Strengthening Roots for STEM

A Henry Luce Foundation grant will fund data-driven student research

By Melissa Phipps

As Barnard continues to build its reputation as an important place of undergraduate study for women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), foundations and funding institutions are taking notice. Barnard was one of a handful of schools in 2015 to receive a substantial grant from the Henry Luce Foundation through the Clare Boothe Luce (CBL) program, bringing with it the exciting opportunity to support eight Barnard students interested in pursuing data-driven scientific research.

The $196,440 award will support two cohorts of four Clare Boothe Luce Research Scholars each; their work will be part of Barnard’s hands-on, fully funded Summer Research Institute (SRI), now in its third year. Working under the guidance of individual faculty members, the CBL Research Scholars will investigate scientific questions through data computation, using computer code to learn more about the physical world around us. Ann Whitney Olin Professor Timothy Halpin-Healy, chair of the physics department, serves as the faculty director of the CBL program. “This grant is all about supporting numerical, computationally intentional, big-data projects,” he says.

Illustration by Monica Ramos

The CBL program is named for Clare Boothe Luce, a journalist, playwright, politician, ambassador, and wife of Time magazine founder Henry Luce; she is probably most famous for her classic but campy 1939 comedy, The Women . Since the first bequest in 1989, the CBL program has provided support for more than 1,900 women working in scientific fields where there is continued gender disparity.

Open to students majoring in or intending to major in STEM fields, with a preference for chemistry, computer science, mathematics, neuroscience, or physics majors, the CBL research support is the type of prestigious award that changes the lives of the students who receive it. For one thing, there’s the funding. The grant offers $4,500 for summer research and $2,500 for research during the academic year, with over $3,000 available for materials, equipment, and travel to research-related meetings and events.

Money aside, the title of Claire Booth Luce Research Scholar is a résumé standout. “To be called a Luce scholar means a lot for scientists,” says Provost Linda Bell. “It’s a nationally recognized title that highlights a young woman’s potential as a future scholar and has a lot of cachet in terms of graduate programs.” Bell adds, “We want students to know they can get this kind of support, both in terms of funding and mentorship, at Barnard.” Most important, the Luce scholars take part in Barnard’s Summer Research Institute program for 10 weeks each summer. The SRI, which science faculty helped create with Bell’s strong endorsement, was a critical part of the proposal that won Barnard the award.

The proposal, created by Halpin-Healy, Bell, and a committee of science faculty members, highlighted Barnard’s recent advances in science education, including the fact that the school is graduating science majors in record numbers. In the past two years, 10 percent of Barnard graduates majored in physical sciences, which marks a 60-percent increase in the absolute number of physical-science majors during the past 10 years. Enrollment in computer science courses has also increased—from just 30 students in the 2005–2006 academic year to more than 300 last year. This bucks a national trend; the number of first-year undergraduate women majoring in computer science has been on the decline since 2000, despite increased job growth in the field.

The proposal also put the spotlight on Barnard’s extensive recent investment in the sciences. With the help of generous funding through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, and others, Barnard has not only invested heavily in the SRI, it has built an Empirical Reasoning Lab, which helps students engage with meaningful computer data. The new Computational Science Center, to be housed in the new academic building set to be completed in fall 2018, will be linked by an architectural bridge to the chemistry department on the seventh floor of Altschul Hall. The CBL award comes on the heels of funding from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation to provide Beckman Scholar Awards, which enable top science students to conduct research with faculty mentors. Additionally, Barnard President Debora Spar recently secured a generous gift to endow a new faculty chair in applied mathematics and computer science.

“The Computation Science Center, along with the new chair, will nucleate a whole host of novel curricular and co-curricular initiatives at the interface of big data, STEM, and numerically intensive interdisciplinary endeavors characteristic of 21st-century science,” Halpin-Healy says.

He has called for student applications to the CBL program and has reached out to heads of relevant departments to generate interest among faculty to serve as mentors. Applicants will need to demonstrate potential as research scientists, submitting comprehensive plans for research using computational methodologies and statements from their faculty mentors. Premed students are not eligible for this particular award.

“We’re looking for women who code,” says Halpin-Healy. “The research projects have to involve some numerical data or computational data component.” Using the significant computing power found in the average MacBook, researchers can gain new perspective on fascinating questions. Citing an example, the professor asks what’s behind the mesmerizing flight patterns, or murmurations, of starling flocks, as well as other types of self-organized behavior dynamics found in flocks, herds, and swarms? “It has captured the imagination of many scientists, myself included, in the 21st century,” says Halpin-Healy. “It’s a perfect meeting ground for statistical physicists, animal biologists, applied mathematicians, and computer scientists alike.”

Code could be applied to help solve any number of scientific issues, from identifying and understanding patterns in the spread of infectious disease, in global weather shifts, in the gravitational waves that radiate from black holes, and so on. The ability to code, says Halpin-Healy, is a tool to help scientists question all givens, and even to check the results of published studies and see where the research of other scientists is strong or weak. “When you’re able to do that, it’s kind of an eye opener,” he says. “You’re in on the research. You’ve done the number crunching yourself, and you can see where you can do it better.” •

Latest IssueSpring 2023