Science you can see: Amherst College opens cutting-edge Science Center as part of $242 million makeover 

  • Left, Noah Gilreath and Jack Dufton, both students at Amherst College, study at tables outside a lab at the new Amherst College Science Center. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Julie Emerson, a biology lab coordinator at Amherst College, gets ready to teach an introduction to biology lab in the new Amherst College Science Center. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ella Rossa works on organic chemistry homework at a table in the large open study and hang out space in the new Amherst College Science Center. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Julie Emerson, a biology lab coordinator at Amherst College, talks with student Kara Barclay after class in the new Amherst College Science Center. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Students hang out, study and walk to class in the Amherst College Science Center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The Amherst College Science Center is the final project of a $242 million campus upgrade. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Ilyas Tezekbaev, a teaching assistant, with Julie Emerson, a biology lab coordinator at Amherst College, both set up stations for an introduction to biology lab Emerson is teaching at the new Amherst Science Center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The Amherst College Science Center. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tom Davies, director of Building and Construction at Amherst College, talks about the newly finished Amherst College Science Center. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

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    Carolyn "Biddy" Martin, the president of Amherst College, talks in her office about the newly finished Amherst College Science Center. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/3/2018 12:55:10 AM

AMHERST — There are no prominent signs telling visitors what the massive new building is on the east side of the Amherst College campus.

The minute you enter the front doors, however, there is no confusion. Scientists in stark-white coats stand in front of their experiments and high-tech instruments, visible behind floor-to-ceiling windows as you walk through the building’s atrium, which the college has dubbed the “living room.”

“One of the defining features of this building is transparency,” Jim Brassord, the college’s chief of campus operations, said Thursday. Brassord was standing in the atrium, flanked on his left by massive windows to the immaculate landscaping outside and on his right by three floors of labs and classrooms, fully visible behind glass. “It really demystifies the sciences.”

The 255,000-square-foot, three-story Science Center opened this fall after two years of construction, and it houses all the college’s sciences departments except mathematics and geology. The building represents the final project in The Greenway — in total a $242-million reconceptualization of the eastern part of campus that links the Science Center and four new dormitories with the rest of Amherst College.

Brassord’s quote about the Science Center’s transparency is hardly cliche or hyperbole. Just about every room in the building is visible behind large panels of glass. Large windows separate sets of dry labs with computers, web labs with chemicals and lab support rooms with collaboration spaces in between. Faculty offices sit at the back.

“You see science happening everywhere,” said Catherine Sanderson, a psychology professor whose teaching classrooms, research space and office are all located in the Science Center.

On Thursday morning, Sanderson was working in a classroom on the building’s top floor. From the walkway outside, passersby could see students sitting around tightly packed hexagonal tables that can be rearranged into different geometric shapes for other settings.

Three televisions and a projector screen lit the dark room with Sanderson’s presentation o n chronic diseases. The walls were all either floor-to ceiling glass or whiteboards, with markers for students to write anywhere around the room.

As for the teaching labs, they are much bigger than those in the previous science center, biology laboratory coordinator Julie Emerson said. There, quarters were so cramped that she couldn’t even reach some of her students where they sat, and had to use a microphone to lecture because of the loud noise the ventilation system made.

On Thursday, Emerson was busy cleaning a lab between back-to-back classes.

“We just got more of everything space wise, which is really what we needed,” Emerson said, adding that she was able to work closely with the building’s architects from the Boston-based firm Payette.

Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, Amherst’s president, said attracting great faculty who are doing cutting-edge research was certainly part of the impetus for building the Science Center. But education was foremost, she said.

“The real purpose is to ensure we’re doing the kind of science that prepares young people,” Martin said. Not just to be future scientists, “but to become leaders who are scientifically informed.”

As for the college’s plans for the future, the Science Center has a larger purpose as well, Martin said. The project significantly altered the landscaping and grade of the eastern side of campus, turning it into an attractive outdoor space for students that connects smoothly with the campus’s main quadrangle.

Martin said that in the past, she had heard the eastern part of the campus described as just a hill “that a few buildings seemed to tumble down.” Now, the Science Center provides a focal point where students congregate both inside and out.

That didn’t used to be the case.

Sanderson described the previous science building, the Merrill Science Center, as “hideous” and closed in on itself — hardly the place for students to voluntarily hang out. When the architects told faculty that students would frequent the building, Sanderson was “very very dubious.” But one Sunday night, she walked in to find groups of students studying, working and chatting with each other.

“It is truly where students are all the time and I love it,” Sanderson said. As a result, interaction between students and faculty has increased, she added. “I think it’s really changed the culture of the place beyond what my own expectations are.”

That’s not the only part of the culture at Amherst that higher-ups are hoping the Science Center will change. The college’s trustees committed a few years ago to work toward making Amherst a carbon-neutral campus, and the Science Center represents a big step toward that commitment, Martin said.

“It is a very energy-efficient building,” Martin said. “Part of its cost was really devoted to ensuring that it would be.”

From rainwater capture and solar panels to creative heating and cooling systems, sustainability is a large focus in the Science Center. The building’s energy use is 76 percent lower than the average science building, according to the college. And to make a science center, in particular, that efficient is no small matter.

“Science buildings consume a tremendous amount of energy,” said Tom Davies, the college’s director of design and construction. He was in the middle of showing off a water feature that sends the soothing sound of gurgling water through the building, but also serves as a visual gauge of how full the rainwater cistern is.

The Science Center’s sustainability stands in sharp contrast with the former Merrill Science Center, which Martin described as an “energy devourer.” That’s a big reason why Merrill now sits vacant and unused, shuttered until the college decides just what to do with it.

“That’s the billion-dollar question,” Martin said. Discussions are under way on that topic, though not plans have yet been made.

Amherst is certainly in need of new spaces, Martin said. There is currently a shortage of office space for faculty and staff, and a shortage of classrooms. Looking forward, Martin said she also hopes the college can also create more indoor spaces like the Science Center where students can “mix freely and enjoy one another.”

“Which is one of the purposes of college,” Martin said. “We want to make sure we have ways in this Northeastern climate for students to run into each other and to make friendships they might otherwise not have made.”

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