Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2013


The new science center at New London Hall. Photo by Bob Macdonnell

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Science Centered

Science Centered
Biology professor Anne Bernhard processes mud samples in one of the many specialty spaces designed to support research and hands-on learning. Bernhard and her students are studying the effect of the BP oil spill on Louisiana salt marshes.

Students, faculty and real-world research are all thriving in the new science center at New London Hall

by Amy Martin

Photos by Bob Handelman and Bob MacDonnell

In early September, students wandered through the newly completed science center at New London Hall, some on their way to bright functional classrooms, others heading to gleaming laboratories and others just stopping by to admire the view from floor-to-ceiling windows. For some members of this social-media generation, the urge to comment and share was irresistible. They picked up chalk and scribbled their reactions on the still fresh blackboards: “I <3 NewLO Hall,” “This is SO impressive,” and “Beautiful.”

Months later, the new home of biology, botany and computer science continues to attract tributes and praise. Early in the second semester, it is clear that the renovation and expansion of the College's oldest academic building is doing exactly what it was designed to do — support interdisciplinary collaborations, student-faculty research and hands-on learning at a whole new level.

“Our science programs finally have the facilities they deserve,” says President Leo I. Higdon, Jr.

In mid-winter, the iconic greenhouse is an oasis of warmth and color. These days, it's also a better growing environment, fully refurbished with safety glass; thermal shades that open and close automatically in response to sunlight; and new electrical, heating and ventilation systems.

Inside, collections of cacti, orchids and edible plants used in ethnobotany classes share space with small plots of basil, sunflowers and catnip tended by beginning botany students. “A lot of the students have never grown anything before,” notes T. Page Owen, associate professor of botany.

For Owen, the renovation has provided new space for his research collection of carnivorous pitcher plants, with hanging, gourd-like leaves that trap and digest unsuspecting flies. In Asia, larger versions of the same plant have been found to contain monkey skeletons. The pitcher lures its prey — whether primate or insect — with nectar produced in the plant''s rim, or peristome.

In a research laboratory just steps away from the greenhouse, one of Owen's research assistants, junior Alison Carini, uses a high-powered transmission electron microscope to examine thin slices of peristomal tissue to compare the cellular structures of the nectar glands across different stages of development.

“The new center has greatly simplified the logistics of research,” Carini says. “The new labs are spacious and all the equipment is easily available.”

Carini, a molecular and cellular biology major with a minor in Hispanic studies, is one of three students working with Owen this year. Carini says she enrolled at Connecticut College because she wanted to work closely with her professors.

“Professor Owen's level of dedication to his students is very rare,” she says.

As the faculty liaison to the science center project, Owen helped shape the building to maximize faculty and student interactions and make it easy to share ideas, equipment, resources and time.

“It is very deliberate,” he says.

Owen's favorite space is the lab designed for microscopy work, including his current research with Carini, Dan Smoot '13 and Victoria Frank '13. Special lighting and separate spaces for each of the high-powered microscopes allow several research projects to be ongoing at once.

The proximity of his office to the greenhouse and lab makes it easy for Owen to check in with his students when they're working. Similarly, he often finds himself crossing paths with first-year students on their way to measure their seedlings in the greenhouse or striking up conversations with colleagues in the hallway.

Jim O'Connor '13 was attracted to Connecticut College by the opportunity to do research with Computer Science Professor Gary Parker, whose research areas include artificial intelligence, colony robotics, evolutionary robotics, genetic algorithms and interactive video games.

“I''m not okay just taking classes and learning about something,” O'Connor says. “I want to know everything there is to know about it and contribute to the general knowledge about it. That is what keeps me going.”

Last year, O'Connor and another student traveled with Parker to co-present at a professional conference in Alaska. O'Connor's presentation was related to training a robot to push a box; the research was also the subject of a published paper. Their current work is focused on using brain waves — human thought — and artificial intelligence to control a robotic arm. Eventually, the technology could power prosthetic limbs or control a robot remotely — to disable bombs, conduct surgery or even direct a Mars Rover.

Until this year, computer science was housed in Winthrop Annex, a cramped, poorly insulated structure at the north end of campus where computer servers were draped with plastic to protect them from dripping condensation. Now Parker and his students work in a bright new robotics lab on the second floor of New London Hall, with sweeping views over Tempel Green. All around the room are shelves lined with robots, some resembling strange insects, others more human-like.

“This building is the best thing ever,” says O'Connor, who is applying to top graduate programs in computer science. “I have a bunch of new equipment. It''s awesome.”

The department's move to New London Hall is about more than a dramatically improved physical space, however. It's also a deliberate strategy to facilitate collaboration between scientific disciplines. Powerful computer programs are revolutionizing life science research, helping scientists gain new insights from field data and observation. The emerging field of bioinformatics, for example, involves studying how to store, retrieve and analyze biological data, such as genetic sequences.

The possibilities are exciting, says Associate Professor of Biology Phil Barnes, who studies the behavioral genetics of Drosophila — fruit flies — to better understand how changes in mating behaviors affect the origin and divergence of new species. Similarities between his work on the evolution of complex traits and Parker''s work with genetic algorithms that can improve artificial intelligence could lead to future collaborations.

Barnes's fruit flies — there are thousands of them — live in incubators in a U-shaped room on the fourth floor of the new science center. The room is arranged with separate areas for sorting and collecting flies and computer analysis. The flies are barely visible to the naked eye, but specialized equipment allows Barnes and his students to magnify them 50-fold — enough to measure differences in their wing size down to fractions of a millimeter.

The top two floors of the building are also home to classrooms, offices and two large biology research labs. Each lab is divided into four workspaces, with long rectangular countertops and open shelves filled with beakers, petri dishes, test tubes and other lab equipment.

Throughout the fall, Sarah Goldstein '13 could often be found in one of the bio labs, preparing a set of pipettes for an afternoon of cloning microbial DNA, part of an independent research project with Associate Professor of Biology Anne Bernhard.

Bernhard is an expert on the role microorganisms play in cycling nitrogen through estuaries and salt marshes. When the system is working, salt marshes play a key role in ensuring that the correct amounts of nitrogen, an essential element for life, are available to organisms throughout the ecosystem. But if the microbial processes are thrown off kilter — by excessive pollution, for example — the environmental impact can be devastating.

Bernhard recently received a $203,000 grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to study how the April 2010 BP oil spill has affected microbial populations in Louisiana salt marshes.

“It is easy to see that a bird is covered in oil, but we don''t really know what happens when oil settles on the floor of these marshes,” Bernhard says. “This project is something that students can relate to. They watched the oil spill unfold, and this helps them see firsthand the relevance of this type of research.”

Goldstein grew up listening to her grandmother, Ada Maislen Goldstein '47, extol the advantages of Connecticut College, but she didn''t fully appreciate Ada's enthusiasm until she enrolled and started working with Bernhard. Inspired by their work together, Goldstein is applying to doctoral programs in molecular biology.

“Opportunities to do research like this really set Connecticut College apart,” Goldstein says. “It is unique for an undergraduate to get to work with a professor who is so well-known in her field.”

In another biology lab, Ellen Nadel '13 studies tiny sponges with the ability to shut down their own metabolisms during periods of environmental stress. A biology major with a minor in psychology, Nadel is working with Stephen Loomis, Tempel Professor of Biology, to determine if DNA methylation, a form of inherited gene modification, is responsible for the sponges' ability to restart its metabolism, or essentially come back to life.

“I was ecstatic when I heard I was going to be doing research in New London Hall,” she says.

This fall, Nadel also took Loomis's “Invertebrate Biology” class in one of the new classrooms. Loomis designed the course with a fieldwork component to help students apply class and laboratory work to a real-world problem.

Every other Wednesday, Nadel and her classmates donned wetsuits and waded, sometimes chest-deep, into the chilly waters of the Niantic River estuary. To determine the impact of marinas on invertebrate populations, the students mapped populations of organisms on the surface and in the sediment, bringing back hermit crabs, shrimp and other samples to an aquarium in the science center. They compared their findings at the marina with a nearby control site and shared their results with the Niantic River Watershed Committee, a local waterway protection group.

Thanks to her research with Loomis and two internships at New York Medical College, Nadel is now contemplating a career in clinical research — but she still has to decide on one field from the many that have piqued her interest.

“Certain courses have helped inspire ideas I had not considered,” she says. “Anthropology 101 introduced me to the field of epidemiology, health psychology inspired me to enter primary care and molecular development helped me reinforce a greater appreciation for stem cell research,” she says.

One thing seems sure: For the rest of her senior year, she'll be spending as much time as she can in the new science center.
“The building is beautiful, and it supports a rich learning environment,” she says.

Facts & Figures

• Project scope: A $25-million gut renovation and 14,000-net-square-foot addition creating 28 percent more teaching and research space for biology, botany and computer science

• Building features: 13 new laboratories, two seminar rooms, three multi-purpose classrooms, 21 faculty offices, greenhouse, herbarium, electron microscopy suite, cold rooms and tissue culture rooms

• Green initiatives: 45 geothermal wells under Tempel Green to heat and cool the building; high-efficiency frame hoods; and energy-saving lighting, cooling and plumbing fixtures

• Prime location: Forms a “science triangle” with Hale Laboratory and Olin Science Center, where chemistry, physics and environmental science are located

• Lead funding for the project was provided by the Sherman Fairchild Foundation and eight alumnae of the College, all of whom attended before co-education, a fitting tribute to the College's history. They are Judith Ammerman '60, Susan Eckert Lynch '62, Helen Fricke Mathieson '52, Judith Tindal Opatrny '72 and Donald C. Opatrny, Mary Lake Polan '65 P'02 '10, Frances Gillmore Pratt '60 P'89 and Jean C. Tempel '65, as well as an alumna who chose to support the project anonymously.

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