Science Center Celebration

November 2, 2018

Remarks by Biddy Martin, President of Amherst College, during a celebration on October 20, 2018, of Amherst's new Science Center.

Students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members arrived in Amherst College’s new Science Center on Oct. 20 to celebrate its grand opening in the most scientific way possible: through observation and questions.

“You now have the gold standard science center for college campuses,” said the project’s principal architect, Robert Schaeffner of the Boston firm Payette, to the audience that packed the Center’s Lipton Lecture Hall. With the hall at capacity, still more visitors watched via video feed nearby.

The Science Center exterior and interior

“This is the biggest transformation of the Amherst campus since its founding,” said Amherst President Biddy Martin. “It says that we care deeply about science, and it says the same thing about community, about our commitment to sustainability, about our commitment to beauty.”

Science in the Liberal Arts

Before student tours and demonstrations—including of static electricity and shattering flowers—Shirley Tilghman, president emerita of Princeton and a member of the Amherst board of trustees, led a panel of notable alumni scientists through a discussion that touched on the interplay between science and the liberal arts. “I don’t think you can be a great liberal arts college if you are not taking science seriously,” she said.

Panelists left to right: Shirley Tilghman, Julie Segre '87, Kimberlyn Leary '82,  Bradford Hager ’72, P’12,  and Harold Varmus '

Panelists from left to right: Shirley Tilghman, president emerita and professor of molecular biology and public affairs, Lewis-Sigler Institute, Princeton University; Julie Segre '87, senior investigator, National Human Genome Research Institute; Kimberlyn Leary '82, Amherst College trustee, associate professor, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School, and executive director of policy outreach, McLean Hospital; Bradford Hager ’72, P’12, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Earth Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Harold Varmus '61, Lewis Thomas University Professor, Weill Cornell Medicine and senior associate member, New York Genome Center.

One panelist, Harvard psychologist Kimberlyn Leary ’82, also an Amherst trustee, discussed one highlight of her undergraduate experience. “Because Amherst is a small and intimate college,” said the former psychology major, “the opportunity to get to know faculty across the different subdisciplines of psychology and across different departments was extraordinary.”

Time and again, the alumni panelists—both those who majored in science as undergraduates and those who did not—spoke of the interplay of the humanities and sciences as being crucial in their development.

“To write scientifically and not have it be technical … enabled me to be not just a scientist, but a leader in science,” said Julie Segre ’87, senior investigator at the National Human Genome Research Institute.

After taking a course on the philosophy of science, “I made a career out of questioning other people’s assumptions about the link between observations and reality,” said Bradford Hager ’72, P’12, now the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Earth Sciences at MIT.

Virologist Harold Varmus ’61, who majored in English and went on to win a Nobel for his work on the origins of cancer, said that poets, philosophers and scientists alike are all “trying to cope with what we receive when we end up on this earth.”

Panelists also noted that Amherst is becoming a proving ground for increasing diversity in the STEM fields and cited, in particular, the Being Human in STEM course (an “example of where Amherst is leading,” said Segre) and the College-funded summer internships (“absolutely critical,” said Leary, who previously studied STEM engagement for the White House Council on Women and Girls). Among other topics, the group also spoke of the importance of scientific literacy, in a liberal arts education, especially during a cultural moment in which the notion of objective truth is taking a beating.

“Everybody should understand the scientific method. It’s an iterative approach to truth,” said Hager. “We make hypotheses, we make predictions from these hypotheses, we test them against observations. How should you trust anything that we say? Well, because we’re all members of this enterprise; we’re not just speaking as individuals with our individual proofs.”

One ongoing challenge, they said, is to inspire and support that spark of interest in science early in life.

“For me in high school, science was rote memorization,” said Segre. “When I came to Amherst, I took science classes and found out that science was a process of discovery, and that we were trying to understand a process and that there was knowledge that still needed to be gained. That’s what hooked me as a scientist.”

Open House Demonstrations

A physics demo of liquid nitrogen freezing and shattering long stem roses

After the panel, visitors took part in student-led tours around the building. Much more than simply a look at the facilities, the tours were a chance for visitors to see demonstrations in labs, classrooms and other stations.

Physics students and faculty shattered roses frozen in liquid hydrogen and made rings jump using electrical current. They had some presentations on their research, but most of the demonstrations focused on what one lab-coated student called “fun physics.”

A demo of a Van de Graaff to produce high voltage, throw sparks and lightning bolts

Professor of Physics William Loinaz, for example, used a Van de Graaff generator to cause bolts of electricity to fly off his fingers and make participants’ hair stand on end. “This is my ‘god of thunder’ routine,” he joked.

Among those exploring the building was Andrew J. Nussbaum ’85, chair of the College’s board of trustees. “A building at the end of the day is just a space,” he said. “These people make this space a place.”


Three members of the Alumni Panel from the Science Center opening

Alumni Panel: Science Center Celebration

The Science Center opening celebration kicked off with a panel of alumni reflecting on their time at Amherst College.