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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.

Go See Hidden Figures

in Campus Journal by

I do not pretend to be a film critic, but what I do know is that “Hidden Figures” is the movie the entirety of America needs to go see right now.

The story centers around Katherine Goble — married name Katherine Johnson — Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, three Black, female mathematicians working for NASA during the Space Race. At the time, the Langley Research Center was racially segregated and a highly sexist workplace. The three women are initially employed as “human computers,” tasked with calculating launch and landing trajectories for all rockets sent up into the atmosphere. However, due to their exceptional minds and tireless ability to push past the seemingly interminable layers of discrimination, each woman worked her way to transcend the occupation of a calculator and used her brilliant analytical mind to become an integral, invaluable component of the organization’s success.

In the film, we see the protagonists bombarded with horridly intentional discrimination from all sides. Dorothy is continuously disrespected by white, female counterparts in the East Computing Group. Katherine is forced to run for miles just to use the restroom because the one near her desk is reserved exclusively for whites, Mary must appeal to a judge in order to take classes at an all-white school to become an engineer, Dorothy is thrown out of her local public library by police officers because she was searching for a programming book in the white-only section.

“Hidden Figures” brings to light the innumerable, explicit, and overt elements of discrimination women and minorities experienced working as mathematicians, programmers, and engineers. While we have come a long way from the days where Jim Crow reigned legally supreme and there existed no protocol for women attending Pentagon Briefings, remnants of that time still linger and can be seen quite clearly in the severe lack of women and minorities in the majority of professional STEM fields.

One of the main implicit biases found against both women and minorities in STEM fields is the lack of role models and historical figures who look like them. My calculus classes continuously reference a series of white men — Euler, Pythagoras, Lagrange, L’hopital — who made various advancements in fields relating to integral calculus. I have never been in a math class where the teacher mentioned the name of a famous Black mathematician or one who was female.

Though the discoveries of the men listed above may have been relevant to the lesson, only mentioning white, male names sends the message to the subconscious of females and people of color that we are lacking some instrumental intuition necessary for the acquisition of a great mathematical mind. In the same light, the fact that I and so many others had no idea Dorothy, Katherine, and Mary existed until watching a movie made decades after they changed the world is problematic and extremely unsettling. Simply shedding light on the existence of diverse mathematicians will help derail this implicit bias.

In some ways, Swarthmore works hard to counteract biases such as these. Bulletin boards featuring women and minorities in various STEM fields grace nearly every department hall of the Science Center, and my Linear Algebra Professor Alexander Diaz-Lopez from last semester, continuously reminded the class that none of us should ever be afraid of pursuing our passions, even if those passions lie within in a field where we don’t see a lot of people who look like us.

Recognizing the importance of “Hidden Figures,” Swarthmore has provided students with multiple opportunities to view the film, including a free, Friday night screening in Trotter and free tickets for our college’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. Additionally, this past Wednesday, the Women’s Resource Center held an event titled Majorly Underrepresented, which was a dinner and panel featuring students who are underrepresented in their respective fields.

Yet, while the movie’s lessons are some that Swat has been trying to implement, it also exposes some faults within our own STEM programs. As much as Swarthmore does to counteract implicit biases in STEM fields, the school does reflect a percolation of some issues “Hidden Figures” illuminates. Take our own engineering professors: there is only one woman and one person of color in the entire department. The rest are white men.   

With regards to the impending Academy Awards, like I said before, I am neither a film critic nor a self-proclaimed cinematic expert. I do strongly believe, however, that this movie should win because it is an empowering story told through a beautiful piece of art. Whether the experts will concur with this assessment, I have no idea.

With respect to box office results, Theodore Melfi’s masterpiece has achieved impressive numbers, earning $144.2 million so far. “Hidden Figures” has the grossed the most to date domestically out of any Oscar contender, surpassing even incoming favorite “La La Land” with. But after two years of #allWhiteOscars, nothing is a guarantee.

Personally, I found the film to be extremely impressive on all fronts. Performers beautifully executed their characters, and the seamless progression of the story was well supplemented with entertaining background music. But most importantly, it unearths a story that has the power to influence children who love numbers, who are sitting in math class wondering why none of the famous mathematicians look anything like them.

Yet the movie’s most noteworthy point is its ability to achieve a feat natural science teachers, professors, and organizations across the country have been failing at for so long. This intricately crafted piece provides those who are severely underrepresented in computational fields that people like them can and have historically achieved excellence. And if that isn’t greatness — cinematic or otherwise — I don’t know what is.

CS enrollment continues to swell, department responds

in Around Campus/News by

Sam Evans ’17 had intended on pursuing computer science as a potential major. However, each of the four times he registered for a course in the department, he was denied enrollment as there were more students registered than spots available.

“This really hindered my academic goals as I had always intended on pursuing CS,” said Evans. “It was really frustrating not being able to take the classes [I wanted to] even after waiting two years to get in.”

The Numbers

In recent years, the college’s department of computer science has seen enrollment rise at a rate which the faculty has struggled to keep up with. Professor and Chair of computer science Tia Newhall described the growth as a large-scale phenomenon affecting colleges across the country.

“It’s a national trend. Computer science departments across the country, and probably internationally as well, are growing,” Newhall said.

According to a 2017 publication of the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of bachelor’s degrees obtained in computer and information sciences increased 50 percent between 2009-2010 and 2014-2015 as compared to a 15 percent increase in all other disciplines combined. Other colleges have reported a similar strain on their computer science departments to adjust to the sudden popularity. The University of California, San Diego, for instance, has seen the faculty-to-student ratio within its computer science department drop to 1-to-44, according to a May 2016 article in the The San Diego Union-Tribune.

 

Swarthmore associate professor of computer science Andrew Danner noted that the median class size in computer science falls between 30 and 40 students whereas the median class size across all disciplines at the college is roughly between 10 and 20 students. The college’s 2015-2016 common data report recorded that 41.9 percent of classes in all subjects are sized between 10 and 19 students.

According to Newhall, the number of computer science majors has spiked from an average of 12 majors per year to 55. In the sophomore class, she estimated that there will be around 55 majors.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to the numbers that we’ve had in the past where we had maybe twelve majors a year,” Newhall said.

Professor and Department Chair of English Peter Schmidt believes that the enrollment growth in computer science is indicative of a general increase of interest in STEM programs. Still, he does not feel that the enrollment boom in natural sciences has taken resources away from humanities. Instead, he worries that the growth of STEM programs may result in a disproportionate number of majors in the natural sciences as compared to the humanities and the social sciences.

“The big thing we worry about is making sure admissions recruits people and accepts people … who are definitely saying they’re interested in the humanities,” he said. “If we get below 10 percent of people majoring in the humanities, that’s really skewing everything.”

According to a 2015 article in the Phoenix, the percentage of humanities majors in the class of 2015 was 18 percent, the lowest rate in decades. How this rate will change in response to the recent growth in STEM majors remains a question.

cs lotto

Lotteries

Katherine Huang ’18, a computer science major and student assistant in the department, observed that the growth of the department has spiked since her first year at Swarthmore.

“When I took CS 21 [Introduction to Computer Science], the room was maybe half-full,” Huang recalled.

Huang believes the sophomore class has felt the worst of the growing pains.

“The year that’s been hit hardest is probably the sophomores because sophomores are usually eligible to take some upper-level courses, but this time around, they really can’t because juniors and seniors are in them,” Huang explained.

Amy Shmoys ’19, who recently applied to the computer science major, expressed her concern with being lotteried out of upper-level courses.

“I’m definitely very nervous about being lotteried out; it’s a very realistic thing,” she said.

Shmoys, who was lotteried out of CS 63: Artificial Intelligence this semester, does not feel that she was denied a key opportunity since she had luck in the lottery system in a class she finds interesting.

“It’s not so much that I’m missing out on learning stuff; it’s that the order is [unpredictable]. You pick and choose, and you get into different stuff,” she said.

According to Newhall, now more students enroll in introductory courses than can be admitted into the class, so students in over-subscribed classes are selected via a lottery system.

“I think it’s unfortunate that we have to lottery students out of CS courses at Swarthmore right now,” she said.

Newhall believes that enrollment in computer science is growing because the skills taught are applicable to a wide range of subjects.

“I think computer science is becoming more of a service discipline. It’s becoming more important to know some computational thinking and programming skills,” Newhall said. “A lot of disciplines [are] trying to solve problems using large amounts of data, and computer science has the solution.”

Newhall expressed her regret that more students cannot take CS 21, explaining that the problem-solving techniques taught in the introductory course are applicable to a wide range of disciplines.

“We like having and want to have a more diverse student body in CS 21. [There are] students who may go onto major, students who may never take another CS course again, students who may use programming and computational skills directly, and students who may just use it indirectly,” Newhall said.

Upper-Level Courses and the Honors Program

The wave of enrollment has also affected the format and size of upper-level courses. According to Assistant Professor Ameet Soni, the department must cap enrollment in upper-level classes at 40 students due to availability of space. Newhall stated that the program can no longer offer seminar courses as a result of the large number of students trying to take them.

“We used to have, for the senior comprehensive, a senior seminar, and we just can’t offer it anymore. We don’t have the faculty resources to offer an upper level class that’s capped at 12 or 15 [students],” she said.

There have also been changes to the honors computer science program to make up for the removal of two-credit seminars from the course offerings. According to the college’s description of the honors major requirement, students must now complete two two-credit preparations, which entail combining two advanced courses from a preapproved list. The structure of the preparation emphasizes the material of one course over the second, so that there is one “focus” course and one “breadth” course.

Soni stated that the department recently adjusted its requirements, so that students do not have to take the courses simultaneously as this has brought about scheduling difficulties for students.

“It was hard for students to be able to predict when the courses were going to be offered, so they weren’t necessarily able to take both courses before they graduated,” Soni said. “We’ve loosened that requirement to be focused more on one course rather than … two courses at the same time, and so that’s added some flexibility for students.”

According to Danner, the department hires visiting professors frequently, and it has each professor teach an upper-level course concentrated in their research area during the visiting period. However, he explained that, since visiting faculty are hired for only two or three years at a time, it is difficult for the department to plan courses in advance, so student majors are met with uncertainties when planning their academic track.

“It’s really hard for us to schedule, and it’s super hard for students to plan,” Danner said. “When we have students make up their sophomore plans, … we can kind of have an idea as to what courses will be offered, but it’s a sketch.”

Regardless of these changes, Soni observed that the honors computer science major is not very common.

“We’ve noticed that there [are] not as many students interested in pursuing honors,” Soni said.

Huang expressed a similar observation.

 

“Honors CS is pretty rare because CS is such a young field, but now it’s not really possible,” Huang said, reasoning that with the elimination of seminar courses, students are less likely to seek an honors major.

In-class accommodations

At all class levels, professors have had to adjust their styles of teaching in order to cater to the increased numbers of students in their classes.

Soni describes how technological aids have allowed him to retain some aspects of discussion-based learning in his classes.

“We’re bringing more technology into the classroom in order to help us. Ironically, most of us did not use PowerPoint until a few years ago,” Soni stated.

According to Soni, when he first started teaching in the department in 2011, many professors taught from chalkboards. Now, they have switched to screens. Soni videotapes lectures and posts material online before class periods for students to review. He explained that, in this way, students are prepared for the topics covered during class, so he can devote more of the hour to engaging students in exercises and small-group discussions. Soni believed that the peer instruction format, which entails a student-centered approach to learning that emphasizes application of material over pure lecture, allows students to interact more directly with one another and learn collaboratively.

“The reason it’s called peer instruction is [because the students are] talking to each other and learning the ideas together and grappling with some of the murkier questions,” Soni explained.

Soni also mentioned that many professors now employ classroom response devices, or clickers, in their larger classes in order to gauge students’ understanding. Danner noted the helpfulness of the technology.

“More faculty are using clickers in the classroom to get quick feedback from the class. It’s hard when you have a sea of 50 to 60 people; it’s very anti-Swarthmore,” he said.

Soni noted that professors have used the smaller format of lab sections to work with students individually. He said that, in spite of the growing enrollment, the department has been able to offer more sections of each lab and has kept the sections at manageable sizes. In addition, a new computer science lab was constructed in Clothier Hall.

“I think a lot of our changes have been [concerned with] trying to still maintain the contact we have with individuals in the class as opposed to losing them in the sea of students,” Soni explained.

Newhall praised the learning opportunities a small class can provide.

“There’s just more opportunities in a smaller class for students to do presentations [and] in-class work, and then go around and look at what other students have done,” Newhall said.

Moving Forward

The department hopes to hire more faculty to bring down class sizes in response to the enrollment boom. However, Newhall does not believe that the pace at which the department can hire faculty has kept up with the rate of growth.

“It’s kind of a slow process. It’s not keeping pace with how quickly we’re growing,” Newhall said with regards to the procedure for hiring tenure-track positions.

According to Provost Tom Stephenson, the tenure process is intended to be slow since professors often hold positions for extended periods of time.

“The process for adding tenure lines is designed to be slow and deliberate, so that we can make these commitments, which can last for the careers of a faculty member, carefully,” Stephenson said.

Newhall suggested that, despite the boom in undergraduate enrollment, there hasn’t been a consequent increase in candidates seeking tenure.

 

“There are lots and lots of positions, but there hasn’t been a big increase in the number of PhDs produced. So there’s fewer candidates for every position out there,” Newhall stated.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2009-2010 and 2014-2015, the number of doctoral degrees conferred in computer science only rose 25 percent, as compared to the 50 percent increase of bachelor’s degrees obtained during the same time period. Additionally, the rates at which bachelor’s and doctoral degrees are awarded in any discipline have increased by similar percentages, each around 15 percent.

Currently, there are several visiting lines in the department, and Newhall would like to see these professors gain more permanent positions.

“This semester, more than 50 percent of our courses will be taught by visitors … We’d like to change that percentage over time, and we’d like to be able to offer more courses … We certainly recognize what the issues are, and we wish we had more faculty resources to help,” Newhall said.

Student Reactions

In spite of increased class sizes, students in the department are pleased with the attention they have received from professors.

“I always felt like my professors were there for me whenever I needed them,” Huang said.

Shmoys also expressed her satisfaction with faculty teaching.

“All of the professors have been phenomenal despite the huge class sizes,” Shmoys said. “So far, all the professors I’ve had have had accessible office hours, and beyond that, [they] are always around in the CS department, so it’s very easy to just swing by and ask questions.”

Even so, Shmoys noted the difficulty of interacting with professors on an individual basis during class periods.

“If you make the effort to go and see [professors], then it’s very easy to have a relationship with the professor, but you don’t get it as much in class,” she said.

On behalf of the department, Newhall reflected on the responses of faculty to the increase in enrollment.

“We’re trying to do what we can do, given the numbers of students that we have and the number of faculty resources that we have. It’s not what we’d like to do necessarily, but it’s what we can do,” Newhall asserted.

Huang expressed her wish for a more stable future for the department.

“I hope that the CS department will be able to find its balance in hiring faculty and holding classes,” Huang affirmed.

In the face of spiking student enrollment, the computer science department has had to make sacrifices as it struggles to maintain a new equilibrium. The future of the program remains uncertain, but students feel adequately supported by the department in spite of its changes.

WTF? Where’s the family in STEM?

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

The biology department feels like a family. This is something that resonates with my peers in Bio 2 as we munch on bagels (courtesy of Nicole, a professor) before morning lab, as we dispute “challenge questions” at Study Group Meetings, and as we gather for office hours in Sci Commons. Why does the bio department feel so friendly? And why don’t some of the other departments share this friendliness?

I am a freshman and have had my taste of some of the STEM departments: physics, math, chemistry, and biology so far. Bio 2 is my first biology class here at Swarthmore, and much of the experience has taken me by surprise.

First of all, the biology professors go by their first names. This felt strange to me, so I continued to refer to my lab instructors as “professor” until my friend pointed out that I was the only student doing so. I uncomfortably referred to my instructors by first name, wondering why they didn’t prefer the honorable term “professor.” But after a week or so, I found myself comfortable going to them for guidance. The first-name basis seemed to level us out in lab: the lab instructors were our friends, were there to help us, and not once have I resisted asking them a question out of fear that I should already know the answer. Furthermore, the professors refer to each other by first name, and often add on a compliment when introducing a new lecture. For example, Sara introduced our next lecturer, saying “my intelligent friend Liz will now teach us about biodiversity.” As a student, sitting in a packed Sci 101, or confused over a lab procedure, the friendliness between student and teacher and between teachers makes me feel comfortable and at home.

The approach to collaborative learning is just as comfortable as the first-name basis. The lecturer often reminds us about their office hours and encourages us to come, even if it is just to get to know each other. I go to office hours whenever I can and I almost never have a question prepared, but I find myself learning a lot just because of the way the professor structures their discussions. Students ask and answer each other’s questions, and the professor acts as a guide rather than giving us every answer. The SGMs are structured in a similar way. Contrary to other study sessions that I attend, where the student-teacher and/or professor must be beckoned over to your table in order to answer your questions, at SGMs student sit in a circle with a Science Associate, an individual who acts more or less as a student teacher, helping students understand topic from lectures. The circle-table set up, in addition to all of the great snacks, effectively establishes a collaborative setting for students. Firstly, the SAs are not intimidating because they actively and positively participate in the conversation and often draw from their own experience in Bio 2 in order to encourage the students. For example, when learning about Tyrone Hayes’ research on Atrazine in frogs, multiple SAs mentioned that he gave a talk at Swarthmore once, and that he was the most inspiring and energetic frog-enthusiast they’d ever met. Secondly, as a student I feel as though I am receiving more attention from the circle format in comparison to other study sessions where it not only requires effort to find a group of students to work with, but also to find a student teacher to help you with your problems.

So, why is the bio department the only department where I have experienced such comfort and collaboration? I have no objections to the other departments; I find every study session that I attend to be helpful. However I do think that the bio sessions and professors work together to form a sense of community that my other classes lack. For example, in chemistry “Alchemist” sessions, the student teachers sit at the front of the classroom and you must raise your hand in order to get their attention. This set up does not create the naturally collaborative environment that I find at the SGMs. In addition, in the bio department, the class set-up is such that the professors rotate lecturing about every two weeks, so I generally feel that I know the department better than the other departments.

A combination of factors make the bio department seem like a family, from the office hours to the study group meetings to the first-name basis. My question is whether or not the other departments should take after this model. Would the friendly model benefit students in other intro STEM classes? I think it might; perhaps less students would drop classes and perhaps more would register in the first place if they heard that Intro to Chemistry, for example, was as big of a party as Intro to Bio. From my own experience, many Swarthmore students get nervous about continuing in STEM classes because they know that it is hard and perhaps feel unprepared, unequipped, or unable. A friendly approach could help these students feel less intimidated and more supported. However, what is the danger to this friendly model? False advertisement, perhaps. I suppose the intro bio classes will remain a unique case of ultimate collaboration at Swarthmore (for all of you looking to fulfill a lab requirement, I highly recommend!), but it is interesting to think about how other STEM classes advertise themselves, enable collaboration, and support their students.

WICS offers women in computer science support, opportunities

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

We’ve all heard the statistics: women are pretty drastically underrepresented in STEM fields, particularly those of computer science and engineering. A mere 17 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees, nationally, are awarded to women.  Although Swarthmore typically does a little better than this national average, it is still disproportionate relative to the number of women attending the college.

 

Because of this uneven distribution of men and women in the Computer Science department, the student group Women in Computer Science was formed to provide a supportive community for women in this field dominated by men.

 

“It can be kind of intimidating to walk into a CS class, especially at an upper level as a women when you’re surrounded by men. Having a support system and being able to talk to people who are dealing with similar things can be really important in helping people feel comfortable staying in the field rather than just taking an intro-level course and then dropping,” said club outreach coordinator Ali Rosenzweig ‘18.  

 

The introductory CS classes–such as Introduction to Comp Sci, Introduction to Computer Systems and Data Structures and Algorithms–are fairly even in terms of how many men and women are enrolled in the class, although the number of women in CS classes drops off in higher level courses, according to WiCS webmaster Martina Castigliola ’17. “One major goal of WiCS is to create this welcoming community filled with great opportunities for women interested in CS really early, so that they are more encouraged to continue with the major,” Castigliola said.

 

Castigliola echoed Rosenzweig’s feelings about the importance of a welcoming and supportive environment. She hopes that it will create space for women in the department to ask each other for both personal and academic advice.We also want to create projects for members to participate in, and create a platform that allows members to get together and participate in side projects on their own time, and to create opportunities for members to receive help and guidance with career related topics – like technical interview prep, resume reviews, and networking opportunities,” Castigliola said.

 

Rachel Diamond, co-president of WiCS also brought up the importance of having women get involved in CS. “Everybody interested in CS should be able to and be encouraged to pursue their interest, and groups like WiCS are an important part of making CS accessible and welcoming to everyone,” said co-president Rachel Diamond ’18.

 

Rosenzweig knows the importance of a supportive community because she has, in her high school particularly, experienced what it is like not to have such a support system. “When I was younger that intimidation factor of being in a heavily male-dominated field definitely made me not start earlier. Like we had a high school robotics team that was almost all guys, and it was a very distinctive group and you kind of knew if you weren’t a part of it. I thought it was really cool but I never felt comfortable joining so I didn’t start CS until college,” Rosenzweig said.

 

One of the club’s main focuses is to prepare women in CS for future job opportunities through events with Career Services, teaching resume advice and technical career prep, and job interview preparation. “These are useful skills that everyone needs but I think women tend to be less prepared for it because of the personalities that we’re trained to have; that you have to be more sure of yourself in those settings than women are normally encouraged to be,” Rosenzweig said.

 

WiCS does a lot of work with Swarthmore alumni in order to increase these networking opportunities and to work on job readiness. The club is starting a new mentorship program that pairs current students with alumni working in computer-science related fields, in order for students to gain insight as to what a career in the field might be like.

 

For Diamond, the experience has been exciting and inspiring. “WiCS has made me realize how amazing Swarthmore alumni are- they are great people to reach out to and they have experience that is a great resource for current students,” Diamond said.

 

While the group does focus a lot on job and interview preparation, another one of its main goals is to create a safe space for women in CS fields by creating a community of women so it feels like there’s a stronger female presence in the department. “We have events that aren’t structured, so it’s essentially just us doing homework or hanging out in the robot lab in Sci and listening to music and eating oreos and whatever. If you have people who have questions specifically about gender related issues or just in general and aren’t comfortable asking professors or aren’t comfortable asking certain peers then it kind of gives them an environment where they can do that more comfortably,” Rosenzweig said.

 

WiCS also allows members to travel to coding conferences, such as Grace Hopper, the largest all women’s tech conference in the world, as well as events like FemmeHacks at UPenn and WECode at Harvard.

 

One event that WiCS held recently was an opportunity for people to share their externship experiences with the group. One student’s account of her experience that stood out to Rosenzweig did so because of the small details about gender dynamics in the workplace. The event created a space for such things, which may not normally be considering when students apply to jobs or internships, to be discussed openly.

 

Biochem research with Meghann Kasal

in Campus Journal/Columns/STEM Spotlight by

 

This week, I talked to Meghann Kasal ’17, who does research with Professor Stephen Miller in the biochemistry department. Kasal’s work centers around bacterial communication, specifically with a process called quorum sensing. In quorum sensing, bacteria produce molecules called autoinducers. The greater the density of bacterial cells, the greater the concentration of autoinducers, and past a certain threshold, the autoinducers are detected by the bacteria and result in a change in gene expression. This process allows for rapid, community-wide communication, used for things like bioluminescence (bacteria that glow) and biofilms (bacteria that stick to each other and form a film, often a major culprit in chronic bacterial infecitons). This communication, explained Kasal, can occur both intra-species (within the same species) or inter-species (between different species). Kasal focuses on inter-species communication. Quorum sensing in bacteria has strong implications for antibiotics, among other important future directions, so figuring out the mechanism behind it is hugely useful.

Kasal applied to do research in the biochemistry department with Professor Miller last summer after taking biochemistry in the spring. Coming into the lab, Kasal’s research would focus on a family of inter-converting molecules called AI-2 that are used in quorum-sensing communication in bacteria. AI-2 consists of one binding ligand that can convert between two known forms, although Khasal believes the molecule can probably convert between more than just those forms. AI-2 is special, both because it is produced by and binds to many different types of bacteria. One receptor that binds AI-2 is called the LsrB protein. Many bacteria can synthesize AI-2 using an enzyme called LuxS, and bind AI-2 by the LsrB receptor. Because of this, the greater the concentration of bacteria that can produce AI-2, the greater the concentration of AI-2 is, which enables the quorum-sensing communication that Kasal studies.

Kasal’s work was to identify receptors on novel species that could potentially bind  AI-2, and to figure out if they could bind the molecule based on the structure of the receptors. Kasal found potential LsrB-like receptors on species that are likely to bind AI-2 by identifying the extent to which the binding sites on the novel receptors were conserved. The more amino acids at binding sites that are conserved between the known LsrB receptor and the putative receptors on the novel species, the more likely the receptor is to bind AI-2. They had some bacteria species that had many binding sites conserved, and some with fewer. One species, said Kasal, only has 3 of the 6 key binding sites conserved on the receptor protein. However, Kasal said they still have hopes that it will bind, because the changes in amino acid sequence are modest compared to the known receptor proteins. Additionally, AI-2 itself is a molecule that is known to be able to adapt to its receptor, so if AI-2 can convert to other forms that have not yet been discovered, it may be able to bind many more species than previously thought.

Kasal went through a process of designing plasmids (small, independent bundles of the relevant genes for the receptor protein) and amplifying them using PCR, or polymerase chain reaction. PCR replicates a gene sequence of interest through a cycle of heating and cooling during which DNA polymerase, an enzyme used in DNA replication, creates a chain reaction of DNA replication at the desired site. The heating separates the two strands of the double helix, creating two template strands. When the temperature is lowered, the polymerase uses the strands as primers to replicate the sequence. The end result is thousands to millions of copies of the desired DNA sequence.

After doing PCR, Kasal inserted her genes into vectors (molecules that carry the protein) and transformed them into bacterial cells of different species to end up with new bacterial species that now contained the putative AI-2 receptors. In one species, she used two types: a LuxS+ strain, meaning it produced AI-2, and a LuxS- strain, meaning it did not produce AI-2.

After doing some trials, Kasal has found that three of her identified receptors have so far exhibited binding to AI-2. They have yet to do trials on the protein that only has 3 of the 6 binding sites that is conserved, but Kasal has hopes that it will work. The next step, she said, is figuring out the exact structure of each receptor protein and the type of AI-2 molecule binding to it. This can be done using a process called X-ray crystallography, in which the protein is grown into a crystal and then shot through with X-ray beams. The diffraction pattern — or the specific angles and orientations of the beams — can be converted into a three-dimensional model of the exact structure of the protein. Then, said Kasal, they can compare the structure of the protein to the predicted structure that their sequence gave them. Kasal also hopes that they can do this for a receptor protein that is bound to AI-2, because then they can observe the type of AI-2 molecule that is bound, and maybe even identify a new form of the molecule. The long-term implications for this are exciting: Kasal said that understanding the process by which bacteria can communicate in these large-scale ways has huge medical applications.

“If we can basically hijack bacterial communication, then we can control bacterial levels, and that can then be applied to, for example, the human gut microbiome, and it can be used alongside antibiotics and other treatments,” she said.

Kasal told me she knew she wanted to be a biochemistry major since early in high school. She loved chemistry in high school and especially loved organic chemistry here at Swarthmore, but has also loved biology. Biochemistry is, for her, the perfect match of those major interests.

“In my head, just combining [biology and chemistry] and looking at biochemistry is to me the way that I can put those interests together,” she explained. “I look at chemistry and I see all these ways to figure things out, but then I see bio and I’m like, I can use these realistically in these applications. I like that kind of detail, but I like studying it at the level of the organism.”

Khasal said she finds research specifically interesting because she likes to be able to solve a problem, “basically from step 0.” She likes not only the problem-solving aspect, but also the idea that she’s in the lab herself, carrying out the experiment that she designed.

Kasal expects to spend the next year and a half at Swarthmore working on the crystallization process for the AI-2 receptors, and writing her thesis on this research. After that, she plans to go to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D in a biochemistry-related field, and then she wants to become a professor. For Kasal, being able to pursue research while also being able to teach about her passion is the dream.

“I really like the idea of doing research and continuing research my whole life, but teaching is really fun for me and I really want other people to have that experience where they look at biochemistry and say, wow this is awesome,” she said.

 

In the lab with engineer Ascanio Guarini ’16

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This week, I sat down with Ascanio Guarini ’16, an Honors engineering and economics major, to discuss biomedical research he did over the summer of 2014 at a lab affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital.

When Guarini joined the lab, the team was developing a new technology to combat esophageal lesions that are a precursor to throat cancer. These lesions, which result in a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, are usually caused by acid reflux. If undetected or untreated, Barrett’s esophagus, which can be considered stage 0 esophageal cancer, will develop into adenocarcinoma (a nasty cancer). Once it has progressed past stage 0, esophageal cancer usually requires surgery, and still only has a 5-year survival rate of about 20%1. Fortunately, at the time Barrett’s esophagus is detected, the lesions are only growing on the mucosal lining of the esophagus. If the abnormal cells of the lining can be destroyed without causing damage to the rest of the esophageal wall, the progression to esophageal cancer can be halted. However, currently available technologies that do this are spotty: they burn away the mucosal tissue, but often are too superficial and leave some precancerous cells behind in deeper layers of the lining. On the flip side, they can also burn away too much tissue, causing serious damage to the healthy esophageal wall and requiring, as Guarini described it, “gruesome” surgery.

When Guarini arrived for the summer, the lab was in the development phase for an ingenious device that took advantage of the elastic characteristic of the mucosal lining, which is stretchy like skin. As Guarini explained, the device “[uses] a vacuum to suck the lesioned tissue away, isolate it, and then burn that tissue away specifically.” Picture putting your skin up against a vacuum. The vacuum pulls your skin out, but your muscles, bones, and everything else stay in place. That’s what the device does to the mucosal lining. Another useful thing about the device is that it’s shaped like a cylinder, with the vacuum going 360º around it, and can be moved up and down to ablate the entire esophageal lining as it goes. “Imagine you’re shaving away a layer of tissue. You put this catheter in, have this device set up, and you can go up the esophagus and ablate away,” explained Guarini. Because the device can so specifically target the tissue, it would theoretically only require one treatment, as opposed to current methods that require up to three sessions over nine months, with healing periods in between.

What was Guarini’s role in all of this? “Before we go into in vitro studies on animals, we want to know if we need to change anything about the design,” he clarified. “So I had to develop, essentially, a computer model of this device from scratch. I started from, OK, I have the dimensions of this device, and I have this package in MatLab …  where you can do a lot of really good modeling.” Guarini essentially needed to figure out the numbers behind the design — how much heat did it need to emit to destroy all the lining tissue of the mucosal lining, but not cause extraneous damage? How fast could the device be moved up the esophagus while still destroying all the targeted tissue and leaving no lesions behind? How much electrical power would this all take, and was that a realistic amount?

“The results were pretty cool,” said Guarini. They modeled the device with varying speeds (between 1 mm/sec at the slowest and 26 mm/sec at the fastest) and at varying temperatures, and found that above 70º Celsius (158º Fahrenheit), speed had little effect on the efficacy of tissue destruction. That is, they could move the device very quickly, and it would still be hot enough to destroy all of the targeted tissue. At 70º Celsius or below, the model predicted that the device would need to move more slowly to effectively kill all of the lining.

“It was kind of surprising how perfect it was, right, and that’s kind of a concern in the sense that… is that actually the device, or is that the model? And that’s something I couldn’t actually test,” Guarini expanded. They would need to experiment on cadaver tissue in order to ascertain exactly how accurate the model is, he said, which is what the lab is currently working on.

“It looks like we need a pretty high temperature, probably like 80º,” Guarini said. The model predicted no danger to deeper tissues even at 90º, but Guarini thinks it’s possible that the model may not be fully accurate in predicting the level of damage. “90º is pretty hot, and you may actually go deeper and do more damage than the model is predicting,” he explained.

Guarini also found the power requirements were realistic — at high temperatures, about 18 watts. That’s less than the power that a typical light bulb uses.

Ultimately, Guarini said, the lab would also apply imaging techniques to the device, so that they could monitor the ablation of the tissue in real time and make sure everything was working the way they wanted it to.

Guarini found it fascinating to see the way the lab, which is based in academia rather than for profit, worked from bench to patient. “This is maybe my romantic view of it, but [they] make something that can make a difference, achieve a solution to a significant problem that’s better than what’s available, and then have those that have the resources and the marketing power, business power, bring it to the patient. It was definitely cool to see the process in general,” he said.

Guarini said he feels a pull toward understanding systems on all levels, from “a small scale engineering system like this device to an incredibly large complex system like healthcare.”  Being part of this project was exciting for him, he said, but he also wants to expand his horizons to a more macroscopic systems view. Guarini knows that next year, he’ll be at Stanford, doing big data applications in health policy research. Guarini believes this research will enable him to apply his majors in economics and engineering, as it is at the intersection of health economics and policy evaluation. He hopes that next year will give him an idea of a larger scale system that he might be interested in, and beyond that, he’s not sure what he will do. For Guarini, his education has taught him to find his interests, and it’s been a long searching process: “What are the kind of problems I want to solve, and what kinds of problems match my skills, and at what scale do I want to solve them?”

Guarini described his participation in the project as fulfilling. “In 5 to 10 years, if this device ever comes to market, I can say, OK, I worked on that, I had a piece in that project,” he said. “And obviously I take next to no credit for it because relative to the work that they do I hardly did anything. But I did have a piece, a small contribution, and that was an amazing aspect of being a part of that.”

For more information, check out the Vakoc lab website: http://vakoclab.mgh.harvard.edu/

 

  1. http://www.clevelandclinicmeded.com/medicalpubs/diseasemanagement/hematology-oncology/esophageal-cancer/

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