A Collaborative Tradition

As Lynn Miller prepares to retire, faculty and students advance his vision for interdisciplinary research and teaching. lynn miller

Soon after he was hired to teach biology, in June 1970, Lynn Miller was asked by founding Dean of Natural Science Everett Hafner to design labs for the Cole Science Center. He chose a layout favored by his mentor, the microbiologist C. B. van Niel, with whom he completed his PhD at Stanford University. The mixed classroom and laboratory space, open almost from one end of the building to the other, would grow into a symbol of Hampshire’s collaborative and interdisciplinary natural sciences program.

“Science was to be a gloriously open edifice, nothing but glass walls and interchanges between all the different scientists regardless of their discipline,” says Miller, crediting van Niel’s outlook. “I wanted to design it so that people would be forced to work together.”

The results of the experiment went according to plan. Miller has spent the past 45 years teaching science in those open labs and collaborating not just with other faculty members, but with class after class of Hampshire students as well. When he retires, at the end of this academic year, his colleagues say they’ll continue on shaped by his influence, even as they adapt to provide the best support for 21st-century scientific collaboration.

“In many ways, a lot of other institutions are catching up to things we’ve been doing here all along,” says Dean of Natural Science and Professor of Microbiology Jason Tor. “Across the country, when you hear about new science centers, they’re designed in the way Lynn did it years ago. It’s key for many new labs at the highest levels of research to have the open concept. They’re recognizing that collaborative research is where the greatest discoveries are being made.”

In a March 13 Boston Globe article on the artwork of the Nobel Prize–winning scientist Walter Gilbert, Carolyn Y. Johnson writes, “As science has become an increasingly specialized and narrow pursuit, getting people in different fields to work together has become a major goal at research institutions.” That’s always been one of the strong suits of the School of Natural Science, and it’s something that many alums say has influenced their own scientific practices.

“I’m a big fan of [that kind of collaboration], and it’s now becoming fairly standard,” says Gianluca Gallo 86F, an anatomy and cell biology professor at Temple University. Gallo’s laboratory, focused on the mechanisms of axon development in neurons, is one of 14 in the Shriners Hospitals Pediatric Research Center at Temple University using an open-lab layout. Although there can be drawbacks to a shared workspace (depending mostly on the care, or carelessness, of individuals who use the lab, he says with a laugh), Gallo says he finds the collaboration that results from it invaluable.

Natural Science class

His postdoctoral work at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, in Minneapolis, was in a similar lab setup. “It allowed me to make friends with the people in the lab next to mine,” he says. “There was constant interaction, and we’d regularly work on projects and papers together. It was driven by the fact that they were right there, across the bench.”

Cora Ann Johnston 04F, a PhD student in ecology at the University of Maryland, is part of the first graduate class of an umbrella graduate program that is trying to integrate students across fields. Johnston sees the benefits of working most closely with colleagues in a specific field, which the closed lab setup at the school has fostered, and enjoyed the traditional design of the many Five College science courses she took as an undergrad. But she says she’s grown to deeply appreciate Hampshire’s collaborative environment.

“In a place like Hampshire, the shared spaces create an overlap that lets people ease into collaboration,” she says. “I had a fairly straightforward focus on tropical and coastal ecology, but I had more interaction with faculty outside my areas of interest at Hampshire than at anywhere else I’ve been. They’re around the lab, so you’re interacting with them. When I was a first- and second-year student struggling along, on the next bench over there would be a Division III student doing more-advanced work who could help out. You’d see people just down the hall having a discussion about physics. It boosts your spirit and keeps you engaged.”

Current students also find the open design helpful, thanks to the access to faculty and other students. Miller says he encouraged the principle of students teaching other students through such courses as Gene Cloning and Learning Activity Projects, an independent study he developed with Physics Professor Herb Bernstein.

“We were here, in the beginning, to teach students how to teach themselves,” says Miller. “You got through Hampshire by becoming an independent colleague.”

Bernstein says that even though the physics labs are on the third floor of Cole, having his office on the second floor makes for frequent collaboration. Recently he spoke informally with students in Organic Chemistry Professor Rayane Moreira’s class about physics topics that connect with organic chemistry.

Melanie Chitwood 12F, one of Miller’s office assistants, was in that class. She came to Hampshire intending to concentrate on creative writing but became interested in biology after taking the biology professor’s first-year tutorial, Natural History of Infectious Disease. Chitwood would continue with her creative writing, but she blended it with her interest in biology, including studying public health and medical anthropology in Vietnam, South Africa, and Brazil. Last summer she interned with Shiv Pillai, director of the Master of Medical Sciences in Immunology program at Harvard Medical School, and for her Div III intends to combine creative writing, public health, and biology research with a focus on disease and immunology.

“Lynn is the reason I study science,” she says. “I realized during my first semester that the papers I most looked forward to writing were for his class. And as a younger student, it’s nice to be able to go into the lab on your own but if you run into trouble, you know there will be older students who can help.”

Biology Professor John Castorino is following Miller’s path. He co-taught Miller’s well-known Gene Cloning in his first year, in 2011, before working with Associate Professor of Evolutionary Biology Charles Ross to turn it into the yearlong Methods in Molecular Biology. Castorino also teaches a course called The Art of Life; he says it gives students an accessible entry into scientific research.

“Hampshire allows me to teach the class in the way I want to teach a class like that. I give students protocols and say ‘Go do it.’ Something Lynn taught me early on is to use students to teach one another. I’m mostly focused on getting students to use the skill sets I can give them and run with their own interests. Under real circumstances,” he says, “the head of the lab isn’t going to have everything prepared for you — you have to think ahead. One of the things I do after a student does an internship is reach out to the people she or he worked for and ask about their techniques. They’re happy with the quality of students who are coming out. It’s great evidence that we’re on the right track.”

Josia DeChiara 13F, now in the second year of her Div II, is one of Castorino’s lab assistants. She’s studying the effect of climate change on forest soil microbiomes with UMass Amherst Ecology Professor Jeffrey Blanchard and will be interning with him at the university’s Harvard Forest this summer. She credits her work in Hampshire’s labs with giving her the experience that led to her acceptance into the internship.

“What I was presented with was ‘Here’s a lab, here’s how to do a bunch of things in it. Now, what are you interested in and what can you make of it?’” she says. “If you mess up, you can see it and know how you messed up. It’s important to work with older students who aren’t that far ahead of you, who also make mistakes. It’s unique for such a small school, because people are doing research-grade work here in their second and third years.”

Natural Science faculty are working hard to encourage that student-led collaboration, and it’s central to the philosophy behind a new space called the Collaborative Modeling Center. Funded through a grant that was jointly applied for by Professor of Human Biology Megan Dobro, Professor of Physiology Cynthia Gill, Professor of Mathematics Sarah Hews, Professor of Public Health Elizabeth Conlisk, and Professor of Hydrology Christina Cianfrani, the modeling center will be on the third floor of Cole. It’s a major piece of the ongoing work both to upgrade the lab space to make it more welcoming for students and to provide new and bolstered programming that keeps the labs busy year-round with student-led research.

Generous donors have pledged more than $1 million earmarked for NS student and faculty projects and for spaces to be refurbished and reimagined.

“That gift has had a really big impact on our day-to-day lives,” says Dobro. “Suddenly we had the ability to think long term. There’s an explosion of momentum. It’s an exciting timefor NS.”

The five faculty members see the modeling center as a bridge for student and faculty collaboration.


School of Natural Science faculty Cynthia Gill, Sarah Hews, Christina Cianfrani, Megan Dobro, and Elizabeth Conlisk jointly applied for funding that will be used to create the Collaborative Modeling Center.

“We began to see that we’re using the same technologies in very different ways,” says Cianfrani. “This will provide both a physical space and a conceptual one for students and faculty to collaborate and talk about science. We all have students who we know would have much to say to each other. A lot of students come in with really big problems and big visions. These are millennials who want to change the world, and they’re driving us to think big picture. With the modeling center, this community can tackle the big issues from a variety of angles and learn how to collaborate on big projects. When we use student interests to drive the curriculum, we’re staying current.”

These plans are exciting for trustee Lucy McFadden 70F, a senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“I want to be one of many paving the way for future scientists to thrive as they explore the natural world,” she says.

Chemistry Professor Dula Amarasiriwardena appreciates that generosity and its effect on the work being done to build Cole’s facilities into a space more suitable for 21st-century research and collaboration. “This is not a static process,” he says. “There’s a dynamic process even for research and classroom spaces.”

Hews has co-taught several courses with other NS faculty, and she sees the modeling center as an extension of an approach she uses to help make students more comfortable with mathematics.

“What’s nice about co-teaching is that you can find those overlaps that attract students,” she says.

Hews, Cianfrani, and Tor, for example, this fall will collaborate on a first-year tutorial that highlights the

R.W. Kern Center, which was designed to meet the standards of the International Living Futures Institute’s Living Building Challenge and will be the new hub of the campus. The class will be broken into individual sections, each led by one of the professors. They’ll then meet together once a week to explore the building as it’s constructed; the professors say they hope it will encourage collaboration and an understanding of the various scientific and mathematical approaches that go into such a complicated building.

“There aren’t many places out there thinking about innovative curriculum,” says Hews. “It’s not really being done at this scale. We have the opportunity to help the larger science and mathematics community in teaching.”

That, says Miller, is what he hoped Hampshire would do, and today’s faculty say they believe that he and now retired faculty such as Merle Bruno, Charlene D’Avanzo, David Kelly, Kenneth Hoffmann, and Nancy Lowry have instilled a highly effective ethic and approach.

“The first step in motivating students is having them see that you’re motivated and passionate about what you do,” says Geremías Polanco Encarnación, professor of mathematics. “Older faculty have helped me learn what they’ve done, sharing their wealth of knowledge, so I’m empowered to use that as a base. It’s exciting to know that you can push things forward and be an influential actor. You can help envision what needs to happen at Hampshire, and help to create that.”

Nephrologist Michael Germain 70F came to Hampshire for just that sort of environment. He credits Miller with exemplifying the philosophy.

“That’s how I practice medicine,” he says. “Doctors get complicated problems that we have to dissect in multidisciplinary ways. Hampshire was designed as a self-motivated, problem-solving approach to education, and in my mind that’s the right way to go.”

Cianfrani says she hopes the work of current faculty enables that tradition to grow.

“We’re taking the ideals that Hampshire was founded on and bringing them to the next level,” she says. “We’re all interested in pushing science forward, teaching forward, and using the freedom we have here to do that.”

Geremías Polanco Encarnación credits interactions with older faculty with helping him to push forward with innovative teaching approaches as he builds on what they have accomplished at Hampshire.

Geremías Polanco Encarnación credits interactions with older faculty with helping him to push forward with innovative teaching approaches as he builds on what they have accomplished at Hampshire.


Lynn Miller Scholarship Endowment

Celebration & Scholarship

The School of Natural Science is hosting a celebration for Lynn Miller on Saturday, June 6, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Cole Science Center. The event is part of Hampshire’s 45th Anniversary weekend. Visit hamp45.hampshire.edu to register.

Donors have established the Lynn Miller Scholarship Fund. The scholarship provides grants for tuition, room, and board for promising students with the greatest financial need and a concentration in the School of Natural Science.

Gaye Hill P02, chair of the board of trustees, has generously offered to match all fund contributions.