Field Notes

Support for science across disciplines

Two recent grants support a key goal of the College's new Science Center -- that of bringing all the sciences together in a single facility to encourage interdisciplinary study and practical, hands-on student research.

  • The Sherman Fairchild Foundation awarded Hamilton $500,000 to purchase equipment that will support a new concentration in environmental science. The program is designed to explore the complex interactions between the biosphere and the geosphere.
  • The Research Corporation awarded the College a $500,000 Department Development Award to increase faculty and technical staffing in the Chemistry and Physics departments. Only five U.S. colleges have received such awards since they first were given in 1989.

The goal of the Research Corporation award is to "provide a catalyst for enhancing single or multiple science departments in pursuit of academic excellence." A biochemist, astronomer or astrophysicist, in addition to an instrument technician and a machinist, will join the respective departments next year. Expanding the faculty will enable the Chemistry and Physics departments to offer more and wider research opportunities for students, as well as to expand the curriculum.

"We see this award as a partnership with Hamilton College, whose goal is the evolution of its science departments into nationally distinguished interactive and interdisciplinary programs," Research Corporation President James Gentile said. "We believe that the sciences at Hamilton can stand out as a model for science as it will be practiced in the 21st century."

The Sherman Fairchild grant will support Hamilton's Environmental Molecular Science Initiative. The program incorporates principles of chemistry, biology and geology.

"By using analytical tools capable of investigating biological and

Robin Kinnel
Robin Kinnel, the Silas D. Childs Professor of Chemistry

geological processes at the molecular level, we can better understand the processes that created and sustain our environment," said Robin Kinnel, the Silas D. Childs Professor of Chemistry, who was part of the team of Eugene Domack, the newly appointed Joel W. Johnson Family Professor of Environmental Studies (see "Around College"), and Mike McCormick, assistant professor of biology, that developed the initiative.

The new apparatus will enhance both field access to environmental samples and, in the lab, analytical capabilities that target environmental problems. Among the items to be funded are a stable isotope mass spectrometer; a liquid chromatograph/mass spectrometer; a gas ion chromatograph; a field vehicle; and a vessel to conduct research on nearby lakes. Technicians will be hired to operate and maintain the equipment.

Toward a new ethics, with Spinoza's help

Philosophers and scientists are not always on speaking terms, especially in the modern age. Professor of Religious Studies Heidi Ravven is helping to establish common ground and open a new dialogue as part of her ongoing work with a Ford Foundation grant. The recipient of a $500,000 grant beginning in 2004 to study ethics and democratic pluralism, Ravven visited the foundation's offices in New York City in January to meet with the foundation's Progressive Values and Religion group, the members of which are also recipients of Ford Foundation grants, and to update the foundation on her research.

Heidi Ravven
Heidi Ravven, professor of religious studies

Ravven's involvement grew out of her interest in the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza and his radical approach to ethics. Spinoza challenged the foundations of conventional ethics in the Christian West, which typically pit the rational "mind" against the primitive "passions." By contrast, Spinoza understood intellect and emotion to work together in a kind of parallel circuit, and he believed the individual to be a natural system operating within larger such systems. Challenging the traditional concept of free will, Spinoza believed our choices are shaped largely by natural, social and mental forces, and saw ethical life as a personal evolution toward self-understanding. His thought is regarded by many as an important precursor to contemporary neuroscientific understanding of the emotions.

Since 2004, Ravven has been researching the growing evidence of parallels between Spinoza's philosophy and modern neuroscience, while also building a broad, inclusive ethical framework that includes Buddhist, Muslim and Navajo philosophy and religion. The two threads of her work converge in what the Ford Foundation calls "a truer and more humane ethical vision that could enable us to rethink American identity and values."

Ravven will be on research leave throughout the 2007-08 academic year to complete her work and a book tentatively titled What Happened to Ethics? Searching for Ethics in a New America.

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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