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March 11, 2010

Smith College Leads Peers in Decade of National Science Foundation Funding

Success reflects complementary missions of the two institutions.

researchNORTHAMPTON, Mass. – In the past 10 years Smith College has won more National Science Foundation (NSF) research funding — over $14 million — than any other select liberal arts college in the nation.*

And that is not a coincidence, according to John Davis, associate provost and dean for academic development at Smith. The NSF prioritizes the student research experience, a philosophy that aligns with the college's mission, he said.

Grants from the NSF often include funding for student research internships and travel stipends that allow students to attend and present research at professional conferences. 

“The NSF cares about dissemination of knowledge to undergraduates,” said Davis. “Enabling undergraduates to be active participants in research, not just passive spectators, is what Smith does.”

Created by Congress in 1950, NSF is charged “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense.” In many fields such as mathematics, computer science and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal backing for colleges and universities.

Throughout the past decade, NSF awards paid for the acquisition of nearly $1.5 million in sophisticated scientific instrumentation that Smith would not otherwise have been able to afford, said Davis. Having the equipment enables both faculty members and students to perform cutting-edge research.

The funding has also supported a variety of investigations, including those examining the origin of the universe, circadian rhythms, photochemistry under solar wavelengths at dawn and dusk, and tracking the movement of pollution across a continent -- all with the involvement of students.

With a five-year $1.2 million grant, Laura Katz led a research team that included numerous undergraduates, in the close examination of the evolutionary relationships among 200 eukaryotic microbes. The research by Katz, the Elsie Damon Simonds Professor, Biological Sciences, has implications for human health care, environmental stewardship and in establishing biological principles.

With the support of the five-year $400,000 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award, Susan Voss, associate professor of engineering, advanced her research on middle-ear mechanics. Voss’ research projects have allowed her to mentor 19 women undergraduate students in her laboratory.

In physics, Professor Piotr Decowski maintains a long list of undergraduate students involved in his research. For each semester during the past decade, NSF funding has supported at least one student – and often more than one – in investigations into the structure of nucleons.

Further, the largest single NSF award to Smith during the past decade was dedicated to the education of undergraduate and graduate students.

In 2006, Smith received $1.5 million for the establishment of the Center for Women in Mathematics, which runs two programs aimed at increasing the number of women at the top of the field.

That five-year grant supports Smith’s post-baccalaureate mathematics program, which is the first in the nation, and a junior-year-at-Smith program for women at co-educational institutions to spend a year at an all-women's institution.

Retaining women in non-traditional fields was also the goal of a 2005 award to Associate Professor of Engineering Donna Riley.

With the support of the five-year $404,813 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award, Riley researched educational practices to engage underrepresented demographic groups, particularly women and minorities, in the study of engineering.

“We need to improve our ability to successfully attract, retain, educate and advance the broadest possible spectrum of students,” said Riley, a founding faculty member in Smith’s Picker Engineering Program—the nation’s first engineering program at a women’s college.

True to the mission of NSF, its grants have led to advances in science.

Early this year, Professor Ileana Streinu received a prestigious award for mathematical research addressing a longstanding fundamental problem in geometry, with applications in robotics and computational biology.

Her work, funded in large part by the NSF, earned her the American Mathematical Society (AMS) David P. Robbins Prize, awarded every three years for a paper that reports on novel research.

Smith College educates women of promise for lives of distinction. One of the largest women’s colleges in the United States, Smith enrolls 2,800 students from nearly every state and 62 other countries.

* In determining this statistic, Davis calculated the publicly available information about NSF funding from 1999 to 2009 to the following colleges: Amherst, Barnard, Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr, Carleton, Colby, Colgate, Franklin and Marshall, Grinnell, Hamilton, Haverford, Middlebury, Mount Holyoke, Oberlin, Pomona, Reed, Skidmore, Swarthmore, Vassar, Wellesley, Wesleyan, Williams, and more than a dozen other liberal arts institutions.


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