting for a break.
“Of course we want more, but I think the trajectory’s okay,” he said. “I’m at like a level three out of ten complaint mode. But three, five years and we’re still in the same situation, I’m going to be more insistent.”