Sciences are Flowering at BC
©2002 The Boston Globe
July 4, 2002
Sciences are Flowering at BC Research Pulls in Funds, Talent
By Gareth Cook, Globe Staff
NEWTON - It seems a jarring sight on a campus known for its Gothic Revival architecture and devotion to Catholic tradition: one of the world's most powerful magnets, built into a basement floor and tended by a team of research physicists.
Over the last decade, Boston College has quietly transformed itself into an unexpected scientific powerhouse. Its chemistry and physics departments have risen to national prominence, doing increasingly influential work and publishing a growing number of papers in top research journals. From 1995 to 2002, outside funding for scientific research at BC, a key measure of success in academic science, has doubled, from $7.7 million to about $15.9 million, according to the university.
These numbers are still nowhere near those of the Goliaths across the river, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But scientists in Boston and around the country say they have been amazed at how quickly an underdog like BC has established itself in a crowded field.
This Saturday will mark a combination of events almost un imagin able 10 years ago: BC will host an important international physics conference that will draw Harvard and MIT scientists, as well as officially open a new $90 million research facility that includes the powerful magnet.
BC's physics program "is a remarkable scientific success story," said David Pines, who works at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and is one of the nation's top physicists.
At the university, the change is part of a new emphasis on faculty research in all departments. More high-level reasearch, university officials believe, will bring in more outside funding, improve the university's reputation, and build the richer campus life needed to compete for the best undergraduates. And at a modern Jesuit school, the administration has concluded, this cannot be done without lasers, electron microscopes, and liquid nitrogen.
"The Catholic intellectual tradition has been enriched by engagement with the natural sciences," said Michael A. Smyer, dean of BC's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. "It would be hard to prepare students for the challenges they will face in the 21st century without the sciences."
Beyond the campus, scientists say that BC's success offers lessons for an underdog institution that any sports fan would appreciate: focus, team play, and shrewd personnel moves. The university's leaders picked chemistry and then physics as areas to improve. They poured money into the mission. Then, instead of trying to cover entire fields, those departments picked a few specialties, hiring bright researchers who were young and eager to work together.
And the underdog has played hard. When the new physics chairman came to town in 1996, one of the first things he did was steal a researcher from the more established program at nearby Boston University.
"I was miffed," said Larry Sulak, chairman of BU's physics department. "But it is wonderful to have worthy opponents around."
People at BC say they are used to being misunderstood. On campus, there is an old joke: Boston College is neither in Boston nor a college. The campus was moved just west of the city's limits in 1913, a half-century after it was founded, and the school has technically been a university since it started offering graduate degrees in 1925.
Still, BC has historically been known for its undergraduate education; its modest range of doctoral programs have been particularly strong in social work, law, nursing, education, and business. Until recently the school had not been a major player in the sciences, especially in a competitive academic city like Boston.
More than anyone else, the architect of BC's physics renaissance has been Kevin Bedell, a specialist in superconducting materials who was brought to BC six years ago from Los Alamos. Bedell calls himself a "benevolent dictator" whose leadership skills were honed growing up poor in Queens.
One of 13 children, he tells stories of hiding his interest in science from his friends - "They would have beaten me up," he said - and of going to the local bar to tell his father everyone was hungry and there was no food in the house. His father left the family when Bedell was 14, leaving the teenager and one sister to help raise their siblings.
"That is what gave me a sense for running a department with little money and where everyone is their own boss," Bedell said.
He quickly rose through the physics community, becoming a respected researcher at Los Alamos. When Bedell and BC started talking, both were looking for a change. Bedell was frustrated with his pay, he said, and BC's physics program was floundering, with the administration considering eliminating the PhD program.
Bedell persuaded the university to bring more experimentalists into a department heavy with professors who did theoretical work and to focus on a vibrant area of physics concerned with how electrons flow through materials. For example, Bedell brought on scientist Michael Naughton, who looks at how powerful magnetic fields affect the flow of electricity.
When Bedell arrived, the physics department was receiving less than $200,000 per year in outside funding. This year it will receive about $4 million.
The type of physics that Bedell has championed is also close to the boundary between physics and chemistry. BC's chemistry department was already surging before Bedell's arrival; according to figures prepared for the Boston Globe by ISI, a Philadelphia-based company that tracks citations of scientific papers, the BC chemistry department has been climbing in influence for about the past decade. The university opened a new chemistry building in 1991 - the first department on campus to have its own building - and has been hiring new faculty.
The physics department has been climbing since Bedell's arrival, the ISI figures show.
Higgins Hall, the newly renovated and expanded home for the physics and biology departments, officially reopens Saturday, though many offices and labs are already in use. Inside is a soaring atrium with exposed-stone walls, and a steel-and-glass ceiling.
Higgins will be the site of a conference called "Nanotube 2002," bringing together researchers in an expanding new field. Nanotubes are extremely small tubes of carbon atoms that have a number of peculiar properties and many potential applications.
BC's push toward research already has some faculty members worried. More emphasis on research could take resources from undergraduate education, a perennial problem at top research universities like Harvard.
"There is a healthy debate on campus about the role of research," said Smyer. "The key to BC's continuing success is integrating research and student learning."
As they look to the future, though, scientists at BC said that a real concern is the biology department, which they said has been troubled by turf battles. The university hired a new chairman in 2000, but he faces a difficult task: Biology has been sliding for at least a decade, according to the ISI figures, which do not include papers published this year.
"It is important to be strong in all the sciences," said David McFadden, chairman of BC's chemistry department. "Chemistry can't move ahead without a strong biology department."
McFadden said his department has increasingly faced another stressful problem: rival universities trying to lure away his faculty.
"They are noticing what we are doing here," he said. "It's one of those problems that you want to have."