SALT LAKE CITY — Yizhe Chen came all the way from China to attend the University of Utah's College of Pharmacy. She said her decision hinged on the widely recognized quality reputation of the school's polymer drugs program.
But now that the U. has opened the doors to a brand new, 150,000-square-foot research and education facility, the 26-year-old graduate student is wishing she could start over again.
"It's definitely an upgrade," she said of the new L.S. Skaggs Pharmacy Institute, which was dedicated Friday. "It is more integrated, there is open lab space and lots of separate rooms for discussing things with students and faculty. There are white boards everywhere. It's a much better environment."
Every aspect of the building's design — including its many alcoves and recesses, and numerous open labs — was intended to foster collaboration and interaction, said Dr. Darrell Davis, professor of medicinal chemistry at the college.
Davis said the science of pharmacy relies on it.
Chen has spent the past three years tucked into a temporary and isolated lab at the nearby Research Park. Discussing progress on her research with faculty, she said, often required a 15-minute shuttle ride across campus.
The new facility brings together pharmacy faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, who were spread across four locations on campus as they outgrew the old building, a 17,000-square-foot facility that was completed in 1966 and was named for Skaggs' father.
"We're now home," said Weston Tolman, IT projects director at the U. College of Pharmacy.
Tolman said he is proud of the new space and the fact that it contains features reminiscent of the Earth.
The walls of the building's atrium are lined with a delicately cut wood pattern, which Tolman said is often mistaken for a giraffe motif but is actually a depiction of the cells of a sponge. New medications, he said, are discovered from properties of plants, researched, tried in animals and humans, and then distributed for a greater benefit.
"The school does more than crank out pharmacists," Tolman said. "It begins with that initial discovery, often made by our students in these halls, and ultimately ends with the distribution of new drugs."
That process of delivering better health to mankind was the vision of the facility's namesake, who was said to be a lifelong supporter of the U.'s College of Pharmacy. Pharmacy colleges at six major institutions in the United States bear the Skaggs name.
Skaggs, called "a remarkable and generous man," and his family's ALSAM Foundation donated more than $50 million to help construct the more than $75 million institute. He was able to tour the facility six days before he died March 21.
Salt Lake-based EDA Architects and NBBJ Architects, of San Francisco and Seattle, founded the design of the building, and local Jacobsen Construction worked on the project after its 2009 groundbreaking.
Skaggs is said to have followed the design and construction through its process, making sure it met the purpose of bringing new medicines to life.
"If you look around, Sam is with us in this building," said Chris Ireland, dean of the school of pharmacy. "Sam is reflected in the faces of the College of Pharmacy students."
Ireland said students have a responsibility to extend Skaggs' legacy of making new discoveries and using what they have and know to better other people's lives.
"We will never know all the lives that will be impacted," U. President David Pershing said at the Friday dedication ceremony.
The original pharmacy school at the university housed four faculty members within the women's gymnasium and has grown to include the state-of-the-art facility, which will likely attract even more students to the already competitive program, Pershing said.
The college graduates an average of 60 pharmacists from its four-year program each year, and until a couple years ago, it was the only pharmacy school in the state. More than 60 percent of pharmacists in Utah attended the U., including Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City.
Vickers owns a community pharmacy that houses an old-fashioned soda fountain and large collection of teddy bears for sale. He joined the state Legislature to ensure pharmacists had a voice in local regulation of the industry.
Vickers said he was always taught to leave something better than it was found.
"It's our turn now. It's our turn to make sure this profession moves forward," he said.
While pharmacy remains a competitive industry, the demand for pharmacists in Utah has waned, Davis said.
Not all of the U.'s graduates can stay in Utah for work, but he said they can still fetch up to a $90,000 starting salary.
"They just have to work harder for the available jobs," Davis said, adding that "it is still a good job and one of the most trusted professions by community members."
"I like to think of pharmacy as a link," said Vivian Lee, U. vice president of health sciences. "Pharmacy is a link between the health sciences and general sciences, a link between diagnosis and treatment, and a link between sickness and health."
Chen is one of many students and faculty members researching anti-cancer medications at the U. Their progress and hope for a cure is what she came to Utah for, and while she loves the mountain views but may not always stay, Chen hopes her work can help people to fight disease someday.
The U.'s department of pharmaceutics, she said, "does some fancy stuff." Researchers have worked on drugs to combat neurodegenerative diseases, virus-killing agents and more, each intended to make a difference in people's lives.
"That's what this is all about," she said. "The longer I stay here, the more I like it here."