Olmsted Hall of Biological Sciences
The Department of Biology is located in The Olmsted Hall of the Biological Sciences, an attractive brick building constructed in 1973 overlooking Shakespeare Garden and the Priscilla Bullitt Collins Trail along the Fonteyn Kill.
The building was named in honor of Louise MacCraken Olmsted (class of 1932), Nancy Olmsted, MD (class of 1960), and Robert G. Olmsted, former Trustee of the College.
In addition to modern classrooms and well-equipped teaching laboratories, Olmsted Hall has faculty research laboratories, equipment and preparation rooms, and a collection of modern instruments supporting research and teaching.
Teaching Laboratories and Field Work
Studying biology requires laboratory and field experiences, which students encounter in introductory biology, gain advanced skills in intermediate-level courses, and apply these skills in advanced coursework and research.
In laboratory settings, students might be investigating techniques of recombinant DNA technology (in Biology 106: Introduction to Biological Investigation), or studying the structure of orchids to understand how flowering plants and their insect pollinators have co-evolved (in Biology 208: Plant Structure and Diversity), or determining the oxygen-binding properties of hemoglobin (in Biology 228: Animal Physiology) or examining the reproductive allocation patterns of female gerbils (in Biology 340: Animal Behavior).
For many questions the appropriate setting is in the field where students might be investigating the ecological mechanisms of succession or collecting and analyzing galls at Vassar's Ecological Preserve (in Biology 241: Ecology) or exploring freshwater, estuarine, and marine habitats (in Biology 356: Aquatic Ecology). The Hudson Valley is rich in unique and important habitats that serve as field laboratories for our courses. The Hudson River, the Mohonk Preserve, and Vlei Bog are all regularly visited by students in field courses.
Research activities and laboratory and field exercises are supported by modern instrumentation including high-speed and ultracentrifuges; UV-visible spectrophotometers; DNA and protein electrophoresis equipment; scintillation counter; high-speed video imaging system; digital imaging hardware; flow tank; bright field, dark field, phase contrast, fluorescence, and confocal microscopes; and networked computers.
The modern microscopy suite in Olmsted Hall features a confocal microscope and six fluorescence research microscopes with digital imaging capability. This facility was funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
The Vassar Farm, located a short distance from the biology department, encompasses a 525-acre ecological preserve on which the Priscilla Bullitt Collins Field Station is located.
The field station, built in 1995, is used to study natural history, ecology, botany, and geology. It contains a library, classroom, laboratory, computers, and a modern weather station. The surrounding area offers a diversity of habitats including streams, wetlands, ponds, old-growth forest, and recently reclaimed farmland and meadows.
The Phytotron in Olmsted Hall is a modern facility consisting of 12 controlled-environment growth chambers. Students and faculty conduct experiments in the facility to achieve control of temperature, light, and humidity and to replicate differences in these variables and determine their impact on plants and animals. In one ongoing experiment, Mike Kong '05 investigated the impact of a pathogen, and resistant and susceptible neighbors on fitness of different genotypes of Allium vineale (wild garlic).
Greenhouse and Herbarium
The Biology Greenhouse was erected in 1973 as an integral part of the Olmsted Hall of Biological Sciences. A "lean to" style greenhouse covering approximately 3900 square feet, it houses the Biology Department teaching plant collection and supports faculty and student research projects. The diverse teaching collection includes more than 700 specimens from over 120 plant families. Orchids, ferns, bromeliads, and cacti, as well as some rare and unusual plants, are part of the collection. Faculty research projects include plant reproductive ecology, insect-plant interactions, fungus-plant interactions, ecological genetics, and plant physiological ecology.
The Biology Greenhouse hosts an Open House each year in October. This offers members of the Vassar community opportunities to ask questions about plant care and learn about the teaching collection. Refreshments are served and often, free plants for the enhancement of offices and dorm rooms are offered. Students, faculty and staff of Vassar College are welcome to visit the greenhouse. You can make an appointment by contacting the greenhouse.
The herbarium includes voucher specimens of over 500 species of vascular plants known to occur on the Vassar College Ecological Preserve (Vassar Farm).
In addition to providing excellent classroom instruction, Vassar College's biologists are engaged in research. Typically, these two activities are seamlessly blended in research projects conducted by student/faculty teams. It is quite common that the efforts of these investigations result in findings reported at professional meetings and published in professional journals. Research activities are supported by external sources such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and by the Vassar College Committee on Research.