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Arts and Sciences Brings Rutgers Innovation and Intellectual Capital to Downtown New Brunswick

1 Spring Street grand opening draws New Brunswick and Rutgers leaders

Robotics 1 SpringStreet

The Rutgers University School of Arts and Sciences now has a powerful presence in downtown New Brunswick.

The school, the largest academic unit at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, has moved some of its most innovative projects and operations to a building at 1 Spring Street.

1 Spring ribbon cut

City and university leaders said the recent move is the start of an exciting new chapter in the life of New Brunswick and Rutgers.

“We are going to be able to solve a lot of problems and create a lot of opportunity here,” School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) Executive Dean Peter March  said, noting the wide range of research, teaching, and service projects that are located in the building.

Indeed, the move brings an influx of university employees, both faculty and professional staff, to the downtown area, along with a myriad of initiatives—including some with a strong public health focus—from a psychology lab that examines underlying factors for nicotine addiction, to language processing studies involving autism, to research on the genetic disorder Tourette’s Syndrome. Also moving into the building are a robotics lab, the Rutgers Oral History Archives, and The Language Center.

New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill said the move by Arts and Sciences to Spring Street reflects a rich tradition of cooperation and partnership between the city and the university that benefits citizens and students alike.

“We are pleased to see Rutgers grow into new spaces because with new growth comes continued commitment for shared community,” Cahill said. “This new home will allow the School of Arts and Sciences to grow and thrive, further integrating the Rutgers mission into the heart of our community.”

Robotics 2 SpringStreet Rutgers University–New Brunswick Interim Chancellor Chris Molloy said the move creates tremendous potential for Rutgers as a major research university.

“Bringing together all these disparate activities from the School of Arts and Sciences—one of the strongest units at Rutgers, one of strongest units in all of the Big Ten—really is a game changer for us,” Molloy said. “And the fact that it’s in New Brunswick with our partners is very exciting to me.”

During a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house, attendees made their way through the building to see demonstrations that highlighted the university’s research in robotics, psychology, and language and distance learning.

A robotics lab located in a 1,300-square-foot space on the third floor dazzled audiences as Professor Kostas Bekris of the Department of Computer Science demonstrated the ways in which his research team is developing more advanced robots.

Robotics 3 SpringStreet

In one eye-catching example, a robot held a paint roller and accurately maneuvered it within a large Rutgers “R” as if it was actually painting. Bekris said that robot was developed for the paint industry. The robot performs painting tasks in a sealed room so that the manufacturers can measure the toxicity of the paint.

“We provide the robot and programming so that the robot can do the operation as close as possible to how a human does it,” Bekris says. “Part of the requirement is that you apply the same amount of paint that a human would be doing at the same time.”

The robotics lab provides a rich learning environment for students ranging from post-docs to Ph.D. candidates to undergraduates.

“I have always been fascinated with robotics and the potential of the field,” says Zetao Yu, an SAS senior. “I just had to be a part of this lab.”
Patrick Yang, a sophomore, agreed.

“I liked science fiction and I thought robots would be really fun to work on,” he said. “As I am getting experience in research I am also learning different programming languages.”

MPS VideoWall 1

Audience members also marveled at The Language Center’s sophisticated videoconferencing systems that allow Rutgers students to take courses at other Big Ten schools without ever leaving campus. On the fourth floor, the center’s staff communicated face-to-face with their counterparts at the University of Minnesota, which will be offering courses in Korean, and Akkadian to Rutgers students this fall. Rutgers, meanwhile, will use the system to offer a Greek prose class to the University of Illinois.

And on the third floor, the VideoWall system allowed audience members to communicate directly with a class at Rutgers University-Newark as if they were in the same room. 

“These facilities show that languages and language learning are fully part of the 21st century,” says Tom Stephens, faculty director of the center, and a professor of Spanish. “In these rooms, language is in fact pushing the technology.”

Elsewhere, faculty and staff from the Department of Psychology showed audiences their offices and labs on the second floor in which they will study the underlying triggers that cause such issues as anxiety and cigarette smoking. One of their tasks will be to interview and study long-term smokers to better understand what causes people to start the habit and what makes it so hard to quit.

Psych 1 SpringStreet “This gives us a foot in the community, and access to a larger subject population and, potentially, a patient population,” said David Vicario, former longtime chair of the psychology department and now area dean for social and behavioral sciences in Arts and Sciences. “A lot of this work involves trying to develop new interventions for various kinds of problems, be they smoking or anxiety.”

The School of Arts and Sciences offers majors and minors across the academic spectrum and has roots that go back to Rutgers’ colonial beginnings. The vast majority of the school’s day-to-day teaching, research, and service will continue to take place on the Rutgers campuses in New Brunswick and Piscataway.

“We are bringing a microcosm of arts and sciences to downtown New Brunswick,” March says. “Many of the units coming into the Spring Street location work directly with the public, so rather than bringing folks out to some far corner of campus, we now have a centralized location.” 

This is a particularly beneficial change for the Rutgers Oral History Archives, which records the stories of New Jersey citizens, including many elderly veterans. Shaun Illingworth, the director of the archives, says the new location has parking for his interviewees, better acoustics, and more room for students working with him. Oral history spring street

“This is going to make us a better resource for the people of New Jersey and the university community as we broaden the scope of our program to include more people around the state,” Illingworth said. 

That point was brought home by Barton Klion RC’48 and president of the Class of 1948. Klion was one of the keynote speakers at the event, and is a longtime member of the alumni group that supports the work of the archive.

“Rutgers has changed over the years,” Klion told the audience. “And today is a special day.”

Taken as a whole, March added during an interview, the Spring Street site brings intellectual capital and capabilities that complement the plan by city and state officials to build an “innovation hub” in New Brunswick.

The Spring Street location is adjacent to the construction site for a proposed science and technology research center. Eventually, March says, he wants the Spring Street building to function as an incubator for students developing their own innovations.

“As Rutgers’ largest school, we welcome the vision for an innovation hub in New Brunswick,” March said. “We come as like-minded and supportive neighbors bringing our own hub.”





New Chemistry Building has Rutgers Scientists Feeling Inspired and Energized

“We’re already feeling the impact,” grad student says

Deputy Secretary of State Diana Gonzalez in blue with four chemistry student graduates

The official opening of the new Chemistry and Chemical Biology Building on September 14 brought together several generations of Rutgers University chemistry scholars, from idealistic graduate students to veteran professors to retired pharmaceutical executives.

Tariq Bhatti giving a tour of the new facility

They all agreed that the state-of-the-art facility on Busch Campus will launch a new era in research and education for Rutgers.

“We’re already feeling the impact in our work flow,” said Tariq Bhatti, a fourth-year graduate student after the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “It’s led to a dramatic enhancement of our efficiency.”

Bhatti, a member of professor Alan Goldman’s research team, came to Rutgers after five years working in the chemical industry. His research involves developing catalysts that support sustainable production of chemicals such as fuels and fertilizer.

“I was really drawn to Dr. Goldman’s work and its potential for improving the quality of life for society and humanity,” Bhatti said. “Our mission, succinctly, is to design catalysts to produce society's most important chemicals more directly, using less energy, and with less waste.”

About 50 people attended the event, which included tours, ice-cream chilled by liquid nitrogen, and remarks by Rutgers President Robert Barchi and other university and state officials.

Jean Baum at the podium

“This is a great building and it’s a great department,” Barchi said.

The Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences educates nearly 6,000 Rutgers–New Brunswick students every semester, drawing pre-med, engineering, and pharmacy students among many others. The four-story, 144,000-square-foot facility will provide teaching space while enhancing the department’s research, which has applications in human health, drug design, alternative energy, biomaterials, nanotechnology and other fields.

“Chemistry is central to the big issues that are facing today’s society,” said Jean Baum, chemistry professor, and SAS vice dean of research and graduate education, who also spoke at the opening. “Chemistry is important in mitigating the effects of climate change, and to developing drugs for neuro-degenerative diseases that are affecting our aging population.”

The department had long outgrown its space at the Wright-Reiman Laboratories adjacent to the new site. The $115 million project was funded mostly by New Jersey’s 2012 Building Our Future Bond Act.

Karin Calvinho

Graduate students working in the laboratory of professor Charles Dismukes said their team is ecstatic after moving into the new facility in early September.

“It’s amazing,” Karin Calvinho said. “We have better climate control, more space to install equipment and study our catalysis.”

Calvinho and Krishani Telluck work on experiments for developing renewable, solar-based fuel production.

“The research here at Rutgers is right up my alley,” Teeluck says. “I have such a respect for nature and the way it works, I feel it is our responsibility to take care of it.”

Dean Cheung, a graduate student in the lab of professor Ki-Bum Lee, said the team is breathing a sigh of relief in the new building.  At its former location in Wright-Reiman, Lee’s team was spread out over nine rooms on different floors and wings.

Ulf Dolling

“To do a cell culture, you’d go to the first floor, but to image those cells you had to go upstairs to room 289,” Cheung said. “Then to get to our chemistry room, that was on the third floor.

“It was very long and tedious and you can’t imagine the improvement in having one consolidated space.”

Cheung said the work of the lab involves using nanotechnology for biomedical applications, such as stem cell therapy and cancer therapy.

The official opening on Friday had special resonance for Cheung. He had defended his dissertation on Thursday.

“Now I am a doctor,” he said.

The new building also impressed members of an older generation, who attended the opening.

Ulf Dolling, who earned his doctorate from Rutgers in 1972 after moving from Germany, and who then built a long career at Merck Research Laboratories, marveled at the pristine labs. He recalled being a teaching assistant and holding classes in Quonset huts.

“We’ve come a long way,” he said.

Roger Jones, a chemistry professor at Rutgers since 1977, and who was involved in the planning for the building, agreed.

Besides the increased space, he noted that the new building has sophisticated new instrumentation and technology, including a mass spectrometer that can examine very subtle interactions of large molecules. And that type of analysis is very useful to researchers examining the causes of neurodegenerative illnesses such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

“Overall the space is very impressive and puts Rutgers and the department in a very good position,” Jones said. “I think it’s outstanding.”

Ribbon cutting




With the Mind as its Focus, a Rutgers Center Comes of Age

New cognitive science major combines STEM and humanities

Kristen and Aida

As a Rutgers University student, Knyckolas Sutherland embarked on a passionate pursuit of knowledge that impressed his teachers and earned him good grades but made it difficult to decide on a major.

Strong in the STEM disciplines, Sutherland also has a penchant for pondering deep philosophical questions.

Knyckolas Sutherland

“I enjoy questions like: ‘Why are there so many different expressions of God or soul?’” says Sutherland, who graduated in 2018 from the School of Arts and Sciences. “I am interested in the bigger picture of what that might tell us about the way the mind works.”

Sutherland found his niche, fittingly, among a group of Rutgers faculty members whose teaching and research on the human mind stretch across the boundaries of multiple departments in Arts and Sciences and beyond.

The Rutgers University Center for Cognitive Science, launched in the late 1980s by a handful of scholars, including the seminal philosopher Jerry Fodor, has been growing in size and stature, drawing professors from psychology, linguistics, philosophy, psychiatry, economics, biomedical engineering, and neuroscience.

They are engaged in remarkable work, from developing new ways to diagnose schizophrenia and autism to studying the brain’s role in producing religious beliefs to examining how and why people make decisions. Computer scientists at the center work on algorithms for more efficient robots. Philosophers, meanwhile, engage with the ethical issues inherent in our increasing reliance on robots. A recent talk by noted roboticist Angelica Lim sponsored by the center was titled: Building Robots with Emotional Intelligence.

Brian McLaughlin“We are a place that bridges humanities and the sciences,” says Brian McLaughlin, the center’s director and a professor of philosophy. “The goal of cognitive science is to understand the mind and mental abilities, and the applications span the academic spectrum.”

With enrollments on the rise, the center recently launched an undergraduate major, broadening Rutgers’ stake in this emerging field and drawing a devoted community of students.

Ashley George switched her major seven times—taking courses in finance, linguistics, religion, and dance—before finally finding a home in cognitive science. George plans on becoming a neuro-psychologist and doing research on Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases.

“I came to Rutgers wanting to study everything,” says George, who graduated in 2018. “It took me four years to find my field, but I have never felt more excited to be a student.”

Cognitive science is typically defined as the interdisciplinary study of mind, thought, and learning. Rutgers has long been a leader in the field. Harvard recently announced it was exploring a proposal to offer a concentration in cognitive science.

Maggie Fread

At Rutgers, students from many majors conduct research in cognitive science that stretches their intellectual capabilities and makes them stronger in their fields. Maggy Fread, a junior, works in Professor Kristen Syrett’s linguistics lab, observing first-hand how children name and categorize simple objects.

For Syrett, the research sheds light on complex questions about when children gain adult-like understanding of words.

“We’re interested in the limits on what allows an object to be considered part of a category and how the context and a speaker’s goals play a role,” Syrett said. “The essential question is: “Do children understand the world in the same way we do, and can we get at that through word meaning?”

Fread, meanwhile, sees a connection to her major in social work.  

“Language and cognitive science have a lot to do with social work,” says Fread, who is minoring in cognitive science. “This research makes me far more aware of the ways in which I, as a social worker, would talk to clients, and the ways in which clients would talk to me.”

hollow masksAs the center draws faculty from multiple disciplines, it also fosters a culture in which they can work together. The noted vision researcher Thomas Papathomas is collaborating with Steven Silverstein, a Robert Wood Johnson Medical School psychiatry professor, on research exploring how common optical illusions can be used to diagnose schizophrenia.

“Most people with schizophrenia do not see the hollow-mask illusion as strongly,” says Papathomas, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. “They see it for what it is, and that gives us an opportunity to develop a portable device that can help diagnose them more quickly and accurately.”

In another intriguing collaboration, computer science professor Kostas Bekris and psychology professor Eileen Kowler are anticipating a future in which robots and humans will be interacting, both in the workplace and at home. These “service robots,” Bekris says, will be softer, more human looking, less mechanical. Currently, however, they are not as easy to model, which raises many research challenges.

“You don’t want to be surprised by a robot’s movements,” Bekris says. “So we did experiments with human subjects to determine what types of motions are best to communicate intent.

Mary Rigdon

“And this is where the cognitive science really comes into play; with the human mind as the model, you need a psychologist and a philosopher working with the artificial intelligence researcher to really sort through these difficult questions.”

One of the key figures in cognitive science was Jerry Fodor, who came to Rutgers in the late 1980s and helped develop the center into what many say is among the best in the world. Fodor, who died last year, saw the mind as a collection of modules or sub-systems that evolved to have specific functions, such as for language, music, or math.

Fodor’s influence is evident in the way the new major is structured into five tracks: cognitive neuroscience; decision making; language; perception; and mind, machines, and computation.

“The major allows students to study the mind and brain from multiple perspectives,” says Professor Mary Rigdon, a behavioral economist who oversees the center’s academic program. “We expose students to a wide range of methodologies while giving them the opportunity to specialize and develop a strong analytic base."

McLaughlin says the major is excellent preparation for medical school; graduate studies in psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and computer science; and career paths such as big data, human resources, and teaching.

Students like Sutherland, meanwhile, are thrilled.

“All along I had been articulating this major before it even existed,” he says. “Now I feel like I’ve found my home.”

cog sci group 2 edited 



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