The Magazine of the University of Minnesota Duluth

Volume 22 • Number 2 • Winter 2005


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Building a Dream
James I. Swenson Science Building
The Teaching Laboratories
Research Labs
Wild Rice Demonstration Project
Named Rooms



(L-R) Chancellor Kathryn A. Martin with Jim and Susan Swenson

The James I. Swenson Science Building would only be a dream without the help of the Swenson Family Foundation, and support of its director, James I. Swenson, a 1959 graduate of UMD.

The construction was made possible by the largest single gift ever given to UMD, $10 million.

The Swenson gift includes $2.5 million in continued commitment to science student scholarships and undergraduate chemistry research programs, and $7.5 million toward the building.

Jim Swenson is an energetic, creative man whose roots lie deep in the Northland. He was born in Superior, Wis., and is the eldest of five brothers.

Growing up, Jim worked several jobs, including a paper route that he held for nine years, right through high school.

After his mother's death in 1955, Jim and his father worked hard. Jim helped keep the family together by working for his dad at Eddy's Bakery and cleaning carpets for the father of his future wife, Sue.

He began college at UWS and transferred to UMD to enroll in the chemistry department, where he termed his learning experiences "outstanding."

Although things seemed to be looking up for Jim, he faced a dilemma when his cash-strapped aunt asked if he could help her by paying a year's rent up front. Jim did not want to drop out of school, but he didn't know what else he could do.

Swenson's mentor, Superior banker Bob Banks, gave him a personal loan of $900 that allowed Jim to continue on his education at UMD. "I've been blessed with more than I ever thought possible," Swenson said. "It's time to give some of that back."

Working in the UMD chemistry lab doing peat research, Swenson says he received much individual attention, outstanding career counseling and "a real feel for industry and research." Those are things he wishes to help pass on to future generations of students at UMD.

He graduated from UMD in 1959 with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, a degree that he says made his tremendous success possible. He and Susan Locken, his high school sweetheart, were married that same summer.

After returning from the military, he proceeded to work for eight different large corporations, including Honeywell and Univac. "I did not feel comfortable in the large corporate structure," he said.

With four employees and a $15,000 second mortgage on his house, Swenson began his own company - a small printed circuit shop. His goal was "to bring high technology printed circuits out of research and into industry."

They created the "inner layer details" for printed circuit boards. His company, Details, Inc., became the fastest quick-turn-around engineering prototype circuit board shop in the United States.

Circuit board designers wanted someone to turn their designs into working prototypes in a matter of days. Trouble was, it took most companies weeks to produce the five or six boards designers wanted.

Swenson's new company promised to produce prototype boards in a few days.

"The secret of his success was that he did something no one else was doing," said 1973 UMD alumnus Dan Shogren, Swenson's first sales representative. "He would deliver a product in a week when it took some companies six to eight weeks.

"He wasn't selling a product. He was selling time," Shogren said.

The company's client list included Compaq, IBM, Apple and Motorola. Sales reached $22 million a year in the late 1980s.

At the time of his retirement in 1997, when Details, Inc. was sold, it had 480 employees, and Jim Swenson knew them all personally.

Jim and Susan Swenson now live in California and visit their native Northland frequently. Jim Swenson wants the Swenson Family Foundation to help others because of the help extended to him in his early years as a college student at UMD.

More than 70 students are studying chemistry and biochemistry at UMD and UWS on scholarships from the foundation.

The four-year scholarships are awarded to promising students who don't have enough money to pay for college. Swenson also funds 10 summer research internships at UMD.

"This is so these kids can work on research instead of getting summer jobs flipping burgers at the Miller Hill Mall," Swenson said.

At UMD, the foundation has already given dozens of promising students an opportunity to achieve their dreams.

Jim Swenson had an active interest in the James I. Swenson Science Building from the beginning. As he traveled back and forth from his home in California and his home in Iron River, Wis., he stopped to check on the progress at UMD.

"The value and gratification to me is enormous," he said.



            UMD is a premier center for undergraduate education and scientific research. It is a national leader in undergraduate research. As science and technology advance in the world, the James I. Swenson Science building goes a long way in helping UMD maintain its leadership role as a provider of quality scientific programs.

            By offering an inviting, stimulating work environment with world-class research and instructional facilities, students, faculty, and researchers will be challenged to do their best. The sophisticated classroom/laboratories and research areas will promote interaction and new perspectives.

            The existing Chemistry Building was inadequate. Chemistry and biology faculty and students were unable to conduct modern experiments safely in the Chemistry and Life Science Buildings because they didn't have the proper equipment, ventilation, or safety protections. The laboratory tabletops were nicked and worn because they had been in the building since 1948.  

            As the multi-year project neared completion, a devastating event threatened to alter plans. In mid-November 2004, three juvenile vandals entered the James I. Swenson Science Building and caused $8 million in damages. They broke windows, discharged fire extinguishers, and left water faucets running. However, UMD's commitment to its students and excellence prevailed, and students began using the building in the summer of 2005, right on time.

            The James I. Swenson Science Building houses 16 research labs, 16 teaching labs that also function as classrooms, a computer lab, a student study room, and one "classroom only" space. More than 1,000 students per semester will use the building.

            The ground floor of the building is used for environmental biology, because of the easy access from the loading dock to bring in samples from the outdoor learning areas. The other two floors are for cellular and molecular biology and chemistry. The new labs are very well equipped with modern instrumentation. The inside corridors are lined with specialized rooms for jointly used equipment, tissue culture facilities, and temperature control.

            UMD is proud to have the James I. Swenson Science Building and looks forward to furthering its achievement as a leader in undergraduate research. Thank you to the many contributors who were involved in making this project a success.


              The Swenson teaching laboratory concept is innovative in that it combines classroom and laboratory settings within the same space. Chemistry Professor Robert Carlson said, "UMD may be the only university in the country with this configuration. There are no lab benches. Instead, students start the class together, conduct experiments and return to the group at the end of the class."

              In each of the 16 teaching labs, the professor can make a presentation in the classroom area, which is equipped with the technology to show PowerPoint presentations, scientific drawings, spreadsheets, and other media. After the instruction, the professor will release the students to the laboratory areas to practice what was just presented.

              Of course, chemistry students must be wearing safety glasses when they are in proximity to chemicals. Two students work as a team under each safety hood. The building is equipped with 140 hooded safety stations. After the experiments are completed, students return to the classroom area to recap the session and share their findings.

              "These labs function just like a real research lab," said Carlson. "The students work in teams, just as they would on academic or industrial research projects. They learn to communicate and defend their findings."


The Research Labs were designed using an open lab concept to encourage interaction between all researchers in related disciplines. A long lab configuration spans the length of the research wing, with three or four research bays defined within the span.

            The open lab structure also enables spaces to expand and contract according to the research schedule, ensuring that there is little under-utilized space. The open lab concept allows even temporarily vacant areas to be fully used by other faculty and students.

              This concept comes with its own protocol. All designated students and faculty have access to controlled areas by way of a special key card. The card ensures that only those with appropriate equipment and safety training are allowed entry.

              Each research area has an area suitable for undergraduate research. Undergraduates often are able to work on the same projects as faculty and graduate students.


            Learning isn't confined to the inside of the James I. Swenson Science Building. There's lots to see outside as well. The concept for the site plan, designed by Oslund and Associates, embraces the idea that seeing is critical to understanding.

Activities normally conducted behind closed doors are revealed. The glass-walled atrium adds a sense of transparency, allowing views of the exterior where interactive outdoor learning and contemplative spaces are found.

            A small fishpond, home to minnows and other small fish, is found on the southeast side of the building and provides easy access for student observation.             A unique feature is the wild rice stand, located at a water level conducive to its growth. Oslund said, "Wild rice was chosen for its symbolism and importance to the Native American population of northern Minnesota." John Pastor, professor, Department of Biology, is studying wild rice and its four-year boom and bust cycle.

            Pastor, with the help of Fond du Lac staff members Nancy Costa, Jeff Schulte, and Larry Schwarzkopf, wrote a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct his wild rice life-cycle project. The student researchers who work with Pastor, most of whom are tribal members, are chosen by the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, another player in the project.

            The research project focuses on the way wild rice propagates. The straw dies back in the fall and the plant grows from seed each spring. The straw releases nutrients, but not until summer, after the plant is mature. The research project will help to determine the role the nutrient pattern plays in its cycle.

            Pastor said that this wild rice pond will teach more than just science. It will also serve as a catalyst for learning about Native American history and culture.

In the 1850s when Minnesota Native Americans signed the first treaties with the U.S. government, Native Americans didn't understand that the wild rice lakes wouldn't be shared. They were forced to stay on reservations and as the wild rice went through its natural bust cycles, the Native Americans weren't able to travel to prolific wild rice lakes. Some of them actually starved. The new logging industry methods, with dams and logs floating to the sawmill, compounded the problem. Those dams caused flooding. The wild rice died as the water depth changed and logs ripped out the wild rice stands.

            The UMD wild rice stand, positioned against a backdrop of trees and outdoor spaces, forms a link to the campus landscape and to the overarching northern Minnesota native ecosystem. UMD teaches planting methods that call for a variety of tree and shrub species in order to encourage a more natural ecosystem.

            The James I. Swenson Science Building demonstration pond and the Bagley Nature Area are outdoor classrooms for UMD science students. "You can count on one hand the campuses in the U.S. that have nature areas adjoining the campuses," Pastor said. The wild rice pond will change during the four years students are at UMD. "In a way," Pastor said, "it will demonstrate a life lesson for students. Nature is dynamic, so are students. Wild rice goes through four years of changes, just like the students."

Named Rooms

Dr. Theron O. Odlaug Biology Teaching Laboratory

Dr. Theron E. Odlaug made a generous gift to UMD to honor the legacy of his uncle, Dr. Theron O. Odlaug, who began his career at the former Duluth State Teachers College in 1945 as a professor of zoology. Professor Theron O. Oldaug spent 20 years as the head of UMD's Department of Biology.

James C. "Charlie" Nichol Computer Laboratory

Gifts were made by former students and other Chemistry faculty to honor Emeritus Chemistry Professor Charlie Nichol, who taught at UMD from 1957-1992. He has continued to teach periodically at UMD in his retirement, as recently as Fall 2004.

Charles W. and Joan S. Taylor Organic Chemistry Laboratory

Dr. Chuck Taylor is a 1952 graduate of UMD and was one of the first students in the existing Chemistry Building.

Kenneth E. Solie and Jeanette Darland Solie Student Study Room

Kenneth Solie and Jeanette Darland Solie are 1959 graduates of UMD and classmates of Jim Swenson. Jeanette is the daughter of Ray Darland, former UMD provost.

Barbara Nygard Wilson Biology Seminar Room

Barbara Nygard Wilson was a biology graduate of UMD, who left an estate gift to UMD when she passed away two years ago. Barbara's mother, Helen Nygard, made a gift in memory of her daughter to name the seminar room.

Jerome and Harriet Klun Conference Room

Jerome Klun is a 1952 biology graduate of UMD who works at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Springs, MD. In the fall of 2002, Jerome Klun was inducted into the UMD Academy of Science and Engineering.

Mani and Sikander M. Karim Classroom

This gift was made by the Karim family to honor the memory of Mani and Sikander M. Karim.




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