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Biology students pen letter to officials outlining years of facilities issues in Bell Hall

Hatchet File Photo
The University Yard entrance to Bell Hall.

Students and faculty working in Bell Hall say recurring facilities problems have hindered their research and created an unsafe environment in the building for at least four years.

More than a dozen graduate students in the biology department penned a letter last week to all six deans of the Columbian College of Arts & Sciences expressing concerns over fluctuating temperatures, black mold, asbestos, ceiling leaks, vermin and malfunctioning windows in the building. Students wrote the letter after years of frustration with the building’s quality, which reached a tipping point last month when a second person broke their finger while opening a window to remedy the unreliable air conditioning.

The letter requests the University and CCAS take “safety seriously” and asked for a meeting with CCAS leadership. Officials scheduled a meeting for Dec. 13 between four graduate students and a group of University leaders including CCAS Dean Paul Wahlbeck and Senior Associate Vice President of Facilities, Planning, Construction and Management Baxter Goodly, per one graduate student.

The letter states that a facilities worker crushed her finger while opening a malfunctioning window to air out and cool down the fourth-floor men’s bathroom on Nov. 9, just eight months after Pooja Anilkumar, a first-year doctoral student, broke her finger trying to close a window propped up using a wooden tool in her fourth-floor lab.

Anilkumar said she was concerned she would not be able to afford medical treatment because she is new to the United States. After taking painkillers for three days, she went to the hospital because she could not bear the pain and could not hold large jars or cook because of the splint for her finger, she said. The University agreed to pay her $2,500 for her treatment after email exchanges with officials, she said.

“On the very next morning, it was extremely painful and I was not able to sleep,” Anilkumar said.

She said her injury stemmed from a greater issue with inconsistent air conditioning in the building. Facilities workers responding to FixIt tickets will temporarily fix the building’s temperature, making it either warmer or cooler, which will be stable for one to two days before changing again, she said.

“They really cannot do anything because this building is so old and it’s such an old system,” Anilkumar said.

The letter lists 40 FixIt tickets submitted by students and faculty dating back to 2019 for inconsistent air conditioning, 14 tickets for water leaks, seven tickets for both power outages and plumbing, six tickets for mold and one ticket each for windows, moths, wasps and mice.

Hatchet reporters visited Bell Hall the day after graduate students sent the letter to officials and observed animal droppings in a fourth-floor room as well as what appeared to be mold on the first floor.

University spokesperson Julia Metjian said the FixIt tickets listed in the letter date back to 2019 but were “largely isolated” and have since been resolved. She said Bell Hall is not slated “to be taken offline” in the near future after The Hatchet asked if officials plan to shut down the building for long-term repairs.

“GW Facilities appreciates the effort that went into the letter detailing issues in Bell Hall and takes these issues seriously,” Metjian said in an email.

But students and faculty working in Bell Hall, which was constructed in 1935, said in the letter the building’s conditions have created a dangerous environment to conduct research and teach classes.

The letter includes photos of temperatures in the hall fluctuating between 59 and 89 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pietro Tardelli Canedo, a third-year doctoral student who coordinated the letter, said he and other students felt they had to write after the second air conditioning-related injury in the building.

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Tardelli Canedo said.

He said his laboratory frequently gets too hot for the reagent he uses for his doctoral research to extract DNA to work properly because the reagents only function between 15 and 25 degrees Celsius.

“When is my temperature going to be cool enough that I can do my experiments?” Tardelli Canedo said. “I think that’s the root of the issue.”

He said the National Science Foundation extended his doctoral research grant because of the pandemic, but he has been unable to start the lab work because of the building’s “unstable” temperature.

“I lost an entire semester just waiting for them to fix the AC situation,” Tardelli Canedo said.

Jennie Brennan, a fifth-year doctoral student, said she has observed water leaks in the basement since she arrived at GW. She said she vacated her former office in Bell Hall’s basement in 2021 after repeated leaks damaged her surge protector, computer mouse and lamp, which she had to replace.

“I stopped using this space because water just pours out of the ceiling and seeps out of the concrete onto my desk,” Brennan said. “But it’s brown water.”

She said she has not observed a pattern to the leaks but that facilities workers tried between 2020 and 2023 to identify the source of the leak by flushing toilets and checking for a correlation with rain, pipes or air conditioning. She said when she returned to campus in 2020 after the pandemic, she saw that one of her lab mates had placed a rain fly from a tent over her cubicle to protect it from leaking water.

“I came back and there was a tent over my desk and wet carpet,” Brennan said.

GW secured a permit in May 2016 to renovate the first and second floors of the building, including demolition, mechanical and electrical work and new partitions, according to D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs permit records. DCRA issued another permit to begin work on the project, including demolishing classrooms and the lobby, in April 2016. GW most recently secured a permit for a plumbing review in June 2019, per DCRA records.

Catherine Forster, the director of the Geological Sciences Program housed in Bell Hall, said she has had mold in her lab three times, most recently about four or five years ago, and that she has since placed a dehumidifier in her lab to prevent future mold outbreaks. She said around the same time, facilities workers reconstructed a corner of her lab because rats were inside the walls.

“One of my students during the first mold infestation who was allergic to mold, he had to move out of the lab until they cleaned it up,” Forster said.

She said the electrical room is humid and usually contains standing water, which caused a mosquito infestation and black mold one summer. She said an electrician once told her it “rains” in the electrical room because of its humidity.

“They had to bring in a company to mitigate the mold, and I’m sure that that cost more than just dehumidifying that room would have cost,” Forster said.

Water has damaged boxes and drawers of geological samples in the storage room and the basement of Lisner Hall, Forster said.

She said the geology program’s space in Lisner Hall, which is connected to Bell Hall, has previously flooded and has similar structural and temperature problems. She said the upper level of glass blocks that form a window in a Lisner basement storage room cracked about four or five years ago, which let in cold air and froze the room’s pipes, causing them to burst.

“I like Bell Hall, I like it a lot, but you never know from day to day what you’re going to get,” Forster said.

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About the Contributor
Erika Filter, News Editor
Erika Filter is a senior majoring in international affairs from Carson City, Nevada. She leads the Metro beat as one of The Hatchet's 2023-2024 news editors and previously served as the assistant news editor for the Student Government beat.
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