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New Williams College Science Center Reflects Changing Enrollment

Williams College in northern Berkshire County recently opened its new science center, a key component of the school’s sweeping overhaul of its science program. WAMC Josh Landes toured the facility.

On the southern cusp of the main Williams College campus on the edge of a cul-de-sac is the glassy façade of the school’s new science center. Its vast surface of metal-framed windows contrasts with the more conservative brick and wooden buildings of the hilly campus.

“So the building by and large — it’s a research laboratory space. And inherently, in that nature, there’s a lot of closed off laboratory space," said Mike Wood.

He's senior project manager of the simply but appropriately titled South Building. The almost $66 million dollar project provides the college science faculty with research space. It’s a companion to its neighbor, the Morley Science Labs, which are more classroom oriented.

“Because there’s so much faculty space, a lot of the student space is more organic — so there’s student study areas and student alcoves that are really not supposed to be programmed but more just to pick up students to come in, to study, to research, to work with professors in a one-on-one setting or in a group setting," Wood told WAMC. "So that’s the idea, is that it is open and it’s inviting and it encourages that travel through the building.”

It’s part of a larger initiative to bolster science at Williams.

“The enrollment, I think, just crested about just over 50 percent of students have a science major,” said Wood.

“We’re looking at some volcanic ash from samples taken in the Bering Sea," said Madeline Rawson, an Environmental Science major about to enter her sophomore year. “What you can see right here is a really small piece of volcanic glass, which we want a sample of that is 50 microns wide, but you can see the little straight rectangles in it, and those are minerals, and we specifically want samples without those, so we’re using the scanning electron microscope to find the samples we want.”

She spoke to WAMC in the basement of the South Building, in the microscopy suite.

“I really wanted a liberal arts education, but I really love science as well," said Rawson, "and this school was able to give me both because it’s a really science-oriented liberal arts college.”

Williams is spending over $200 million to accommodate students like Rawson. The South Building, which houses the Chemistry, Biology, and Physics departments, will be joined by an eventual North Building, for Math and Stats, Psychology, and Geoscience.

“It’s more about consolidating and providing top notch research space for faculty," said Wood, "which really, as I understand it, provides the opportunity for the recruitment of faculty and to provide them the research capabilities they might not otherwise find at an institution of this size.”

“We study the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria from a protein biochemistry level, so we’re looking at the proteins that bacteria produce that allows them to combat penicillin and related antibiotics," said Katie Hart, an assistant professor of chemistry. She earned her graduate degree at Berkeley and came to Williams from Washington University in Saint Louis. Her input — along with other faculty members’ — went into designing the new building, allowing her to create a lab specific to her research needs.

“For comparable intuitions, this is a really state of the art facility, with a lot of equipment and considerations that I’m used to seeing at more major research oriented intuitions, so I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve had access to here,” Hart told WAMC.

Williams is hoping the South Building, designed by Payette Architects, will earn a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The college anticipates the North Building will be completed by January 2021.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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