Article Image
Paloma Raines / Staff Photographer

Only a few of the required courses for students majoring in Barnard's physics and astronomy department are held at Barnard.

For Liza Cooper, BC ’17 and one of eight seniors majoring in the physics and astronomy department, being an astrophysics major at Barnard “takes a village.”

“We have study groups, we have a group chat for when the problem sets are due in a few hours and you are still stuck on one crazy equation,” she said. “The Barnard students are very supportive of one another.”

For some students, however, the small size of Barnard’s physics and astronomy department, paired with the fact that the majority of required courses and upper-level technical electives are offered through Columbia, make majoring in this department not feel like a “quintessential” Barnard academic experience.

For example, for Barnard physics majors registering for classes right now, there are significantly more course offerings at Columbia than at Barnard for spring 2017. There are four professors in Barnard’s department—three of whom are teaching in spring 2017—compared to 43 in the physics department alone at Columbia, 28 of whom are teaching undergrads in spring 2017.

Physics major Haley Fica, BC ’17, said that being unable to take upper-level courses at Barnard has been frustrating for her.

"It's something that you just have to deal with," she said. “I wish I could have taken some at Barnard. I think the Barnard students have a much greater sense of community ... and I think that taking all the upper-level classes at Columbia, I have that less.”

“I have that with my Barnard physics friends, but I don't necessarily have that with my Columbia physics friends,” Fica added.

Professor Tim Halpin-Healy, who teaches physics courses at both Barnard and Columbia, said that although Barnard’s introductory track emphasizes a small liberal arts environment, it is important for physics majors to gain experience taking courses in a research university setting.

“We focus a lot on the small classroom setting here, a lot of office hours, a collaborative work environment," he said. "[But] it's critical for the Barnard physics majors to transition and integrate themselves with the larger set of offerings at Columbia because all the Barnard physics majors need to be exposed to the bright kids that are over there, and it just pushes the level higher for both groups."

But some Barnard students said they felt that being pushed into the research university environment at Columbia precluded them from enjoying certain aspects of being a Barnard student, including the tight-knit communities and intimate seminars found in other majors, such as history or English, where the majority of classes are held through Barnard.

Astrophysics major Brian Smallshaw, CC ’19, said that although there is a community among students pursuing majors in Columbia’s physics department, the community tends to exist within individual majors, rather than across the department.

For astrophysics major Hannah Seymour, BC ’17, the transition from taking the majority of her classes at Barnard to taking the majority at Columbia was a jarring one.

"The experience in a Barnard classroom is incredibly different than the experience in a Columbia classroom, and because I basically stopped taking my major classes at Barnard my sophomore year, my junior year was a huge change," she said. "I would be totally lost if I didn't have an adviser—I can't imagine being a physics major at Columbia and not having a faculty adviser."

Since transferring to Barnard her sophomore year from Mount Holyoke College, Seymour has been almost exclusively taking courses toward her major and the Nine Ways of Knowing. Although she took—and enjoyed—an anthropology class, she didn’t have time to develop that interest into a minor, an experience she said she feels is an important aspect of the liberal arts experience.

“I think, ostensibly, the Nine Ways or the liberal arts requirements should give you a sense to see a topic you might want to delve into, and I never got that opportunity,” she said. “I'm not sure I've really gotten whatever the classic liberal arts experience is.”

But for Cooper, the experience on the whole has been worth it.

“I remember when I told my high school physics teacher that I wanted to major in physics, she told me, ‘You are going to be the only woman in a lot of rooms,’” she said. “But I think Barnard has prepared me for that, and I have learned how to be confident and capable in any room I walk into as a scientist and a woman.” | @ACBandrowski

barnard physics physics and astronomy
From Around the Web