Resources for the Natural Sciences

The sciences reside in the Integrated Science Commons, in Rockefeller and Ely halls, and the Class of 1951 Observatory. These buildings have “smart” classrooms, faculty offices, labs, and sophisticated instrumentation specific to each discipline in addition to resources shared across the natural science departments and related interdepartmental and multidisciplinary programs.

The Integrated Science Commons includes four buildings, fostering cross-disciplinary collaboration: Olmsted Hall, Sanders Physics, and New England Building as well as the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences, spanning the Fonteyn Kill and connected to Olmsted. This science-focused area of campus houses the departments of Biology, Chemistry, Cognitive Science, Computer Science, Physics and Astronomy, and Psychological Science as well as labs supporting Biochemistry, Earth Science, Environmental Studies, and Neuroscience and Behavior.

The Biology Department (Bridge for Laboratory Sciences and Olmsted Hall) supports the process of biological inquiry from molecules to ecosystems. Major instrumentation and facilities include: genomic/proteomic/biochemical instrumentation; a cell imaging facility, including epifluorescent and confocal microscopes with image acquisition and analysis tools; a scientific visualization laboratory; plant and animal physiological instruments and cell culturing facilities, including sterile cell culture; a large greenhouse and herbarium; a phytotron facility; and a vivarium that includes an aquatic organism laboratory, sound and video analysis instrumentation, and an evolutionary robotics laboratory with a 3D printer. The Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve, with a field laboratory, is a fully functioning outdoor field research station located within walking distance from Olmsted Hall.

The Chemistry Department is located in the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences. Chemistry faculty and students carry out experiments using an extensive array of state-of-the-art instrumentation for molecular structure determination, spectroscopy, chromatography, and other specialized techniques. Major research instrumentation funded by the National Science Foundation includes a liquid chromatography electrospray ionization quadrupole time-of-flight mass spectrometer (LC-ESI-MS) used to study the structure and composition of lipids and proteins, and a charge-coupled device (CCD) dual source X-ray diffractometer used to determine the three-dimensional molecular structure. Recent acquisitions include a 400 MHz nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer and an ion-chromatograph coupled to an inductively-coupled-plasma mass spectrometer (IC-ICP-MS).

The Cognitive Science Department (New England Building and Olmsted Hall) maintains state-of-the-art laboratories for research in human electroencephalography, human behavioral studies, computational modeling, and robotics. In addition, the department uses other facilities on campus for teaching and research, including the Wimpfheimer Nursery School for studies of cognitive development and the Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory for studies in human-machine interaction as well as work with autonomous robots.

The Computer Science Department (Sanders Physics) has its own hardware lab and machine room. The machine room is equipped with a full complement of Linux servers and Virtual Machines, behind a firewall, on a dedicated network of 60 Linux workstations—around 50 of which are available 24 hours a day in our two computer labs. Students may also access on-campus HPC (High-Performance Computing) and GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) computer clusters supporting multiple parallel, distributed, and grid computing paradigms. These computational resources collectively support faculty and student exploration and research in areas such as artificial intelligence, computational linguistics, natural language processing, multi-agent systems, temporal networks, computer animation, computer games, distributed algorithms, mobile computing, vehicular networks, distributed systems, parallel computing, evolutionary computing, bioinformatics, robotics, programming languages, computer security, and data science. Many of these areas are multidisciplinary in nature, and involve collaborations among faculty and students across the College.

The Department of Earth Science and Geography (Ely Hall) has laboratories devoted to research in geophysics, climate change, water and sediment chemistry, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Major instrumentation includes an X-ray diffractometer for studying crystal structures, a laser diffraction particle size analyzer, a coulometer and Chittick apparatus for carbon analysis, an alkalinity titrator, and a 19-seat GIS computer lab for cartography, spatial data analysis, and numerical modeling. The department makes extensive use of the environmental sciences lab, located in the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences, for teaching and research. The department also maintains field equipment such as sediment samplers and corers, stream gauges, Yellow Springs Instruments sondes for in-stream water chemistry monitoring, tablet PCs, a weather station at the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve, and Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers for field work and environmental investigations.

The Mathematics and Statistics Department is located in Rockefeller Hall. Facilities include classrooms, offices, display spaces, and a lounge-library that houses a collection of books of particular interest to mathematics undergraduates.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy (Sanders Physics) provides computer laboratories equipped for work in observational astronomy (image processing and data analysis) and computational physics. Physics research labs contain multiple laser systems, including 6-Watt and 4-Watt 532-nm continuous-wave lasers and an ultrafast laser capable of producing sub-picosecond pulses. The applied optics lab is equipped for spectroscopy and applications such as characterizing the motion of microscopic organisms. A high-vacuum sputter coater is available for the growth of metal films that can be as thin as a few nanometers. Physics teaching labs are equipped with instrumentation for majors to perform various classic experiments, including measurements of cosmic rays, the interference of light waves, and the fundamental constants of nature. Experiments on quantum optics, optical tweezers, and surface plasmons are available for advanced students for their intensive, independent projects. Observational astronomy takes place in the Class of 1951 Observatory.

The Class of 1951 Observatory includes a double-domed structure which houses a 32-inch reflecting telescope (tied for largest in New York State) and a 20-inch reflecting telescope. Each is equipped with a CCD camera and spectrograph. There are also several small telescopes, including an historic 8” refractor, and a solar telescope. The observatory also has a warm room for controlling the telescopes, a classroom, and an observation deck. Students also conduct research using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, the ALMA Radio Telescope, and other national observatories.

The Psychological Science Department (New England Building and Olmsted Hall) maintains state-of-the-art laboratories for research in physiology, neurochemistry, experimental learning, and electrophysiology, as well as observation and testing suites with sophisticated audio and video recording equipment for the study of development, individual differences, and social behavior. In addition, the Wimpfheimer Nursery School, described below, serves as an on-campus laboratory for students pursuing coursework and research in developmental psychology.

The Scientific Visualization Laboratory,

located in the Bridge for Laboratory Science building, is a multidisciplinary computing space dedicated to research and teaching in the natural sciences. It is designed to be both a classroom for sessions requiring the use of high-end software tools and a research facility where Vassar faculty and students develop individual and collaborative projects. It is equipped with high-end multiprocessor workstations as well as state-of-the-art audiovisual hardware.

The Wimpfheimer Nursery School, one of the first laboratory schools in the U.S., has a twofold mission: to provide high quality early childhood education and to serve as a laboratory for observation and research on child development and education. Students taking courses in developmental psychology, educational theory, and cognitive science routinely use Wimpfheimer for observation and research.

The Bridge for Laboratory Sciences incorporates the Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory, the first at an undergraduate institution in the U.S. The facility enables exploration of the technology of autonomous machines, the simulation of such systems for purposes including the study of animal evolution, and the use of these technologies in studies of telepresence, virtual reality, and related phenomenon.