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Chatham College opens science center

Construction of the $10.4 million complex reflects the growth in science careers for women

Thursday, April 27, 2000

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The path that led NASA Chief Scientist Kathie Olsen to a career in science began at Chatham College years ago with a few too many scoops of ice cream.

Olsen, who will return to her alma mater today to help dedicate a $10.4 million science complex, said she might have ended up in another field were it not for some overindulgence that created a common freshman problem.

"I got fat. I don't like to admit it," Olsen said. "I came home about 40 pounds heavier than when I left for college. My mother said, 'You are going to take a physical education course.' "

Turns out, the only way Olsen could squeeze badminton and tennis into her schedule was to also enroll in general biology, she said. She was awestruck by what she learned.

"The teacher was fantastic," Olsen said. "I had never been so excited about a course."

The rest is history.

Olsen, 47, who originally wanted to study economics, went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from the women's college in 1974 with a double degree in biology and psychology. A couple of decades later, she is the senior scientific adviser to the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the agency's primary liaison to the national and international scientific community.

This morning, she is helping Chatham celebrate the second new college science building to open in Oakland in less than a year. In the summer, Carlow College unveiled its new science center.

Chatham College President Esther Barazzone said Olsen and the new building are symbols of an evolution that has swept her campus and the field of science.

Nationally, bachelor's degrees in the field have risen sharply, particularly in the biological sciences. The number of degrees awarded in that area jumped by 77 percent to 63,975 between 1989 and 1997, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

In physical sciences, the growth in bachelor's degrees has leveled off of late, but overall it's up since 1990 by 22 percent to 19,531.

At Chatham, the trend is visible, too, as women have made gains in various fields within the discipline, Barazzone said. Enrollment in the sciences tripled at the school during the 1990s. Roughly one in four Chatham students majors in the sciences.

"I think the barriers to women being in these fields have come down to a certain extent," Barazzone said. "There are so many role models now, people like Kathie Olsen, who have been successful by following a career in science."

The three-story science complex at Chatham was created by renovating the existing Louis C. Buhl classroom building and connecting it by a glass atrium to a new 10,000-square-foot laboratory area. It will double the teaching space for science.

The complex is significant for another reason. It is the first new building to be erected in more than three decades at the college, where concern about the future popularity of single-sex campuses during the late 1980s led the school to briefly consider admitting undergraduate men. It decided against the idea and in the years since has benefited from growth in high school graduates and a resurgence in interest in women's colleges.

"It's an incredible new beginning for the college," Barazzone said.

The school, which is in the midst of a $25 million fund-raising campaign, has so far raised $7 million toward the building's cost. The original Buhl building was erected in 1930, and construction leading to today's ribbon cutting began in 1998.

Efforts to preserve the building include placement of the restored Alumnae Memorial Window, a Louis Comfort Tiffany original from 1889. It will be unveiled after today's 9 a.m. ceremony on the campus.

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