Duke readies its new medical school building

Feb. 07, 2013 @ 09:37 AM

Alice Wang, a fifth year super senior at Duke University’s School of Medicine, was studying in the student lounge, her feet up on a coffee table, her laptop open on her lap and her headphones on.

Off to her left, a couple of med students were making something to eat in the lounge’s gleaming kitchen. Two students walked casually by the pool table and the adjacent foosball table. Sunlight streamed through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

“This is so much better than what we had, you can’t imagine,” Wang said. “When I first came here, the student lounge was in a tiny area with no windows and no light. It was musty and dirty and made studying really depressing. This is completely different.”

With Friday evening’s official dedication of the Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans Center for Health Education, much will be different for Duke’s medical students.

The six-story, 104,000-square-foot building with state-of-the-art technology and expansive space is the first new home for medical education at Duke since 1930.

“We have not had new, dedicated space for our students for more than 80 years,” said Nancy Andrews, the dean of the medical school. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this and this is absolutely wonderful — for the students, for the faculty, for the entire Duke community.”

The $53 million facility is a major part of Duke’s massive medical campus building project that includes the adjacent new cancer center and the soon-to-be completed hospital medical pavilion.

The new building helps transform the area, said Victor Dzau, the chancellor for health affairs.

“The location of this building — near our new hospital pavilion, our cancer center and our clinical operations and research facilities, puts medical education where it belongs — at the heart of everything we do,” Dzau said.

In addition to transforming the campus, Andrews said, the new building will transform medical education at Duke.

“With this, we have the capacity to be much more flexible,” she said. “In the building, the chairs and tables move, walls go up and down, we have a whole floor dedicated to many types of simulation. We have and can adapt to changes in pedagogical techniques, and give the students flexibility in how they learn, as an individual or in small or large groups.”

The great learning hall on the main floor can accommodate 400 students at one time — and if that’s not big enough, the hall’s outer walls can be moved into the corridor for additional space. If smaller spaces are needed, partitions can be moved into place and there can be three smaller meeting and teaching spaces. Many other spaces are similarly adaptable.

“This will allow us to do things we’ve never been able to do before,” said Colleen Grochowski, the associate dean for curricular affairs. “We can have large-group learning or small-group learning. Nothing is bolted to the ground. Everything — all the chairs and desks — are on wheels, and can be adapted to whatever need there is.”

The building was named last May after Semans, the granddaughter of one of the founders of the university and a long-time philanthropist who died last year. It has 70-inch touch screens in classrooms, walls you can write on, remote monitors where faculty can observe students, a dozen simulation rooms, including an operating room and an ICU, clinical exam rooms, multiple student gathering places, showers for students who may arrive by bike and a hip café on the main floor.

The building even has expansion space, on the sixth floor.

And “we actually have a front door, and a real address,” said Grochowski. “We had been so spread out, all over Duke South, we didn’t actually have a real address before. Now we do.”

And now students can learn together, in the same space, said Tanmay Gokhale, a fourth-year medical student and Ph.D candidate.

“When we were all spread out, you’d see someone in a class, and then never see them again,” said Gokhale, who participated in the building’s planning process. “You wouldn’t see people from other classes. Now you’re constantly seeing everyone. This brings us together where we can learn not just from the faculty but from each other, too.”

The building also has “amazing resources,” he said. “It is unlike anything else you’ve seen. It really incorporates the way physicians will be trained in the future. This is far beyond what we had hoped for.”