Spaces in Mind

By President Sian Leah Beilock

President Beilock Headshot

In December, I joined a group of experts made up of faculty, staff, and alumnae for a panel discussion on parenting and the science behind the teenage brain. We reflected on the cognitive impact of the COVID-19 crisis on young people’s ability to stay resilient in the face of today’s mounting academic and personal stressors — and how parents can help. Our experts dug into this important subject, drawing on scientific research and scholarship, applying clinical experience and pedagogy. It was a special evening. But it is also representative of many similar and meaningful conversations and lectures that have taken place across campus over the past four months as part of the Barnard Year of Science (BYOS) and that will continue throughout the spring.    

BYOS has been an opportunity to illuminate the College’s remarkable achievements in STEM — both the teaching and the learning that have helped produce generations of pioneering women scientists who’ve contributed critical knowledge and ideas to a range of fields from chemistry to computer science. At Barnard, we continue to innovate and grow in our scientific pursuits. Our success hinges on all young women (regardless of race, religion, or financial background) having access to first-rate resources — this encompasses our faculty and staff, our equipment and technology, our labs and classrooms. These are essential building blocks in supporting and advancing the sciences at Barnard and launching future scientists on their career and life trajectories.     

To do the work of science, you need more than the materials and information at your disposal. You need an environment that enhances intellectual thinking. In my book How the Body Knows Its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel, I spent a great deal of time researching this very topic. Speaking with scientists and examining case studies and real-life experiences, I found that our body and surroundings greatly impact how we think, behave, and process emotions. For instance, being in nature — or even peering at green space through a window — can improve productivity and help us focus.     

The physical spaces we occupy affect our bodies and our brains. They matter for each and every one of us, and they matter for the Barnard community. That’s why we’ve initiated plans to renovate and expand Altschul Hall, the primary science hub on campus. As our STEM programs continue to grow, it is imperative that our physical footprint and resources do as well. In the past year, we’ve set in motion a campaign with a commitment of $250 million toward this undertaking, which will allow us to house sciences under one roof, update our facilities and labs, and accommodate faculty increases. In doubling our programmable space to 99,000 square feet, we will be designing with the future in mind so that our architecture is responsive to changing needs and practices.     

It is an ambitious project, but I am pleased to report that we are currently 85% to our goal and hope to reach it this academic year. There are very few times in an institution’s history when a renovated building can transform the trajectory of a college and propel it to the greatest heights. This is one of those times. With Altschul Hall’s new state-of-the-art facility and the growing eminence of our science program, Barnard will be known as the place for women interested in the sciences to achieve their dreams. I look forward to the vital experiences that Altschul’s new building will inspire and the collaboration, community, and scholarship that will flourish inside its walls.

Latest IssueWinter 2023