During our time at Williams, science programs were growing rapidly in reputation and scale. Our class set a then record-number of graduates to medical school and many more to the nation’s most prestigious Ph.D. programs. We learned from stellar faculty members with significant research programs. And we enjoyed the opening of the world-class Bronfman Science Center, one of the college’s largest single investments at the time and a facility in which students and faculty could collaboratively advance scientific research.

Since we graduated, Williams’s science programs have continued to improve and student interest in the sciences and math has continued to grow. In fact, today, nearly half of all Williams students carry a major in a science or math discipline. Williams is now considered a national leader in undergraduate scientific research and a leader in training future scientists.

With the college’s investment in a Unified Science Center 20 years ago (which includes the Class of 1971 Lecture Hall we gave as part of our 25th Reunion class gift), a population of superb undergraduate science students, and a science faculty whose members historically have earned more National Science Foundation (NSF) research grants than those at any other liberal arts undergraduate institution, Williams is uniquely positioned to build upon its success in research and in the training of undergraduates. Now is the time to secure for the next century the college’s position as the premier institution for undergraduate science education.

A substantial fund for undergraduate research in the sciences will further differentiate Williams from our peers, allowing the college to compete successfully with other colleges and research universities for the very best science students and faculty. This investment will complement others being made by fellow alumni to the Teach It Forward campaign to construct additional new science facilities and to hire and retain excellent new faculty members.

By investing in the future of the college’s hallmark summer science research program – one of the largest undergraduate-focused programs in the country – as one of our 50th Reunion class gift purposes, the Class of 1971 will help ensure that the transformative student-faculty mentorship that original research promotes will continue for generations to come.

Science at Williams

Research and education at the undergraduate level enjoy an intimate connection at Williams. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the sciences, where the intellectual benefits of this environment are both clear and abundant: students learn science best by doing it. For students, scientific research opportunities at the college are exceptional, because at Williams it’s undergraduates—not grad students—who partner with faculty on research and grow to become fully involved junior colleagues.

Williams has a long tradition of excellence in the sciences and in the teaching of science, in particular. Williams was the first American college to host a scientific expedition, in 1835, and our oldest science buildings date to the late 19th century (Hopkins Observatory, completed in 1838, is the oldest existing astronomical observatory in the country). Nearly 50 years ago, Williams launched one of the country’s earliest programs in environmental studies, and, with the opening of the Bronfman Science Center that we experienced in 1968, Williams possessed one of the most sophisticated and innovative scientific facilities of any college. In 2000, the Unified Science Center project gave Williams a state-of- the-art interdisciplinary science facility, setting the standard for the teaching of science. These facilities represented transformative leaps in science education during the last century.

Now, building upon 50 years of leadership in scientific education, the college is investing as part of the Teach It Forward campaign in a science center for the century to come. With this transformative project, Bronfman Science Center will be replaced by a similarly sized building equipped with flexible spaces for teaching and learning, and new research labs are being built south of Morley, connecting directly to teaching labs. This new space will make possible new lines of scientific inquiry.

Alongside this additional investment in physical space, Williams is growing the core faculty in the sciences by identifying and hiring great teachers and productive scholars and providing them the resources they need to thrive. Chief among these needs is research support, including equipment, supplies, and laboratory requirements to support work that grows ever more sophisticated. This sort of research investment is especially compelling to top new faculty candidates who come to Williams with significant research programs and significant lab startup costs.

Today, more than ever, our science faculty rely heavily on students to further their research, and students come to Williams for the opportunity to work side by side at the bench with their professors. Fully 49 percent of the Class of 2017 carried a major in a science or mathematics discipline (including students who double majored). Young professors are attracted to Williams in part because they are assured of an ongoing stream of talented undergraduates who might assist them in research.

About 10 percent of each graduating class goes on to earn a Ph.D. in science or mathematics, an extraordinary rate that is higher than that of almost every liberal arts peer and even most research institutions—Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, Duke, Berkeley, and Columbia included.

Our students’ success beyond Williams is thanks in large part to the experience they gain during their time here. From introductory classes with extensive hands-on labs taught by faculty to research mentorships and one-on- one collaborations with professors, students at Williams engage in work that at large research universities is reserved for postdoctoral fellows and graduate students.

Summer Science Research

Chief among these experiences is the chance to conduct original research with faculty members, most frequently during the summer. In students majoring in the sciences and serious about graduate school and/or a research career, a summer research experience has become an unofficial “third semester.” In recent years, more than 160 students have been full-time, fully funded summer research fellows:


Year Number of Students
2013 161
2014 174
2015 180
2016 193
2017 174


Those students are spread out across departments. Here is a recent breakdown by department/program:


Department  2015   2016   2017 
 Astronomy 5 1 7
 Biology 40 37 38
 Environmental Studies 1 1 2
 Chemistry 35 36 22
 Computer Science 11 11 9
 Geosciences 15 11 9
 Math / Statistics 37 38 37
Williams in Mystic 0 1 4
 Neuroscience 2 4 0
 Physics 18 18 18
 Philosophy of Mathematics 0 1 0
 Psychology 15 22 20


In a typical fellowship, a student spends 10 weeks working as a member of a faculty member’s research team. Immersed in an inquiry-based research model, the student contributes to projects in numerous ways and learns to shape research questions and examine evidence carefully. Students have the chance to interact with others from their department and to join a much larger, cross-disciplinary community of researchers for the summer, as the Science Center schedules seminars, lunches, and other special events for all summer researchers.

The full cost to support each summer student is just over $4,500, which includes a stipend for the summer in addition to having housing and meal costs covered.

The immediate and long-term impact of these experiences is evident in students’ choices and successes during their undergraduate years and beyond. Of note:

  • About 85 students conducted senior theses and independent study projects during the academic year, and dozens of students presented their research at conferences.
  • More than 50 students were co-authors with faculty of publications in journals last year.
  • Since 1999, five Williams students have received the American Physical Society’s LeRoy Apker Award, given to only two students a year for the country’s most outstanding undergraduate physics research.
  • SMALL, an NSF-funded summer research program in mathematics now in its 23rd year, supports the work of as many as 32 students a year who publish their work in mathematics journals and present it at conferences around the country. This is the largest undergraduate math research program in the U.S.
  • Historically, Williams has ranked first among predominantly undergraduate institutions in students receiving NSF pre-doctoral fellowships, averaging about seven per year.

An increasing share of summer fellows are students from demographic groups that have been historically underrepresented in the sciences, most notably those who are first in their family to attend college and/or come from a low-income background. Much of this success is attributable to the Summer Science Program, which provides an enriching and intensive five-week immersion in science, mathematics, and English for a talented group of science-oriented incoming Williams students the summer before they enroll. The goal of the program is to promote and encourage continuing participation in science and science-related studies at Williams and ultimately careers in research science and science education. In its 30th year in 2017, the program competitively admits roughly 25 students per summer to study with Williams faculty members.

Concurrent with strong student interest and involvement in science, Williams has
attracted talented and vibrant science faculty who engage in competitive research and
are dedicated to teaching undergraduates. As a result, Williams ranks first among all
predominantly undergraduate institutions in active NSF grants awarded to support faculty research. Over the past five years, Williams faculty members in the sciences have been awarded 23 NSF grants totaling $3.5 million, as well as six grants from the National Institutes of Health totaling $1.6 million.

An Opportunity

Annually, the science center oversees a $800,000 summer science research program involving about 180 research students who live on campus and work intensively on projects under the direction of Williams faculty members. In addition to paying $4,500 per student stipends, the college invests significantly on the associated direct costs of faculty labs to enable collaborative research. This program is made possible by substantial support of the institution, by external grants, and by an array of endowed funds.

To sustain the program in an era of growing student and faculty interest and declining external funding, especially from government sources, the college seeks new gifts to sustain these summer experiences. At present, at least 36 of the regularly offered summer positions are unfunded in the long-term and rely upon annual grants of approximately $162,000 per year.

We now have an opportunity to secure for the next century this commitment to excellence in undergraduate science education.  An aggregate class gift of  $3,200,000 in endowment would close the funding gap by providing annual support for this most vital program in perpetuity. Although unlikely, if a significant number of faculty members won outside grants, sufficient to meaningfully fund a larger number of summer student research opportunities, then some portion of the annual returns of the Fund could also support student research expenses during the year.