Early one morning in June 2017, I walked into the eighth floor general chemistry teaching laboratory in Altschul Hall, where I worked for 10 weeks over the summer, to find water streaming in through the ceiling. This was more than just a drip—it was coming down with the ferocity of a rainstorm bouncing off an awning, creating several puddles on the floor below. Bewildered, my research group and I did what any of us would do in this situation. We contacted Facilities Services and Dr. Kenise Jefferson, the laboratory and facilities administrator for the chemistry department, for assistance. We took some videos with our phones. We stood and watched in awe as the water continued to rain down from above. Dr. Jefferson remembers the incident well.
“On the 13th floor, I think it was, the sprinkler head broke,” she confirms during a recent interview. “And the water flooded, and it went all through the eighth floor and seventh floor.”
Altschul is the 13-story, limestone-and-brick structure that serves as the main space for science learning and research on Barnard’s campus. It is home to one large lecture hall, on the lobby floor, that seats 227 students, and small student study spaces on each floor. There is a couch on the ninth floor, and a large table with a blackboard always covered with organic mechanisms on the eighth. The eighth floor is where I spend most of my time, working in lab, taking classes, and going to office hours.
Beyond what it physically contains, Altschul is the source of many stories of dysfunction like this: elevators that stop without warning, miniature and not-so-miniature floods. It is, after all, almost 50 years old.
When Altschul broke ground in 1969, it was the culmination of a strategic project at Barnard to increase enrollment and prestige in the upcoming decade. The college began to invest in campus expansion, clearing the tennis courts in the west corner of campus and beginning an extensive campaign to raise between $8 and 8.5 million in construction costs. “Alumnae, parents and friends” eventually raised more than a million dollars for the project, motivated by the promise of a donation matched by trustees Helen Lehman Altschul and Samuel Milbank. The idea of such a cheap facility is as foreign to me as the idea of Barnard’s tennis courts. Modern science is very pricey (the Northwest Corner Building cost an estimated $179 million), and recent renovations to the building have been close in cost to that of Altschul’s original construction.
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Altschul’s groundbreaking. Since then, Barnard has drastically expanded its science departments. In 1969, Altschul was intended to function as a space for chemistry, biology, and mathematics. Today, the building houses chemistry, biology, environmental science, physics, and part of the neuroscience and behavior program.
But as scientific research and education expand at Barnard, so too have concerns about the adequacy of the building that has been so central to the College’s STEM education.
“Our lab facilities are basically bursting at the seams,” Jefferson tells me.
Barnard College President Sian Beilock’s inauguration was punctuated with messages about the sciences. The banners on Barnard Hall at the time showed Barnard’s science from the past and the present, urging viewers to imagine the future of STEM on this campus. Her inauguration speech revealed four core goals, one of which was a focus on science at Barnard. She cited the rise in science majors, the rising prominence of the science departments on campus.
“Our size and research prowess mean that we can be nimble and multi-faceted in our approach to building a strong presence in the fast-moving sciences,” she said in that inaugural address. While this carries some truth, the fast-moving sciences can be brought to a halt in the face of spatial limitations. Beilock’s vision for the sciences at Barnard is irreconcilable with the present reality of Altschul.
When Beilock spoke with the chemistry department last year, Jefferson and her colleagues “really stressed” updates to the laboratories, to best meet the needs of future students.
While updating the old building is clearly on the minds of the departments’ faculty, Altschul’s most obvious problem is space. Research and teaching laboratories need space. Some faculty share offices, though this can be a good means for collaboration. They need shelves for supplies, cabinets for glassware, instruments for analysis, and computers to make sense of that data. Renovations to Altschul could allow departments to expand their faculty and research, and moreover would decrease the risk of flooding, equal out the power balance, and improve airflow within the building. But potential proposals for the construction of new labs and the acquisition of more equipment would hit a common wall: There is a finite amount of space in the building.
The lack of space can directly impact students’ experiences studying the sciences.
Firstly, fitting an increasing number of STEM students into laboratories and classrooms is challenging when space is limited. Jefferson speaks of an “influx” of students entering the general chemistry lecture, possibly, she suggests, due to a rise in science majors and pre-medical students. Enrollment pressure has become “a huge issue for us,” Hillary Callahan, professor of ecological genetics and former biology department chair, says.
Trying to register for an organic chemistry laboratory course my first year was an experience as memorable as it was hilarious. Registration for the lab—which is required for chemistry and biochemistry majors as well as any other pre-health students—happens in person. Students left the general chemistry lecture early to rush from Altschul 202 up to the seventh floor, where we lined up behind lists of laboratory dates and times. Students who could not sign up for the laboratories had to delay taking the class.
My friend Catherine and I jokingly sang the climactic lyrics from Legally Blonde’s “So Much Better.”
“Is that my name up on that list?” we belted, poorly on my end, trying to draw a few laughs from the otherwise anxious crowd.
The departments are aware of these scheduling anxieties.
“We’ve reached our capacity,” Jefferson says of the laboratory course attached to the general chemistry course. A huge influx of students taking the general chemistry laboratory course—around 200 students enrolled in the class my year—means that already tired, older laboratory spaces see heavy use.
Callahan notes that some students must wait until senior year to get into their major-required laboratory courses. If a major cannot take a required course until late in their time here, this may impede their ability to major in the subject at all, though advisers work to alleviate these strains.
“We’re stretching our resources as far as they’ll go,” Callahan says.
Just getting everyone into a laboratory, though, is not enough. There is a common conception among students that, because of these enrollment limitations, knowing your major track by the beginning of sophomore year is of paramount importance. For students who decide to major in STEM later on, or are delayed in their completion of the track, the limited enrollment can be a greater struggle.
“I would argue that’s one reason we have to do better,” Callahan says. “I would say we should overspend ... because we want to be inclusive, we want to make sure that we get people who change their mind and we can accommodate them. We want to get people who might be from underrepresented groups who need more time to get through because their prep wasn’t as strong.”
But the quality of the space in Altschul is just as important as the square footage.
“A building this old is just like having a used car,” Jefferson explains. “After a while it just begins to break down.”
The many squeaking wheels of Altschul’s broken car present a myriad of challenges for professors and researchers.
“One of the issues we’ve had over the past couple of years is dealing with the electrical issues here in the building,” Jefferson says. “When buildings are quite old like this one is ... you can have certain types of power spikes.”
Power spikes like those that Dr. Jefferson describes can be damaging to instrumentation in teaching and research laboratories, most of which are housed in Altschul. When a piece of instrumentation is out of service, the work of professors and researchers is greatly complicated. While awaiting repairs, steps within research must be either halted or redirected. There is a certain momentum, I have found, in doing research, a rhythm and determination to progress through the steps of the protocol, an excitement to see whether your experiments worked. To progress for days or weeks, only to be halted by stalled instrumentation, can be frustrating.
Moreover, flooding—which has happened multiple times throughout the building, according to Barnard Vice President for Campus Services Gail Beltrone—can similarly threaten daily life and research in Altschul. Recently, during renovations of 716—the organic chemistry teaching laboratory—contractors attempting to work on a fume hood broke a pipe, and caused a flood that, ironically, reached a dry box, an air-sensitive instrument intended to remove moisture from the air. Beltrone confirms that the building has “had a few significant leaks” in the past five years.
Fixes won’t come easy. Beltrone explains that renovations to Altschul are difficult because of its infrastructural framework. Thirteen stories, vertically, is as physically imposing as it is hard to physically alter. But flattening Altschul is not an option—so what is?
Piecemeal renovations have been the primary solution up to this point, done on a floor-by-floor or laboratory-by-laboratory basis.
The morning flood I witnessed over the summer was stopped, in part, due to a protective layer between the sixth and seventh floors of Altschul. The protective layer was installed during renovations to the sixth floor. A 2011 press release reads energetically about the sixth floor additions: “If you happen to pass through the Helen Goodhart Altschul Hall on the Barnard campus during the spring or summer of 2011, please pardon any dust, debris, or noise emanating from the chemistry department on the sixth floor.”
The sixth floor renovations in 2011, which included the creation of an instrumentation room, a biochemistry teaching laboratory, faculty offices, and more, allowed chemistry to bring in new faculty, assembling a group of chemists from, as Jefferson puts it, “the main, major fields in chemistry.” The renovations were the result of a $1.84 million National Science Foundation grant. The new laboratories, which I have worked in, are beautiful.
The chemistry department renovated the organic chemistry teaching laboratory, 716, in 2004, to the tune of $2.8 million. The eighth floor, which includes the general chemistry laboratories, was similarly renovated.
A renovation of the Altschul’s eighth floor general chemistry laboratory is a pressing issue for Jefferson, as it is the only laboratory space for general chemistry. In fall 2016, enrollment in the course was 196.
Provost and Dean of the Faculty Linda A. Bell stresses that, while Altschul is a challenging space, “to date, we’ve been able to find resources and ways to use the existing structure to be sure we can support the faculty that we bring in.”
This claim does not entirely hold up. In 2014, Barnard’s biology department recruited and hired Dr. Rebecca Calisi Rodriguez, a researcher in bird reproductive neuroendocrinology. Calisi Rodriguez’s research required an aviary that would house the birds. When Barnard was unable to provide her with this, she left the college for the University of California, Davis, where she remains today, Calisi Rodríguez confirmed over email.
Despite the physical limitations of Altschul, Barnard has recruited faculty of “incredible talent,” Callahan attests. “We have women of amazing quality and women of amazing quantity. We owe it to them and to their future to make our building better.”
That future is currently under serious consideration by the administration, department heads, and President Beilock. These long-term plans will be delegated to a committee of all the science chairs, which the College has yet to formally announce. It was convened at the urging of Provost Bell to “try to create a vision of what science ought to be at Barnard,” according to Peter Balsam, professor of psychology and the neuroscience and behavior program director. The committee has no specific plans in place so far; these discussions serve to create a concrete idea of what Barnard’s future as a scientific institution may be.
Such committees have existed before. Callahan recalls a 2015-2016 committee in which faculty from chemistry, biology, and environmental science came together to discuss Altschul’s space and facilities concerns. There were many ideas proposed during these sessions, including the unification of the neuroscience faculty (which is currently split between Milbank Hall and Altschul) and the creation of mixed-department floors. Callahan says that such changes are disruptive, requiring money and flexibility.
But Balsam is hopeful about the new committee. From Beilock’s inauguration, and discussions with her, he believes she is “1,000 percent behind the idea. The provost is 2,000 percent behind this idea, and the faculty are entirely on board.”
“In order to generate a significant amount of money, you have to have an idea that donors are going to get excited about,” Balsam says.
There is some synchronicity in having the heads of science departments, known for their meticulous planning, attention to detail, and care down to the last significant figure, discuss a building that requires such close focus. Who better to look into wiring, electricity, accessibility, and sustainability than those who study cells, molecules, and quarks?
I can’t help but think about the original creation of Altschul, which radically changed the future of science at Barnard. With money raised by donors and students alike, the building became the home of three departments, then four and a program. Altschul created a specific space for the sciences at Barnard. Interest in the sciences will likely continue to grow. Projects by faculty will expand. Altschul is the limiting reagent in Barnard’s science reactions. The equilibrium cannot shift—the practical question, of renovate or rebuild, is still without an answer.
Provost Bell is eager to discuss the committee. With the arrival of President Beilock, the college is, “accelerating our interest, in some ways, with expanding Barnard’s footprint in STEM.” The idea for the committee is the brainchild of Beilock and Bell, who hope to create a vision for science at Barnard that is integrated and ambitious.
The new Milstein Teaching and Learning Center will include a 100-person tiered lecture hall, inspired, Bell says, in part by “the science vision, for how to better teach introductory courses in science.” The current lecture hall in Altschul, room 202, is large enough to fit my general chemistry and organic chemistry lectures. It is also booked to the brim with morning science classes, Monday through Friday. The day before a large test, the class immediately following the testing class vows, in strict terms, to be as quiet as possible. The hall leading to 202 is claustrophobic when classes let out, like fish swimming up a river, backpacks bumping into one another as students rush to their next class.
I love Altschul. In spite of its brutalist features and somewhat haunted elevators, it is as much home to me on campus as my dorm room is. I have watched the sun set over the Hudson from lab windows more times than I can count. I have met faculty who care about me, who entertain my endless questions and encourage my unorthodox ventures. I cannot say for sure whether or not the future of science at Barnard looks like Altschul’s dull gray structure. But I can say, with confidence, that the future of science at Barnard rests in meticulous, experienced, and caring hands.
Have fun leafing through our sixth issue!