POUGHKEEPSIE, NY -- When the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently began $263,000 in funding for a research collaboration between physics professor Jenny Magnes and biology professor Kathleen Susman, Magnes and her three fellow physics department members also crossed a rare threshold together; all of them are now receiving grant support from the NSF as either a project leader or participant. Notable as their joint accomplishment is, it’s indicative of the college’s exceptional recent success securing funds from the highly sought federal agency.
In fact, while the NSF website reports an approximate overall funding rate of 27.5% -- or 11,000 proposals funded for every 40,000 received – 61.5% of the Vassar faculty’s proposals for new support submitted in the 2009-2010 academic year were approved for funding. All told these proposals gained $3,591,823 in NSF funding for professors in the Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Education, Mathematics, and Physics departments.
What are Vassar professors doing so right?
“Projects must first and foremost distinguish themselves on their intellectual merit and broad scientific impact,” says chemist Marianne Begemann, Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources.
Magnes and fellow physicists David Bradley and Brian Daly currently hold NSF grants for a wide variety of advanced research, ranging (respectively) from architectural acoustics, to ultra-thin materials for semiconductor chips and other nanoscale technology, to three-dimensional optical analysis of microorganisms. Department chair Cindy Schwarz is part of two project teams currently supported by the NSF: with three fellow Vassar professors she is preparing students to teach science and mathematics in high-need public schools; and with two peers from other colleges she is developing new undergraduate curricular materials for the study of nuclear and particle physics.
Vassar has always cultivated a very dynamic relationship between research and teaching. That’s why the college has consistently hired faculty members dedicated to both aspects of academic life. The college also invests in quality research facilities for scholars like Brian Daly, who’s currently funded by a 3-year $214,000 NSF grant. Since joining the faculty in 2005 Daly has found Vassar to be a very fruitful home. “I do serious research and submit papers to the top journals, basically giving Vassar undergraduate students work that I’d be giving graduate students to do if I were at a big school,” remarks Daly. “I’ve found that while the teaching load and absence of grad students keeps me from the quantity of research most scientists in my field produce, I’ve been able to maintain a high level of quality in my work.”
Since Vassar scientists rely on undergraduate research assistants, the college provides hundreds of thousands of dollars in stipends each academic year that support more than 80 part-time student researchers. And to help Vassar professors and students take full advantage of the summer for research -- when classes aren’t in session -- the college established its annual Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI) in 1986.
Over two months URSI provides students a paid full-time opportunity for Vassar students to not only participate in a professor’s research but also to originate their own research projects. What began more than 25 years ago as a program that could only support a handful of students and professors, had grown by 2011 to include more than 50 students and 35 faculty members, serving all of the sciences with a budget of more than $150,000. Significantly, all of Vassar’s physics professors worked with students during the 2011 URSI program.
“Vassar is a very hands on learning environment that allows you to pick up the needed lab skills quickly. There really isn't a part of the research process I've been left out of,” says Rebecca Eells, a senior physics major. “Professor Magnes will brainstorm with her research students, teach them to prepare the samples and collect and process the data, help them to interpret what the data means, and she wants student input on her publications.”
Physics chair Cindy Schwarz believes that Vassar’s commitment to providing undergraduate students with such rich opportunities to contribute to faculty research is a significant added value that Vassar scientists can incorporate into their grant proposals.
“Weaving research and teaching is the heritage of the sciences at Vassar, and an agency like the NSF has come to understand how strongly the college supports this model,” Schwarz says.
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential, liberal arts college founded in 1861.