From left: the chemistry department’s John Magyar, Christian Rojas, and Mary Sev

From left: the chemistry department’s John Magyar, Christian Rojas, and Mary Sev

A modern-day makeover in Altschul Hall is an important step for the department’s future

If you happen to pass through the Helen Goodhart Altschul Hall on the Barnard campus during the spring or summer of 2011, please pardon any dust, debris, or noise emanating from the chemistry department on the sixth floor. It’s not the result of an experiment gone awry, but of Barnard’s continued drive to stay competitive in the sciences. The floor will get a full renovation that will modernize the facilities and allow the chemistry department to increase the size of its faculty, with the goal of attracting more students in the future.

In larger research universities such as Columbia, students typically conduct research alongside a graduate student or postdoctoral student. At Barnard, independent research is done under faculty mentorship; the renovation will mean more opportunities to do such independent research. Students will have hands-on experience working with a professional, and often will be able to present their results. This includes taking part in writing the literature that interprets the data, and learning how to submit those research papers for peer review and publication. The experience can make a huge impact on what students do after Barnard— whether they go into the chemical industry, pharmaceuticals, health, dentistry, or other related fields, doing this kind of research as an undergraduate is invaluable. “It allows students to apply the kinds of things they learn in the classroom in a new and different way,” Assistant Professor of Chemistry John Magyar says. “We are fortunate at Barnard that we are able to provide such a high level of research experience to the students.”

It’s all being done with the help of a generous $1.84 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant is a small part of President Obama’s $789 billion American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009, which includes earmarks to help rebuild the laboratories of America’s academic institutions. Under a program called the Academic Research Infrastructure Program: Recovery and Reinvest, the NSF offered $200 million to make necessary updates and repairs to school research facilities. Upon hearing about the grant opportunity in 2009, a team of Barnard science professors—most from the chemistry department, but a handful from other departments as well—went to work on a proposal focused on renovation as a means of expanding research and research training. “Since we are an undergraduate institution, we do most of our research in-house,” says Associate Professor of Chemistry Christian Rojas, a principal investigator on the grant. “That [research and research training] was part of the award guidelines.” Renovations will allow the floor to be reconfigured to provide more room for instruments, equipment and, most importantly, department instructors. More instructors mean more research time for students, and a more well-rounded learning experience.

Student mixing ChemicalsBuilt in 1969, the tall, imposing Altschul Hall is the main science building on campus. Environmental science is housed on the fourth floor, physics and astronomy on five, chemistry on six, seven, and eight, and biology on nine through 13. The sixth floor currently has two faculty research labs and associated offices, and teaching labs for biochemistry, physical chemistry, and environmental science. While many parts of Altschul have been renovated since it was built, says Rojas, others haven’t been touched. That changed in early January, when demolition of the sixth floor began.

“We are going to completely gut-renovate, knocking down all of the interior walls,” says Magyar. The plan is to reconfigure the space in a more modern way, with four faculty research labs and offices instead of two, a reconfigured teaching lab for bio- and physical chemistry, and separate climate-controlled rooms for equipment and instruments. (The environmental lab will move to a new spot on the fourth floor.) The architects on the project are with Mitchell Giurgola Architects, a New York City firm that has worked with Barnard in the past—leading the roughly $2.8 million design renovation of the organic chemistry teaching labs on Altschul’s seventh floor in 2004, and two new faculty spaces consisting of labs and offices on the eighth floor completed in 2009.

The modernization will also include updates to some of the built-in ventilation equipment, such as fume hoods. “We included in the proposal some nice pictures of peeling cabinets and small hoods that were acceptable back in 1970 but certainly wouldn’t be part of a lab that you would design now,” continues Rojas. Today’s fume hoods are larger and much more energy efficient. Additionally, the space will have a new autoclave and dishwashing system for sterilizing and cleaning glassware. A separate NSF grant awarded in April allowed the department to buy new spectrometers to be housed in a new instrument room.

Along with Rojas, Magyar was the grant proposal’s co-principal investigator. Also involved were Associate Professor Dina Merrer, Assistant Professor Marisa Buzzeo, and Senior Lecturer Alison Williams of the chemistry department; Assistant Professor Brian Mailloux from environmental science; and assistant professors Kristen Shepard and Krista McGuire in biological sciences. Mary Sever, an assistant professor who joined the chemistry department in 2010, is involved with implementation of the project. Rhonda Zangwill and Abigail Feder-Kane from Barnard’s department of institutional support helped with proposal preparations.

The finished proposal, submitted in August of 2009, included a request for $1.97 million, very close to the $2 million threshold for many of the grants. (The NSF planned to give approximately 100 to 120 awards worth up to $2 million, as well as additional awards of $2 million to $10 million for some 9 to 15 recipients.) An official award letter of $1.84 million came in September, and renovations began on January 4. The project will use funds from other sources as well. A $3 million grant was awarded from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2007 offering a $1 match for every $3 the College contributes from certain funds raised to support sciences at Barnard. For every $3 granted by the NSF, the Mellon Foundation provides a $1 match for the project. The team is working to get other funding sources as well.

Barnard’s chemistry department is comparable to those at other small liberal arts colleges. The staff, however, is “on the smaller side in terms of faculty members,” says Rojas, and this renovation project is a key component in the department’s future direction. “Part of our strategic plan is looking at how we are understaffed in terms of tenure. We need people, but there’s nowhere to put them. This funding will help break that log jam.” The grant will allow the department to gain two faculty members— increasing staff by a third from the current group of six faculty members on the tenure track. The new facilities should also help in recruiting top talent to Barnard.

The department averages 10 to 15 chemistry and biochemistry majors per year. But with each student spending one or two afternoons per week in the lab, space is a big concern. There is also a limitation on how many students each faculty member can reasonably advise. “Students need a lot of attention, especially in the beginning,” Rojas says. Each faculty member oversees about three to four students per year. The rigorous summer program is also packed. “We always have considerably more students who want to participate than we can accommodate,” he says.

In the meantime, the department will continue to scramble for space through the summer in what Magyar calls “various creative and cramped ways.” Despite dislocations, the faculty maintains a positive reaction. “It is going to be a challenging spring semester,” says Magyar. “But absolutely worth it in the long run.”

- Melissa Phipps