Skip to main content

Inside Our New Citadel of Science

One of the more poignant films of the 1970s, Breaking Away, tells the story of a young cyclist named Dave, living in Bloomington, Indiana, dreaming of the day he might challenge the Lance Armstrong of his day. His girlfriend believes he is a romantic Italian racer and when she discovers the truth—that he is a “local nobody”—she abandons him. Dave craters into an adolescent depression and provokes concern from his father, who spirits Dave out of his bedroom for a heart-to-heart.

They walk through the grounds of Indiana University at night, where the father explains that he used to be a “cutter”—a quarry worker who sliced the limestone that was used to build the library in the heart of the campus. The father explains that, while he never had the opportunity to go to college, he has always taken pride in the library, built with his own hands.  Together, they gaze up at the limestone library and recognize it as a monument to a life’s work. The father implores the son to take advantage of the opportunities he never had, to live larger than a cutter.

This scene captures the meaning of a building for me. It is about permanence. It is about displaying for the world what an institution values. It is about signifying the importance of what goes on inside through the beauty and majesty of the outside.

Every morning on my way to work, I walk past the sweeping wall of glass at the back of the new Undergraduate Teaching Labs and look at the way the trees are reflected in its panes. No matter what time of day you pass that spot, the windows break up the reflection of the natural world and the sculpture garden into hundreds of repeating images. It is a stunning piece of artistry befitting the importance of what goes on inside.

So what are we going to do in this new citadel of science?

The Quantitative Revolution in Life Science

As our colleagues in biophysics remind us, the cutting edge in the life sciences is increasingly dependent on quantitative and computational analysis. This is as true in biology as it is in chemistry, and while this “revolution” is advanced among researchers, it is time to infuse the undergraduate curriculum with the paradigms and tools that senior faculty are using in their labs every day. We are raising the computational sophistication of students in the life sciences, teaching them to use simulation and equipping them with the skills to write code, which is the science equivalent of a language requirement. They will need to learn commercial mathematical and statistical packages (e.g., Matlab, Mathematica), so that they can engage in meaningful quantitative and statistical studies.

The UTL sports new classrooms with 35 computer terminals and the capacity to beam an instructor’s simulation experiments all over the walls. This state-of-the-art teaching lab will enable our students to vault to the forefront of research that depends on this kind of modeling. In the future, two new majors will make heavy use of it: computational biology and high-performance computation.

The Interdisciplinary Laboratory

Unlike the old “silo labs,” with each discipline operating in isolation, the interdisciplinary ethos of science education has been built into the DNA of the UTL. For the first time, students who are taking chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, developmental biology, biochemistry, genetics, neuroscience, biophysics, and biotechnology labs will be co-located, as will the faculty who teach these laboratory courses. Why does this matter so much? Proximity will make it possible to offer genuinely synthetic educational experiences. For example, genes investigated in cell biology labs would encode proteins whose structure will be solved in the biophysics lab, and its impact on behavior and cognition will be tested in an animal model system in the neuroscience lab.

Active Learning, the Hopkins Way

Back in the day, science lectures threw a huge amount of information at a largely passive audience. Today, we are making use of active learning techniques in the classroom, breaking classes into small working groups that pore over data and collaborate as teams to solve scientific problems, much as advanced researchers do. Many universities are experimenting with active learning. At Hopkins, we want to see the approach born in the classroom and catalyze student interest and participation in original research. It is not enough to encourage problem-solving, teamwork, or even discovery if it is limited to the classroom. Accordingly, the “Hopkins Way” will see students, shaped by an active learning model, move from the classroom into the lab, where that ethos is put through its paces in experiments.

Undergraduates in the Real World of Science

Many of our science students are bound for the world of medicine and we celebrate their path. We also want to prepare our undergraduates for exciting possibilities in scientific research or in the applications of life science to real-world problems in the realm of industry and entrepreneurship. The intellectual platforms we are building, based on quantitative methods, computer modeling, integrative interdisciplinary science, and active exploration will serve our students well as they look for opportunities in biotechnology and informatics, fields rich in opportunity for students when they leave us.

The rebirth of science education is taking place inside a stunning structure of glass and wood, light and air, with soaring ceilings and the natural environment visible from every angle. The rocking chairs in the atrium and the couches nearby are full to capacity no matter what the hour. Members of our science community are finally living and working in a space that does justice to the important work they do.

When I’m 95 years old and hobbling past this building with my great-grandchildren, I will point it out to them in the same way the stone cutter did in Breaking Away. I will tell them that I had the privilege of working with remarkable scientists and architects to make it happen. And nothing will make me feel greater pride than the lasting nature of this monument to everything that Johns Hopkins stands for.


Katherine Newman
James B. Knapp Dean