The Future of the Sciences at Skidmore
One Saturday in October 2007, virtually all of Skidmore's tenure-track professors - 55 in all - gathered in the Murray-Aikins Dining Hall to participate in a daylong retreat focused on planning the second phase of a focused initiative to strengthen the natural sciences at Skidmore and enhance the science literacy of all Skidmore students. Among the key questions on which they focused: What vision of the sciences at Skidmore do we have for 2018?
To capture the main points of this campuswide discussion, Scope invited four of the College's younger science faculty members (those who are likely to still be teaching in 2018) to share their views:
- Michelle Frey, assistant professor, chemistry;
- Corey Freeman-Gallant, associate professor and department chair, biology;
- Hassan Lopez, assistant professor, psychology;
- Paul Arciero, associate professor, exercise science.
Moderating the discussion was Associate Dean of Faculty Mark Hofmann. He posed three questions:
- Why is it important to strengthen the sciences at Skidmore?
- Is there a unique contribution that Skidmore can make in science education?
- What's your vision of the sciences at Skidmore in 2018?
Below are excerpts of their responses.
Why is it important to strengthen the sciences at Skidmore?
My second concern is that, as Corey and Michelle have pointed out, our students not only are going to be confronting these very large scientific issues in our culture and global climate, but also in their personal lives. For instance, I teach a course in psychopharmacology and I find my students to be very naïve about how antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications and ADHD treatments work and how they can affect the brain for a long period. These are things that are becoming increasingly common in our daily lives. If you don't have an understanding of what's going on, then you basically just have to trust your doctor. I think all of us are slightly uncomfortable with that—or we should be.
Arciero: Each time they pick up a newspaper—whether it's Science Times or not—they're going to find some kind of science-related article. It's not just Tuesday any more that it's important to read the New York Times.
Is there a unique contribution Skidmore can make in science education?
Freeman-Gallant: The days of the lone scientist working at her bench making significant advances is long over. Science is now inherently collaborative. Where we have a lead over our peers is that we have a history and an identity as an institution that values interdisciplinarity. We can do interdisciplinary science right at Skidmore in a way that's just not possible elsewhere. The culture of our faculty, both within the natural sciences and beyond the natural sciences, have really embraced those kinds of conversations. I think that's something we need to capitalize more on.
Frey: Our emphasis on research and the research experience is Skidmore at its finest. I get to mentor my students. I get to teach them how to think critically, how design experiments, how to be methodical, and how to ask hard questions. Is this data OK? Does this make sense? Do I believe it? We need to strengthen the opportunities for students to do this kind of research. This is really how they learn to be scientists. You don't learn it from a book. You learn it from being at the lab bench and using your hands and using your head.
Lopez: I think we can clearly differentiate ourselves from large universities in the amount of research experience we can provide our students from an early stage. For example, my colleague, Flip Phillips, is currently teaching a freshman seminar on "Designing a Mind," which by its nature is an interdisciplinary seminar combining psychology, neuroscience, computer science, and cognitive science. And he's already being approached by freshmen in his course who want to join his lab. We have one-credit research experiences that allow students to basically shadow a professor. From there, we can bump you up to a three-credit research assistantship in your sophomore or junior year. And then over the summer you might work in an intense one-on-one collaboration with a professor. From the moment a student walks in the door at Skidmore, we say, "Look, you can do it."
Arciero: I want to speak to the integration of the sciences with another unique aspect of Skidmore, and that's the Tang Museum. I'm doing a freshman seminar this semester focused on environmental lifestyle diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease that have a strong genetic basis. In the Molecules that Matters exhibit, I'm using the DNA component to really enhance the course. This is just one example of how instrumental the Tang is to bridging the gap between the sciences and other academic disciplines. There are countless other ways it has been and will continue to be used to facilitate an understanding and appreciation of how important science is to the world around us.
What's your vision of the sciences at Skidmore in 2018?
Freeman-Gallant: I'd like Skidmore to be known nationally for its disciplinary strength, but I think where we could really be unique is coming up with creative interdisciplinary programs. I think it's important to all of our students, not only those who are traditional science majors to have the opportunity to really address some of these major challenges from multiple perspectives. We want to ask them not merely to communicate with each other but also to really integrate across these differing perspectives. I think we can be a lot more creative in how we employ our teaching strength. I personally would like to see us develop a liberal sciences major that allows students to take advantage of current strengths across the science disciplines—to put together an interdisciplinary course of study that allows them address major challenges from multiple perspectives. That's something we could do incredibly well.
Second, I think science education is going to follow what we're already seeing happening in the realm of scientific research at the universities, which is rapidly compressing all fields and moving toward the intersections between the disciplines. It's not about me in my lab any more trying to push the frontiers of science back. It's about me working with Corey or someone else in biology, or even in physics, to push back those boundaries and explore that unknown region in between.
Arciero: The essence of science is creativity—the generation of ideas, the bringing together of unique minds, thoughts, backgrounds and perspectives. In order to accomplish this creativity and intermingling of minds, I would like to see in ten years a centralization of the sciences so that we're all in a similar infrastructure or physical domain. Along with that, we need resources that target a larger group of science-minded students at Skidmore. Most important for me is the integration of the disciplines in a central location. It's a real struggle geographically.
Lopez: Continuing what Paul said, all I have on my list is: 'I envision a new building." [laughter] I'll list three reasons why I think a new building is really vital to the future of the sciences at Skidmore.
The first is increased efficiency. Right now, I think we have three different locations for animal labs—exercise science, biology, and over at psychology and neuroscience. This kind of inefficiency really doesn't make sense.
The second reason is that a new science building will help to attract students. When we give tours of our new dining hall, we see that prospective students get very excited. What if that were a new science building? Suddenly we're attracting the best high school science students out there.
Third, a new science building will encourage more cooperation between disciplines, which currently can be a little hard to do. Michelle and I could maybe figure out something, but it would require a lot of work on our part. The disciplinary differences between my work and Flip Phillips' are probably about the same as between my work and Michelle's, and yet—because Flip's office physically is right next to mine—we're doing a collaboration and we have a student who's willing to work with us. I would never have become engaged in this kind of work but for the fact that I see Flip every day and that eventually turns into an idea for a good publication. The same thing happens with students. When we bring them together, they start talking, and good things happen.