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BEP phase one comes to a close

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On the northwest corner of campus, construction for the new Biology, Engineering, and Psychology building persists as the fall semester comes to an end. Since enrollment has risen for the biology, engineering, and psychology departments, BEP is being built to provide these departments with more space.  

BEP is in part the result of Eugene Lang’s $50 million donation, the largest gift in the college’s history, and is to house the biology, engineering, and psychology departments. It is expected to be completed by fall of 2020 with the first stage opening up summer of 2019. BEP will be a five-story building with one floor below ground. The building is expected to have meeting spaces, lecture halls, classrooms, a greenhouse, and a solar lab.

According to Carr Everbach, head of the engineering department, after student protests for divestment in 2013, the college’s Board of Managers agreed to allot additional money to equip BEP with more environmentally sustainable features.

“This process of defining what BEP was going to be continued until the spring of 2013 in which Mountain Justice and other students asked the Board of Managers to divest from all fossil fuel stocks and the Board of Managers refused. There were subsequent protests and possibly as related consequence of those concerns the Board of Managers agreed to allocate an additional $12 million to make it [BEP] as environmentally sustainable as possible,” Everbach said.

According to Larry Warner, the BEP project manager with Skanska — the firm managing construction for the BEP project — the college was proactive about implementing these environmentally sustainable features.

“One thing the college has asked the design team and construction team to come up with is a way to monitor the energy savings of the building. A lot of the systems, like the mechanical and electrical systems, are designed in a way to be energy efficient. Each of these components was built with energy efficiency in mind,” Warner said.

Andrew Ward, head of the psychology department, looks forward to these characteristics of the new building.

The sustainable aspects of the new construction, including climate control provided by geothermal wells, is a boon to Swarthmore,” Ward said in an e-mail.

As a psychology professor, Ward has been involved in the planning process for the building for several years.

The psychology department was formerly housed in Papazian Hall. After the destruction of Papazian to make space for the BEP building, the department was, and currently is, housed in Whittier Hall. With the creation of a new shared space, Ward also looks forward to the potential collaborative work between the biology, engineering, and psychology departments in the new building.

“[Psychology, biology, engineering] department members will, for the first time in many decades, have offices on the same floor as one another, making it easier for us to engage in informal contact with each other,” Ward said. “At the same time, the sharing of a building with biology and engineering promises to enhance collaboration between our departments. With the growth of interdisciplinary initiatives in such fields as neuroscience and cognitive science, we believe that being in the same building with faculty and students in related fields will be a tremendous asset to us and to the college.”

Everbach echoes this sentiment about prospective cooperation between departments.

The biology, engineering, and psychology departments have all functioned very separately both curricularly and in different buildings. There are some connections between them but they have been remote, but by putting them in the same space there will be opportunities for collaboration, discussion, and possibly for co-teaching and co-projects. I think at the very least, students from these departments will be intermingling and interacting and there will be some effect on the faculty and the curriculum because of that,” Everbach said.

Everbach also notes the benefits that a new space will offer the engineering department.

“Biology and psychology have a space and a quality of space problem. Hicks Hall is a stone box with little opportunity for moving the walls around inside or adding on things,” Everbach said “BEP will offer more square feet, more high-quality square feet, and more flexible and reconfigurable square feet.”

Nick Kaplinsky, associate biology professor and the department’s representative for the BEP project, also noted the lack of space in Martin Hall, the building currently housing the biology department.

“Everyone in the department has deep historical attachments to Martin Hall. But Martin’s lack of space and age place limitations on what we’d like to do and so it is time for a new building,” Kaplinsky said in an email. “We will have more space and, in many cases, labs that are customized for the particular types of experiments that are being taught by individual faculty members. An example of this is that in our current building there is no classroom where we can have 12 students working with soil. BEP will have one.”

Though many are excited by the prospect of a new building, the construction process can be lengthy and disruptive for some.

“It’s a painful process getting those nice facilities and we’ve already suffered some this semester with construction, and we’ll have to endure two more years of it. We do understand that construction is dangerous, noisy, and messy and that we have to tough it,” Everbach said.

Warner says that certain precautions are being taken to ensure that the construction process is not overly disruptive to the students or faculty.

“One of the things we take into consideration is the disruptions to the community. A lot of the planning that occurs behind the scenes is about how we limit the disruptions to the community,” Warner said. “It starts with our deliveries: there are large signs that tell trucks where they can and cannot go. All of that was coordinated with the borough of Swarthmore and the college.”

Currently, the BEP building is in Phase One of construction. According to Janet Semler, the director of capital planning and project management at Swarthmore, Phase One involves constructing permanent foundation walls for the basement floor of the building.

In the next few weeks, however, the next phase of the process will begin: the erection of structural steel, the columns and beams that will form the skeleton of the building. This next stage in the construction process is expected to continue throughout the spring semester before decking and roofing is installed in the summer.

For the time being, the sounds of construction and the flying dust will continue even as the semester comes to a close.

Bio Professor Siwicki cited in Nobel prize-winning research

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A research paper on the gene regulating the circadian rhythm that Professor of Biology Kathy Siwicki worked with a team on a research project about the gene regulating the circadian rhythm. On Oct. 2, this research won the Nobel Prize.

The paper, titled “Antibodies to the period gene product of Drosophila reveal diverse tissue distribution and rhythmic changes in the visual system,” was carried out by five researchers.

Siwicki and the others were studying a gene in fruit flies that regulates the circadian rhythm, which are endogenous biological rhythms that most organisms have. They are biological “clocks” that regulate the timing of an organism’s behavior and physiology so that it coordinates with the day-night cycle.

According to Siwicki, in this particular gene (called the period gene) that regulates behavioral rhythms, the protein that the gene produced had its own daily rhythm. Levels would increase during the night and decrease during the day, even in the darkness. They concluded that the differing levels were not a reaction to light.

This finding led to development of a model for how the circadian clock works through changes in the expression of the gene, which was originally proposed around 1990. It explained not just fruit flies’ circadian clocks but all organisms’ circadian clocks through the same mechanism. All animals have period genes; humans have three.

“We were studying fruit fly clocks because it was a fascinating biological puzzle, not because we necessarily wanted to solve the puzzle of the human circadian clock … we didn’t know it at the time, but the mechanism we were studying in fruit flies laid the groundwork for understanding human circadian clocks as well,” Siwicki said.

They were hopeful that the mechanisms in fruit flies would be relevant to the understanding of the human circadian clock as well as those of other animals and plants. Siwicki believes that the surprising homology and similarity between the clocks of various organisms is part of the reason that her research is being recognized. The connection between a gene and a behavior is a “complex biological puzzle” that hadn’t really been worked out for hardly any genes in the 1980s.

“There was no road map for how to do this. We were taking it one step at a time, using whatever methods were available to us at the time,” she said.

There were two different labs working on the research at the same time and were led by Jeffery C. Hall and Michael Rosbach, two of the Nobel laureates. The two groups collaborated closely, though there was competition between them. The third lab, run by the third Nobel laureate, Michael Young, was at Rockefeller University. The competition between the groups contributed to the progress, mentioned Siwicki.  

“We just had to work as hard as we could to get data and produce evidence that would give us insights and try to get to the finish line before they did,” Siwicki said. “The competition influenced the intensity of our efforts.”

However, Siwicki still emphasized the value of working collaboratively with other people.

“It’s a combination of hard work and intense intellectual engagement with the problem that is more fun when you’re doing it as a team,” she said.

One thing Siwicki tells former students is  that she did this recognized work when she was in her early thirties, and the people leading the lab (Nobel laureates) were in their early forties. According to her, scientists get the opportunities to make important discoveries when they’re relatively young. All of her former students who are in their early thirties are in a prime position to make their own discoveries.

“There are still big, challenging questions about the connection between genes and complex behavioral phenotypes, including neurological and clinical disorders that still need to be worked out,” Siwicki said.

Chair of the Biology Department Elizabeth Vallen emphasized Siwicki’s commitment to mentoring students and supporting their success.

“Kathy has been instrumental in promoting neurobiology and neuroscience in the department … she’s just been an incredible mentor and role model, who for a long time has been continually committed to teaching and having a research program in areas that are… competitive,” Vallen said.

She used to teach a seminar about circadian rhythms, and she has transitioned to do more work related to behavior, particularly learning and memory, Her interest is the neurobiology of behavior.

Her current research program on learning and memory was actually brought to her as an idea by a student from one of her seminars. She works with students at different levels, and is open to new ideas about what kinds of research would work well at Swarthmore.

Siwicki has been invited to attend the award ceremony held by the Nobel organization in Stockholm on December 10, where the project will be recognized.

“I have no words. It’s exciting and thrilling,” she said. “I kept saying that I feel like my head is going to explode because it was a feeling that I’ve never had before.”

CoRaL proposes new approach to collaborative learning

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Swarthmore, like many liberal arts colleges, aims for a collaborative environment. The entire campus is multi-functional; many buildings house multiple departments, and plenty of academic classrooms convert into social spaces on weekends. The result is a more connected college community designed to encourage students across campus to find inspiration in each other, and with the emergence of CoRaL, Swarthmore may even take it one step further.

CoRaL (Creative Research Lab, Organisms and Artifacts) is Professor of Studio Art Logan Grider’s proposal for our community to consider for the future. It is centered on the idea of a non-disciplinary space aimed at inspiring creativity and collaboration with three main components: a hub that brings people of all disciplines together to work in close proximity, a visual resource collection that brings artifacts together to stimulate new learning and communal workshops designed to inspire experimentation without risk of failure.

In 1942, during the time of World War II, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Radiation Lab brought in hundreds of hired scientists to develop radar technologies for the military. In order to accommodate the immediate increase in people, MIT once again built Building 20, a 250,000-square-foot structure with no particular architectural merit. Although the building itself was lacking in many ways, it quickly became a space for many military research breakthroughs. After the war, MIT found itself pressed for space, so it used Building 20 as a temporary eclectic space for a variety of different groups and departments. Despite being more disorganized than ever, its temporary nature allowed many researchers to escape from restrictions and use the building for their creative needs, such as bolting things to the ceiling.  Over the span of 40 years, Building 20 saw more inspiration and creative breakthroughs than any other space on campus. By placing people of all different disciplines in one place and forcing them to interact, as well as giving them a space that was flexible to their needs, ideas were able to collide freely.

CoRaL seeks to follow the same idea; keep people close, and let them think and work freely. However, while Building 20 forced people to get together, CoRal seeks to invite them by offering tasks inspired by the world, not by a specific major, in a space that can also implement the freedom and collaboration of Building 20. The visual resources of CoRaL would act as an open library, without the limitations of each discipline; it could hold anything from biological organisms to modern art, and the best part is, it could simply highlight existing collections that we already have at Swarthmore.

Professor Logan Grider explains, “CoRaL would either directly house resources or act as a center to point users towards resources they might not realize are available and relevant to their interests”. The Scott Arboretum, for example, could see more potential in its use by the college; a physics student could interact with an art student to illustrate the movement of the falling leaves and how that relates to the leaves’ concavity or weight. As a studio art professor, Grider can see many ways the Arboretum could be used for art-related projects, but the purpose of CoRaL is to go even beyond that, and see exactly how multiple disciplines could interact with existing resources.

Communal workshops would then bring students and professors together to experiment freely, without any risk of failure. As CoRaL would predominantly be an extracurricular space, it would have few restrictions, allowing students to explore questions that their coursework may not be able to answer.

“With a program like CoRaL, connections between disciplines and experts in relatively disparate fields could generate projects that seem abstract but potentially viable and stimulating,” said Grider. One workshop he envisions would focus on the creation and application of synthetic pigments that could attract both chemistry and art students. Other workshops might address topics like the mechanics of a whale vertebrae to influence the design of a more responsive train car connection. As a space designed more for learning and less for product management, CoRaL would become a place for innovation, where potential future course material could be tested, or new questions could be answered using the resources available at CoRaL.

At its heart, CoRaL seeks to be the center of collaborative learning in the liberal arts. Currently, CoRaL has no plan to open, but it does pose an interesting perspective to the future of Swarthmore as it expands over the years.


College’s ambitious construction plans underway

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The psychology department will move out of Papazian hall, above, upon the completion of the school’s new biology, engineering, and psychology building.
Photo by Sadie Rittman

This summer marked the beginning of a number of construction projects on and around campus. These plans include improvements and extensions to Willets Hall, the softball field, and the Dana and Hallowell dorms. Additionally, three entirely new buildings are being built: the “Matchbox,” Town Center West- which will house a campus bookstore, pub and inn- and the new biology, engineering and psychology building (BEP).

Of the projects planned by the college, the new BEP building is the most ambitious and least finalized. With construction slated to begin in 2016, the college has left plenty of time to discuss plans with the student body, alumni, staff and faculty. The building should be finished by the fall of 2018. The BEP building, when completed, will be the largest building on campus and is being implemented to match the increasing spatial demands of a growing student body.

“From biology’s point of view, we’re crammed to the gills in our current building, and even though we love it, we’ve literally taken over closets and other spaces that were never designed to be research facilities,” said Nick Kaplinsky, associate professor of biology and the department’s point person for the building. “The new building will solve our space issues, solve our mechanical issues and allow the department to expand and serve future biology majors.”

Each of the three departments that will occupy the BEP building will upgrade the amount of space they have on campus, and their old buildings will be reutilized for other departments.

In addition to the BEP building, the college is looking to build more student housing. Plans on this new dorm, or set of dorms, are still in flux, but it is likely that the new housing will be built near the PPR dorms on the south side of campus.

The school has already begun the process of renovating student housing. Over the summer, Willets underwent a series of construction projects. Most parts of the plumbing, insulation and electrical systems were entirely replaced. The bathrooms and lounges were also renovated.

“They were the original rooms, 50 years old, and the original plumbing, 50 years old. So we got to replace all that,” said Stuart Hain, vice president of facilities and capital projects.

In addition, Willets was taken off of the campus’ central steam system and given new boilers. The buildings furthest from the central steam system suffer the most from energy loss in using heat and hot water. In combination with improvements to the building’s insulation, the new boilers are supposed to significantly increase Willets’ energy efficiency.

While Willets was being revamped, construction on the new Matchbox building continued across campus. Nestled above the field house on the far side of Fieldhouse Lane, the Matchbox is the result of a funding campaign led by two married alumni, Salem Shuchman and Barbara Klock.

When completed, the Matchbox will be a student wellness and fitness center, as well as a space for the theater community. Construction on the Matchbox began last winter and was scheduled to be completed by the beginning of this semester, but the severity of last winter pushed that plan back. As of now, construction on the building should be finished by late September. The expected opening day is October 20.

As residents of the two dorms will attest, construction at Dana and Hallowell is underway. The final goal is a new five-story building connecting Dana and Hallowell. This building will replace the Danawell trailer, which previously served as a communal social space for the two dorms. In addition, the new structure will contain 68 new beds, designed to accommodate the college’s enrollment increases. The plan is for the building’s framework and foundation to be finished this fall, before the ground freezes.

Hain believes they will finish construction on Dana and Hallowell on schedule.

“We really believe we’ve built enough time into this schedule to make it work,” he said. “It could get so mean here that we get slowed down significantly, but there are some options about how we can accelerate that by working longer hours or longer weeks.”

Down the road from Dana and Hallowell is the softball field, which is being replaced. As of now, there are two fields. The old field is ready for fall play while the new field is being finished. The new field will have an adjustable netting system, as well as a new locker room attached to the home dugout.

“The outfield is pretty much in place, we’re installing an irrigation system and a drainage system to augment the system that’s there, [and] we’re building the dugouts,” said Jan Semler, director of capital planning and construction.

Town Center West is due to be finished by the end of the 2016 spring semester. It will contain an inn, a restaurant and retail spaces. The administration hopes that Town Center West will encourage a greater student presence in the ville, as well as support visitors and alumni. The bookstore will also be moved to the location.

“What we’re starting do now is actively think about what a bookstore, or a college and community store as we’re now calling it, of the future will look like. [Town Center West will] give us the opportunity to start thinking about how to repurpose the space that’s the current bookstore, since Clothier really is supposed to be a student center […] getting the bookstore out of there is going to be a huge help in terms of spaces that are available for students,” said Gregory Brown, vice president for finance and administration.

In addition, a new parking lot and a roundabout are being constructed by the Palmer, Pittenger, and Roberts dorms and Fieldhouse Lane. The parking lot will replace student parking in lot C and faculty parking by the train station. The parking lot will be finished and in use by the end of fall break. The roundabout is still in its beginning stages. Until September 12th, construction on Chester Road will operate at night from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. After that point, construction will shift to the daytime, but at least one lane of traffic will be available throughout the day. The administration is planning for two further periods of nighttime construction, but the dates for these are not yet in place. The asphalt work on the roundabout is due to end before winter in accordance with PennDOT guidelines, and the roundabout will be complete by the end of the school year.

Bias 101: Introduction to one perspective

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Introductory courses are often a student’s first academic exposure to a new field. It stands to reason then that the more perspective one gains into a field, the more breadth they gain in their understanding.  And still some introductory courses are taught by only one professor. This may not make a difference in some subjects, such as chemistry, math, and physics, but in others it can lead to a wholly different experience. This difference is largely due to the amount a person’s specialty can skew their perspective in their subject.

Some departments already combat this problem by having various professors involved in teaching the intro course. The biology, political science and economic departments are some of those that employ this method. If organismal biology were only taught by an evolutionary biologist or a neurobiologist, then the course would be fundamentally different. This should apply to other fields in which a certain perspective can overpower the discourse and affect the way in which information is explained. The intro courses that suffer the most from this lack of varying views is psychology, sociology and anthropology, and philosophy. Introduction to anthropology and sociology are taught as one course by two professors, one from each department, however this still only allows for one perspective from each field. Philosophy has two intro courses, but they are still only taught by one professor without so much as a guest lecture from someone else in the department. Psychology suffers greatly from being taught by only one professor.

Psych 001 is taken by many students each semester, often enough to warrant the use of Sci 101. Depending on the professor teaching the course, however, it is not an encompassing introduction to the subject. Instead, at times intro psych is instead an introduction to social psychology, and at others to behavioral psychology. It is by no fault of the professors that this is the case, it is understandable that they approach the subject from the lens with which they have adopted over many years of instruction and research. But often, this means that areas such as cultural, development, and neuro- psychology are glossed over or barely mentioned in those courses. In a field like psychology, where an action or attitude can be interpreted socially, culturally, developmentally, neurologically, behaviorally, cognitively, or evolutionarily. All of those analyses have their merits, but when only one paradigm is taught, students walk away from the course feeling as though they know more than they truly do. Some of these fields are young sciences, in the case of psychology, sociology and anthropology, and it would not be doing these student a favor to make them feel as though there is a single approach that is right and accepted. There isn’t one, and that’s okay. It’s all part of the process. That’s exactly why introductory courses should be taught by more than one professor. It exposes students to the various, and sometimes opposing, views in a field, instead of sticking to a singular perspective.

The overwhelming unknown of marine biology

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anemone battle strike sm copy

From algorithms to explain gravity’s place in the universe, to characterizing battles of anemones, research at Swat teaches us about the complexity of something as “big” as gravity to as physically small as an individual A. elegentissima anemone – that’s where Mark Levine-Weinberg comes in. Last summer, he conducted research at Friday Harbor labs off the coast of Seattle.

Levine-Weinberg developed his own research project pertaining to marine biology and the ecology of the island where he conducted his research. His decision was inspired by a place. “My favorite field site was a place called Cattle Point. I guess I was most dumbfounded by this place because the tide is particularly rough, and there are lots of jagged rocks and anemones. So I knew I wanted to study something there.” With this specific location as a starting point, and a little help from his advisor Rachel Merz, Levine-Weinberg set out to study the dispersion of anemones in the island’s inter-tidal zone. The intertidal zone is a region of the ocean that is covered during high tide and exposed during low tide.

With excitement in his voice, he explained an epiphany moment: “I noticed that these patterns of distribution were different between lower intertidal and higher intertidal, and so that got me thinking about energetic tradeoffs for living at either level.”

In the lower intertidal zone, anemones were exposed to more predators, like sea stars. Since there were more anemones at this region, there was also more competition for space. At higher intertidal, these burdens are very different. The anemones are dealing with the incoming and outgoing tide, so they are in a constantly changing environment. When the tide is in, they are submerged in water and so are in a colder environment, and when it goes out, there is less water, causing the water to heat up faster in the sun. Additionally, because they are intermittently living in this shallow-water environment, rain really affects the anemones, and they have to deal with the change in salinity brought on by the rain.

This results in changes in the anemones behavior. And this is where the battles come into play. The way A. elegentissima compete for space is by fighting each other with their given weapons—their tentacles, called, dauntingly, acrorhagi.

“My hypothesis was that because they have to spend more energy in the higher intertidal to osmoregulate and thermogregulate, [deal with the changing salinity and changing temperatures] they would devote less energy to aggressive behavior.”

To test this hypothesis, Levine-Weinberg set up battles between anemones from the high intertidal and the low intertidal and recorded which one won each battle. He also scored different aggressive behaviors that were displayed during these battles. He found that there was no difference between number of battles won for high intertidal and low intertidal anemones. But, anemones from the high intertidal (more changing environment) have fewer acrorhagi, suggesting that they spend less energy growing these arcrorhagi to devote this energy to other things. He also noticed, “anemone personality. I did some correlations and found that anemones with more acrorhagi move more during battle and also tend to leave their battles more quickly. ”

When asked about his personal experience of conducting this research this summer, Levine-Weinberg talked a lot about the excitement of starting from pure curiosity and exploration and developing this into a focused investigation. “All I knew was where I was going, and I had read up on the habitat and the species of this island. I found the landscape overwhelming, because I grew up on the east coast and  had never been on a rocky intertidal.”

He continued, describing the habitat, “And I found out that there’s so many different places for organisms to live. They’re living in crevices, and in rocks, and on top of each other, and in anenomes, and there’s algae on top of them, and you can pick up a leaf of algae and find a starfish underneath.”

Levine-Weinberg was also inspired by the collaborative nature of Friday Harbor. He said, “[Initially] I was worried about being on this island, I thought I would feel so cut off from civilization. But there were grad students, undergrads, and twelve other REU students. The REU students were inseparable. And what was also great was that there wasn’t really a hierarchy for scientific conversations to occur. Everyone there, about 150 people, eats in the same dining hall, so even the most senior researchers who have published landmark papers will sit down with you and talk to you about what you’re investigating. I even got to meet the woman who published the landmark paper on sea anemone aggression. I was so star-struck, and so excited that she was interested in what I was studying.”

Doing research over the summer offered Levine-Weinberg the opportunity to meet renowned scientists and to contribute to their work with his studies. But research was more than a scientific endeavour. While learning about the natural world, Levine-Weinberg discovered not only new information, but a whole new world between the tides.

Laura Cacho to serve as new sustainability director

in Around Campus/News by
New Sustainability Administrator Laura Cacho
New Sustainability Administrator Laura Cacho

The college has hired a new director of sustainability Laura Cacho, who will work to encourage environmentally sustainable behavior throughout the campus.

In her role as director of sustainability, Cacho will also help organize courses focused on sustainability, invite outside speakers to raise awareness about environmental issues and help the various departments of the college become more sustainable. Additionally, she will work to reduce the carbon footprint of the college, encourage efforts to protect the Crum Woods and expand the Green Advisors program.

Olivia Ortiz ’16, the new environmental impact chair of Student Council, (StuCo) expressed her excitement at having an official director of sustainability to serve as a liaison between student groups and the administration. She hopes that Acho will expand the environmental studies program and to work on other projects to foster sustainability, such as updating the electricity metering system and standardizing compost.

“The role of sustainability director entails providing leadership to the many distinct sustainability efforts on campus and fostering a culture of sustainability among students, faculty and staff,”  Cacho said. “Key to this will be conceptualizing and leading campus-wide sustainability programs while collaborating and communicating effectively with the academic and scholarly research work of the faculty, campus operations and student sustainability activities.”

Cacho graduated from the University of Virginia where she majored in environmental science with a minor in landscape architecture. She also received a master’s degree of city planning from the University of California-Berkeley. For the past five years, she has served as a consultant and has worked across the US and Australia to help create more sustainable communities.

While Cacho has many goals for her time as director of sustainability, she will begin by becoming familiar with those at the college who have strong opinions on environmental issues.

“My very first action is simple: gather data and get to know the campus community,” Cacho said. “[I plan to] speak to as many people as I can to better understand the past and present activities, current processes and future desires of students, staff and faculty. Before action can be taken, it is important for me to understand Swarthmore’s culture and needs.”

Cacho will also re-evaluate the college’s progress, as outlined in the administration’s Climate Action Plan, to becoming carbon neutral by 2035. In addition, she will serve as a liaison and resource to student groups on campus.

Patrick Ammerman ’14, one of two students who was on the director of sustainability search committee, expressed his goals for a director of sustainability and his faith in Cacho’s ability to effectively make the campus more sustainable.

“I was looking for someone who could really champion the cause,” Ammerman said. “I think there’s an uphill battle to be fought with making our campus as sustainable as it needs to be and I was looking for someone who would be in it for the long haul who would be able to grind through some of the red tape and the hard work of causing true culture shift in the campus in order to make us a greener school. I think that Laura was a great hire and we were really lucky to get her.”


Biology department to hire conservation biologist

in Around Campus/News by

Next semester, students can expect to see a new face in the halls of the biology department. In the coming months, a search committee headed by associate professor of biology Nick Kaplinsky will finalize the hiring of an assistant professor who will specialize in the rapidly expanding field of conservation biology. Conservation biology is a unique multidisciplinary study of biodiversity which aims to understand human impact on the environment and to develop practical solutions to maintain ecosystems around the world.

Throughout the last several years, the biology department has dealt with over-enrollment issues and an increase in declared biology majors. Demographics of the Class of 2017 reveal that biology is one of the most popular disciplines that the freshman class listed as a likely major and the biology department expects that the high numbers will be maintained over the next years.

“Hiring new faculty members will help us handle these enrollments and keep class sizes small,” Kaplinsky said. “It will also allow us to continue to provide meaningful research opportunities involving close collaboration between faculty and students.”

According to the official advertisement for the tenure-track position, outside research with Swarthmore students will be a major teaching responsibility for the new assistant professor. At the moment, the biology department visualizes the new professor offering an advanced research seminar related to his or her field of interest, as well as leading a one-semester course in conservation biology and contributing to lectures in the team-taught introductory course Organismal and Population Biology (BIOL 002).

The exact types of courses that the conservation biologist will teach, however, will remain unknown until the search committee completes the selection process and allows the new professor to design his/her own curriculum.

“We try to give new faculty as much freedom as possible to teach to their strengths,” Kaplinsky said. “So if they were to end up doing something different from what we had envisioned we would fully support them.”

Kaplinsky also explained that the popularity of environmental activism among many Swarthmore students was a factor in the decision to hire a conservation biologist rather a biologist working within another field of study.

“We always consider what our students are interested in and excited about when making decisions like this,” Kaplinsky said.

The environmental studies department was directly involved in the selection process. Kaplinsky noted that members of the staff teaching classes which fall under the interdisciplinary minor worked on the search.

“The needs of the environmental studies minor certainly influenced this decision,” Kaplinsky said.  He also cited the importance of conservation biology as an emerging field and its integration of disciplines outside the sciences — such as political science, sociology, and Economics — as justifications for the selection. Kaplinsky expect that the new

Similar to Kaplinsky, biology professor Rachel Merz also cited student interest as one reason she was pleased with the decision to hire a conservation biologist.

“You’re a biologist and you study systems, and you start to see that many of [these systems] are being threatened. It’s not unusual to want to protect them,” she said. “Many Swarthmore alumni have entered the field [of conservation biology], and it makes sense to offer them classes in subjects about which they are clearly excited.”

Merz also mentioned the practicality of conservation biology, remarking that it has “more of an applied side” than other fields of biology sometimes do, as conservation biologists work to solve direct problems “not necessarily in an academic way.” Merz also views the hiring of a conservation biologist as a necessary step in diversifying the biology department.

“It’s cardinal that we have a balance. We have a wide variety of people asking questions about different levels of biological organization. A new faculty member will only add to this diversity,” she said.

Amy Vollmer, the chair of the biology department, referred to the extensive process for hiring or replacing a faculty member as “very formal,” and noted that the biology department amassed vast data on current and expected enrollment before submitting a request to the college to begin its search.

“Our department’s application to the Provost for each of our previous requests for a faculty search were about 25 pages long,” Vollmer said.

The department has been advertising the position for several months now on websites for academic job listings and in person at  Conservation Biology conventions.

“Response to the position was strong and yielded a large and very impressive pool of applicants,” Kaplinsky said.

Student response has been positive to the new hiring. Senior biology major Aarthi Reddy ’14 hopes that the new hire will rectify some of the over enrollment issues that have plagued the biology department throughout her four years at Swarthmore by increasing the number of available classes.

Lulu Allen Waller ’17, a prospective biology major and environmental studies minor, lauded the department’s choice.

“As someone very concerned about environmental issues, I’m especially excited to take classes that reflect my activist interests. It’s very important that the college ‘walks the walk’ — we have this reputation for activism, and now that activism is being reflected in the hiring process,” Allen-Waller said. “In almost no other area of biology have people been so outspoken about their passion. Regardless of your interests, there’s something about conservation that inspires people to activism. The college is definitely listening to their students.”

This hiring marks the beginning of a series of changes that the biology department hopes to see over the next several years. The department anticipates the college’s construction of a new building to house the biology, engineering, and psychological departments, and also expects that several staff members will retire or go on sabbatical, thus necessitating replacement.

As far as the immediate future, the department has also requested the college’s permission to hire a systems biologist. The conservation biologist whom the search committee selects should begin work starting in the next academic year.

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