Courtesy of the City of Ithaca

To house the growing biomedical engineering major, Cornell is expanding Thurston Hall, with renovations to be completed in 2024.

September 20, 2022

Thurston Hall to Expand, House Biomedical Engineering

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Although the COVID-19 pandemic drew special attention to the importance of biomedical engineering, universities like Cornell have been investing in the subject for decades. That investment will substantially increase with the creation of new biomedical engineering facilities in Thurston Hall on Cornell’s Ithaca campus.  

Cornell University is ranked as the ninth best engineering school in the country and has a 45-year long history of biomedical engineering research. Despite this history, the Department of Biomedical Engineering was only formally established in 2004, and in 2015 the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering was created, making Biomedical Engineering a relatively new major in the College of Engineering.

Now nearly two decades old, the Biomedical Engineering Department still does not have its own building on campus. This is set to change in 2024 with the $40 million expansion and renovation of Thurston Hall which, 20 years after the establishment of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, will become the new home of the Meinig School and other departments such as Material Sciences and Engineering.

Professor Chris Schaffer, Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering, said that a key reason for the expansion was the department’s current lack of teaching space.

“When we first started out, we were shoving lab-based educational activities into small spaces in the basement of Weill Hall, which is where much of our research infrastructure is located,” Schaffer said. “But as the major has grown, we have completely outgrown these spaces, and now a lot of our lab-based teaching is scattered all over the place.”

The major’s growth has been continuous: The Class of 2024 is the largest class in the department’s history.

“The research spaces in Weill Hall worked fine for teaching lab activity when the major was 20 or 30 people, but now my [biomedical circuits signals and systems] class has 60 people alone,” Schaffer said. “With this kind of dramatic growth, having space that is purpose-built and architecturally designed for the purpose of lab-based teaching will make it easier for us to teach and it will make it a better environment for students to learn in.”

BME students appear to concur that the current shared teaching and research space was insufficient.

“There are only so many labs that can be used in Weill Hall for teaching undergrads as well as the research itself,” said Parker Dean ’22 M.S. ’23. “Weill Hall itself is a building shared with other departments, and the new undergraduate BME program seems to have put everything under stress.”

Prof. Marjolein van der Meulen, the James M. and Marsha McCormick Director of Biomedical Engineering and Swanson Professor of Biomedical Engineering, has used her administrative position to promote the department’s need for new teaching space, which would allow the laboratories in the basement of Weill Hall to be used exclusively for research.

“Lab space is the most expensive space to build,” van der Meulen said. “You do not need as expensive facilities to renovate for teaching, and Weill already has the necessary and expensive elements of lab space. So, if we move teaching operations out of Weill, that space now becomes available for our research.”

Programs outside biomedical engineering have also received space in the new building. Prof. Newton de Faria, Director of the Masters of Engineering Program, has been heavily involved with expanding the Masters of Engineering space in the building, which will be located on the first floor. The space will be a combination of a studio, design laboratory and fabrication spaces. 

“The objective [of this space] was to emulate the industry,” de Faria said. “This provides students with the opportunity to have the equivalent spaces of the industry while they pursue their education.”

The addition and renovation of Thurston Hall will provide faculty and students with a home on the engineering quad. According to Schaffer, the lack of space on that quad for biomedical engineering undergraduates has isolated them from their College of Engineering peers. 

“Good engineering is done when engineers with different areas of expertise work together and collaborate to solve a problem,” Schaffer said. “I think this will become far more natural when our students spend much more of their time in the engineering quad instead of running all over the place.”

For van der Meulen, a place on the engineering quad is also a matter of identity, helping biomedical engineering students feel part of engineering society and culture.

“Within engineering, identity is important. This addition adds a new community space to Thurston where engineering students can congregate and socialize, and… will give them a home that is close to their project teams in Upson, the Duffield Atrium, Mattin’s café and more,” van der Meulen said. “The new expansion will put a new face on the quad.”