Suzanne Carbotte, senior research scientist at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, studies underwater volcanoes, an occupation that requires research at sea. But she’s not always working outside of international waters. While her research focuses on marine geophysics, whenever she is back on land, she often needs to ask questions of experts in other disciplines within the earth sciences. Luckily, they are usually only “a short walk away on campus.”
The campus in question here is not the same campus that Columbia undergraduates interact with on a daily basis. Carbotte, along with over 200 Ph.D.-level scientists and 130 staff members, works at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, 15.7 miles and one Hudson River away from Columbia’s Morningside Campus.
Far removed from city life, Lamont is home to Columbia’s acclaimed Earth science program and prides itself as Columbia’s center for areas of research ranging from geochemistry to ocean physics. It is the closest to Morningside of Columbia’s distanced campuses, yet it lies far enough away to require a commute from the Morningside campus.
So how does the distance between Morningside Heights and Lamont, as well as Nevis Laboratories, another outlying research site, impact the relationship between community members and Columbia as a university? How does juggling two campuses and regular commute affect the way in which these researchers associate themselves with either space?
The nature of the research at Lamont requires fieldwork. A quick jaunt through the research pages of the Lamont scientists shows images of professors posing on sand dunes, looking out on mountains, looking intently at rocks, and taking selfies in front of camps. For Carbotte, research comes in the form of “a cruise,” a trip every two to five years on the Columbia-run research vessel Marcus G. Langseth, owned and funded by the National Science Foundation. Although Carbotte’s research on underwater volcanic impact on tectonic plates necessitates these cruises, the majority of her work is based at Lamont itself.
In an interesting reversal of the stereotypical city commuter, who comes from the suburbs into the city, Carbotte, along with many of her Lamont coworkers, lives in Columbia housing in Manhattan. Getting to work entails a trip to Teachers College and then a University-run shuttle ride that lasts roughly 30 minutes to an hour.
The shuttle runs 10 times from each location, Morningside to Lamont and back again, with an hour break midday. The shuttle is free for faculty and students, beginning service to Lamont at 8 a.m. and ending service to Morningside at 7 p.m. Midday services sometimes stop in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and at the Columbia University Medical Campus on 168th.
While the University shuttle has been “a great boon for helping to improve communication and access on the campus,” for Carbotte, it doesn’t quite overcome Lamont’s distance from Morningside.
“It’s a little far and disruptive in our day to go onto campus for a particular seminar,” she explains, adding that Lamont itself has a “heavy and abundant seminar series.” Because of this, Carbotte says that events on the Morningside campus, while appealing, are not necessarily worth the half-hour to an hour commute required to go from one campus to the other.
This creates a separation based on physical distance between the campuses, allowing Lamont to function essentially as its own entity. It has its own seminars, staff, and mission. Lamont is, at best, a moon in Columbia’s orbit.
Michela Biasutti, Lamont Associate Research Professor and Senior Staff, works primarily in atmospheric modeling. This gives her connections to the Morningside campus through the department of applied mathematics. She is especially cognizant of the difference between the campuses.
“Lamont is special,” she explains. “It’s smaller, it’s more familiar, it’s a different feeling. You know, we get all-campus emails saying somebody dropped money between the cafeteria and the administration building: ‘If it’s your money, I have it.‘”
“I don’t expect that to happen at Columbia, at Morningside,” she laughs.
Speaking about the relationship between these spaces, Carbotte speaks with the methodology of a well-trained scientist, going carefully through the pros and cons of Lamont’s distance from Morningside. She theorizes that, in spite of the shuttle, undergraduate researchers may be dissuaded by the distance—especially since most undergraduates can only spend a limited amount of time on research.
Graduate and Ph.D. students in the Earth sciences, on the other hand, have schedules especially designed for the distance challenges. While many graduate classes in Earth science are taught on the Morningside campus, their class schedules are organized so that they can spend several days up at Lamont.
Nora Mascioli attests to this. She is a sixth year Ph.D. student in atmospheric science and modern and future climate. She takes meetings in Morningside on Thursdays but spends the majority of her time at Lamont.
Her transition to Lamont was gradual. At first, graduate students in the Earth sciences spend their Tuesdays and Thursdays on the Morningside campus, doing their coursework. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are spent in the Palisades. For Mascioli, whose coursework has ended and has been replaced with research, her Tuesdays now take place at Lamont. The system is considerate of the distance, she says, but far from perfect.
“Even when I was taking a lot of classes on [the] Morningside campus, most of my time was spent in a single building, and so I can’t say that I have a strong sense of the campus itself,” she explains.
Daily campus hopping, however, can be inevitable. For instances when Mascioli needed to be on the Morningside campus for a class for which she was a teaching assistant, taking the long shuttle ride to Morningside only to take it back an hour later to Lamont, “doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
“That was a little unfortunate,” she remarks.
Because of the need to be on two campuses, housing can become an issue for students and professors. Columbia-subsidized housing, though not entirely convenient for those living on distant campuses, is often the best option available. Occasionally, faculty and graduate students do attempt to live in different boroughs, such as in Queens or Brooklyn, but the commute and distance from the shuttle bus stop becomes too much of a hassle that they often can’t sustain it for long.
Living outside of the city isn’t entirely ideal either. “The tradeoff of living in the Palisades is … housing might be cheaper but you need to have a car,” Mascioli notes. Some aren’t given much of a choice. Mascioli’s research involves modeling, which she can do remotely. Those with laboratory-based research cannot bring their work home.
Students who work in labs tend to own cars to work around the shuttle schedule, “if you need to be in the lab past when the last shuttle runs, which I understand is fairly common,” Mascioli says.
Since September, Lamont has found itself as a point of arrival for faculty in the suburbs. Biasutti explains that Lamont has added a new shuttle that leaves at quarter to 8 in the morning for Columbia employees who live around there, preferring the suburbs, but need to commute to Morningside.
The shuttle also has a notable new stop: the Manhattanville campus—a reminder that Columbia’s presence extends beyond the confines of Morningside Heights.
Ultimately, the shuttle is an incredible resource for students and faculty alike, with only one major problem to speak of: it’s too popular.
Biasutti schedules her day around the crowding of the bus: “At a quarter to 5, my computer alerts me that I need to pack up and go, otherwise I’m going to be standing again.” Luckily, time on the shuttle—when seated—can be used for work.
But 28 miles and back on the New York side of the Hudson, scientists at Nevis Laboratory in Irvington, New York, have the opposite problem. With fewer than 32 people listed as faculty at Nevis, Columbia offers no shuttle service to and from the Morningside campus.
Instead, there are vans, and graduate students, post-doctoral students, and professors drive them. This has led to some “not entirely comfortable” situations, according to particle physics professor John Parsons.
The transportation problem is “a cost problem in the end,” Parsons notes. He says that researchers at Nevis have been calling for institutional support for years.
But Georgia Karagiorgi, assistant professor of physics and one of the drivers of said vans, enjoys the drive as a space to clear her head before work. The carpool nature of the van makes for good conversation.
Still, she’s enthusiastic about the idea of a shuttle. A Lamont-style shuttle, with several trips back and forth to Nevis, would give faculty “a lot more flexibility to attend meetings earlier in the day or later in the day.”
This benefit is echoed by Parsons. A shuttle could, in his words, integrate the two campuses. “If you had a flow of people back and forth, that would be more regular than having to decide, on a given day, are you on Nevis or are you on campus?” he says, noting the choices that the distance forces.
In addition, Karagiorgi believes that a shuttle would improve the productivity of the researchers. Instead of spending 35 minutes driving, a shuttle “frees up your hands,” to answer emails and use WiFi.
Parsons discusses the duality of being a professor-researcher, and the challenge that distance presents to that dual identity. While some professors can conduct their research in one building and cross the campus to teach within the hour, Nevis’ distance makes this difficult. “Sometimes we’re on campus, sometimes we’re here,” Parsons explains, “and sometimes we’re—Mike is in Geneva, and might in Georgia [Karagiorgi]’s case be at Fermilab, and so on,” he says while listing off his colleagues’ possible whereabouts.
Nevis’ research would be exceedingly difficult on Columbia’s Morningside campus. Based in the old mansion of Alexander Hamilton’s son, James Hamilton, the researchers have ample space, which is in short supply in Pupin. Much like Lamont, Nevis is a center for development and analysis more than research.
There doesn’t seem to be a way to bridge the gap between campuses entirely. Lamont’s self-sufficiency compensates for its distance, with seminars and specialists in the earth sciences. It allows researchers like Carbotte and Mascioli to live in Morningside and work over the George Washington Bridge. Nevis is not so lucky, with a lack of University-funded transportation accentuating the distance between Manhattan and Irvington. The research done at these two campuses necessitates their distance, but their distance does not have to be their division.
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