For(e) sight


Faculty members may still be unpacking, but the Mars Center for Science and Technology is officially open. It is a glorious building in so many ways, from the “green” technology hidden in its infrastructure to the gleaming façade it presents to the campus. Since the new building opened in late July, I have walked through the facility at least a half-dozen times for no reason other than to appreciate the space. It is truly a marvel.

While the quality of the Mars Center is no surprise, the reality has me just a little awe-struck. This building represents many things, not the least of which is the incredible generosity of Wheaton’s alumnae/i, trustees, parents and friends. The college was able to take on this project in the midst of one of the nation’s deepest and most sustained recessions only because of loyal supporters who contributed $35 million to this effort. That would be exceptional at any time; in this economy, it is heroic.

The building also demonstrates the power of clear vision and a unified purpose. The faculty members who helped plan this facility began their work nearly 10 years ago. In 2002, they established four goals, one of which was promoting and showcasing student and faculty research. That goal is easy to see today when you walk through the Mars Center; it is reflected in the “open” design of the spaces.

Visitors to the building can see into each classroom, seminar space and laboratory, thanks to the extensive use of glass panels rather than solid walls. As faculty members and students settle into their new labs, their work will be visible. The research and collaboration that is such a valuable part of the Wheaton educational experience will be in the spotlight.

The scholarship that our students and faculty are engaged in deserves to be highlighted. It is original, creative and creating knowledge. For example, Professor Matthew Evans’s study of the natural processes that contribute carbon to the atmosphere or trap chemical markers of phytoplankton life in sea ice will deepen our understanding of climate change. It is all the more noteworthy for Wheaton since he has made a practice of involving students in his work in the lab and in the field. In fact, the grants he has received (from the National Science Foundation and from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) include funding for student involvement. A team of Wheaton faculty members recently received a $135,895 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to apply the computational and statistical tools of DNA mapping to the analysis of literature. Chemistry professor Jani Benoit’s investigations into the impacts of mercury on the environment have involved student research assistants, too.

Examples abound. And the truth is that, at Wheaton, faculty and student research collaboration extends beyond the sciences to every discipline represented at the college, from art history and anthropology to history and sociology.

In a timely coincidence, the college just received a $150,000 grant that will expand support for student and faculty research projects. The three-year grant, a Presidential Leadership award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will enable faculty members to continue scholarly work beyond the classroom, and it will create opportunities for students to participate in original research efforts.

This grant addresses one of Wheaton’s most essential priorities: providing the resources for faculty and students to conduct scholarly work. The excitement of intellectual discovery that comes from engagement in scholarship is central to the college’s mission and to keeping our curriculum vital and evolving.

Funding from grants and from the endowed research funds established by Wheaton’s supporters plays an incredibly vital role in keeping this work going. Now, the new Mars Center for Science and Technology provides an incredible stage to inspire our talented faculty and students. The ways in which this building will transform the campus go well beyond its gleaming façade and welcoming spaces.

Photo by David Laferriere