From the beginning, St. Catherine boldly set out to educate women in the sciences. Today, that commitment continues, with an innovative new science building in the works.
By Andy Steiner
IT MAY BE MORE MYTH THAN REALITY, BUT THE STORY OF THE 1927 construction of Mendel Hall is a tale that people close to St. Catherine’s science programs love to tell.
Take Deepa de Alwis SP’93. The chemistry major proudly recounts how St. Kate’s first president — the legendary Antonia McHugh, CSJ — stood steadfast in the face of strong political will in order to protect her campus’ precious acreage:
“Back then, the mayor of St. Paul did not think that a little school for women needed all that space,” de Alwis says. “He was going to run Prior Avenue right through our campus. Mother Antonia built Mendel Hall, our science building, right in the spot where the mayor wanted to build his road.”
With a laugh, Senior Vice President Colleen Hegranes picks up the tale: “Mother Antonia was already planning to put up a science building,” she says, “but when she got wind of the mayor’s plans, that accelerated her plans. Construction on the building began even before she had the money in hand. Mendel Hall was put up in a hurry and designed so the front doors faced the end of Prior, right where the street would have gone through.”
The gesture made a statement. “It was a beautiful, state-of-the-art science building,” Hegranes concludes. “Mother Antonia was always thinking ahead.”
Turns out, it was forward-thinking to emphasize science education for women. Today, more than 100 years after St. Catherine’s founding, the world economy demands that workers have a strong foundation in the sciences and mathematics. The University’s long history of educating women in those disciplines means that St. Catherine graduates are well positioned to assume leadership roles.
“Rigorous education in the sciences was a central part of the experience since the school’s founding,” Hegranes says. “Our female students were going to learn science like other liberal arts students around the world. This place was never set up to be a finishing school. It was always about excellence in education, and science was a big part of that.”
That commitment was revolutionary for its time, says Assistant Vice President Alan Silva, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences and the College for Women. Chemistry, mathematics, physics, biology and psychology were male-dominated fields when Mendel Hall was constructed. Mother Antonia insisted that the Sisters who taught these young Katies earn their advanced degrees at top universities around the world, arming them with knowledge and self-confidence.
“From the very beginning of this college, there was a strong commitment to the liberal arts — and that meant offering the full range of arts and sciences,” Silva says. “We weren’t just going to train women for ‘safe’ or ‘acceptable’ professions. We fostered the attitude that women should be studying in all liberal arts disciplines and could have careers in those areas. That is groundbreaking, in my view. And it should make us all feel proud.”
Confident and capable
Adele Marie Rothan, CSJ, was a mathematics professor at St. Catherine for 27 years. She and her colleagues never took it easy on their students.
“We wanted our courses to be rigorous,” Sister Adele says. “We had high expectations, and our students met our expectations. From the beginning, we were saying that women were capable of success in these fields because we believed they were capable.”
The study of math and science at St. Catherine was — and remains — as demanding as it is at coeducational institutions. Sister Adele believes, however, that the teaching style cultivated by professors may be unique.
“It’s subtle, but at St. Kate’s we provide clear support for all of our students,” says Sister Adele, who retired in 2012. “Our students learn a confidence in their abilities. We challenge them, but we also support them through the challenges, so when they go out into the world, they know they can fully compete in fields that are often largely male.”
Kay Sullivan Bendel SP’56, a mathematics and chemistry major, spent her professional career as one of the first computer programmers at Remington Rand Univac. “I don’t think we ever questioned our competence,” says Bendel. “We just thought we could succeed in a male-dominated industry because we had been shown how to succeed. Our professors were tough, but they supported us, and with their support, we set out to make our mark in the professional world.”
Keeping up with demand
These days, interest in the sciences and mathematics is at an all-time high at St. Kate’s — having increased by 30 percent since 2008.
This growth coincides with an ever-increasing demand for workers grounded in the STEM disciplines of science, engineering, technology and mathematics. “The importance of science to the future of society and our world has never been more apparent,” Hegranes says. “Fifty years ago, we weren’t talking about the future of the planet. We thought everything was renewable. But today we know it is not.
“Having a strong science education with a liberal arts foundation helps St. Catherine graduates become the policy leaders our world needs to survive,” she explains. “It has never been more important to have an education in science. At St. Kate’s, we are developing women who will be equipped to lead our world.”
Increased interest in math and science means increased demand for faculty hours and classroom space. Certainly, renovations have kept Mendel Hall up to date, but the building has its limitations. Even Mother Antonia could not have predicted how many students would one day sign up for science courses.
“We simply need more room,” Silva says. “Credit hours in biology, chemistry and psychology all are on the rise. To meet student demand, we need more room for labs, classrooms and faculty offices.”
The construction of the Women in Science Center — a centerpiece of the 2011 master-space plan developed as part of the University’s 2020 Vision strategic plan — could meet those space needs, Hegranes explains. The new building, which is still in early stages of development, will connect to Mendel Hall. It will provide new and expanded classroom space, updated laboratory facilities and options for collaborative interdepartmental research.
Just as Mendel Hall was a state-of-the art facility for its day, the new building will provide the latest in technology, drawing students and faculty interested in pursuing the sciences and mathematics in a liberal arts context.
“It is important to have the facilities that will enable our students to assume positions of leadership and snag world-changing jobs,” Hegranes says. “We’ve done a good job of stewarding what we have, but we need more space designed for the best ways to teach science in the future, spaces that attract top faculty and advance our scholarship.”
Mother Antonia would be proud. “The new building will be big and beautiful,” Hegranes says with a chuckle, “and its front door will face Prior.”
MARTHA PHILLIPS: A PERFECT MATCH
Back in 1993, the then–College of St. Catherine’s biology department was looking for a professor who could teach biology and ecology. Martha Phillips, a plant biologist who had recently earned her Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Minnesota, applied for the job.
“It was a perfect match,” Phillips says now. She was hired for her first tenure-track job, a position she’s now held for 20 years. In her two decades at St. Catherine, Phillips has seen the biology department through a number of shifts, including faculty retirements, new hires and curricular changes.
The popular professor was intimately involved with development of the University’s STEM minor and certificate program. As the biology department’s assessment lead, she’s also led the charge to update the biology curriculum, which cultivates acceptance of the department’s majors to prestigious graduate programs.
Phillips, whose ongoing research interest is wetland ecology, finds great satisfaction in teaching the capstone course “Global Search for Justice.” It takes her out of the laboratory and infuses her research with real-world student perspectives.
“The experience has changed my teaching,” Phillips says. “I’m very interested in the intersection between science and society. Teaching this course has inspired me and opened my eyes.”
GINA MANCINI-SAMUELSON: COMPOUNDING ENTHUSIASM
Gina Mancini-Samuelson, associate professor of chemistry, first fell in love with science when she was a student at Highland Catholic School in St. Paul. By the time she entered high school at Derham Hall, her scientific interests had narrowed.
“When I took my first chemistry course, I loved how things made sense,” Mancini-Samuelson recalls. “I loved working in the lab with the equipment. I loved analyzing materials. I couldn’t get enough.”
Mancini-Samuelson now brings her enthusiasm for the science of chemistry to her research and her work with individual students. To date, she has directed 16 collaborative undergraduate research projects, working closely with students as they refine and present their work. Her own research projects, many of which focus on graphine oxide, a novel nanomaterial, have been well received in peer journals. In 2012, she spent her sabbatical studying the material’s mechanical properties, with funding from the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network. While chemistry remains a small program at the University — six full-time faculty and 10 majors a year — enrollments are on the rise. “We have high expectations for our students, and they rise to meet them,” Mancini-Samuelson says. “It’s exciting to watch.”
SERAPHIM GIBBONS: O, PIONEER!
A small, outwardly unassuming woman, Seraphim Gibbons, CSJ, SP’33, was a math whiz and a pioneer in the early development of computer technology. The seventh of 10 children, Sister Seraphim was born Mabel Margaret Gibbons. She fulfilled a childhood dream and joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in 1939, after initially being turned away because of health concerns. In 1951, Sister Seraphim earned a Ph.D. in math and physics from the University of Minnesota. She joined St. Catherine’s mathematics faculty, where she served as a professor for 52 years — often living in residence halls alongside students. An early believer in the power of computer technology, Sister Seraphim brought rudimentary desktop computers to class, teaching students programming with the help of the campus mainframe. As a result, St. Catherine graduates were qualified for jobs as programmers at some of the nation’s earliest computer companies. “We were way ahead of the game,” says Karen Sutherland, former St. Catherine assistant professor of mathematics and professor emerita of computer science at Augsburg College. “Thanks to Sister Seraphim, our students got experience writing programs way before anything like that was available for students at other institutions.” Adele Marie Rothan, CSJ, a retired mathematics professor, recalls that her colleague and friend “mail-ordered one of the first computer kits available and built her own computer.” “When something needed to be done, she rolled up her sleeves and got right to it,” Sutherland says. “I have so much admiration for her.”
MARY THOMPSON: BIG REWARDS
As a chemistry professor, Mary Thompson, CSJ, SP’53 had a well-earned reputation as a tough cookie. “I required work,” she says. “I didn’t let my students drift.”
No one knows this better than chemistry major Deepa de Alwis SP’93, whose first research paper the professor returned awash in red ink. “Your writing is horrible,” Sister Mary scrawled atop one page. “It was like a bomb had gone off in my face,” de Alwis recalls.
She eventually produced a paper that met her advisor’s tough standards. Despite the harsh introduction, de Alwis developed a fierce fondness for Sister Mary, whom she still visits in her cozy Carondelet Village apartment.
“She was an excellent professor and mentor,” de Alwis says. “She weeded the weak people out. If you survived Sister Mary, you can survive anywhere.”
After earning her Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of California–Berkeley, Sister Mary returned to her alma mater in 1964, eventually becoming a full professor and chair of the chemistry department. She retired from St. Kate’s in 2000 at age 71.
One student remembers her as both exacting and encouraging. “In the 1970s, most women in chemistry were going into nursing,” recalls Eraine St. Marie Schmit SP’46, who majored in chemistry and later worked in the department. “Sister Mary would take her really promising students aside and say, ‘Why don’t you consider going to medical school?’ She was tough, but she really believed in their abilities. And, with her guidance, they achieved.”
EILEEN GAVIN: PSYCHOLOGY’S ‘PATRON SAINT’
From the earliest days of her career, Eileen Gavin SP’53 (a former CSJ) believed that all psychology courses at St. Catherine should have a required lab component, elevating the discipline at the University from “soft” to “hard” science.
“As long as the Department of Psychology has existed at St. Kate’s, there has been a focus on creating a rigorous environment to compete with the best departments in the world,” says Lynda Szymanski, professor of psychology and director of collaborative undergraduate research. “We are one of the few undergraduate institutions that has a lab as part of our general psychology course. That’s part of the rigor of St. Kate’s, and Eileen is largely responsible for that.”
Decades ago, Sister Eileen secured a large National Science Foundation grant that funded the development of psychology laboratories in Mendel Hall. The department earned a national
reputation for producing top clinicians and researchers during her more than 40-year tenure as a professor.
“Every time we hire someone new, we talk about Eileen,” Szymanski says. “We want them to know this person who has such a profound influence on who we are.”
ANN SWEENEY: NURTURING SUCCESS
Ann Sweeney, assistant professor of mathematics, believes that with enough guidance, every student can develop a core understanding of mathematics. During her nearly quarter-century at St. Catherine, she’s worked to help develop that computational confidence.
A graduate of Loyola University and the University of Illinois–Urbana, Sweeney recalls that young female mathematicians were rare in the 1970s. After teaching math at a number of schools and universities, Sweeney arrived at St. Kate’s thrilled by the combination of high expectations and academic support that was offered to all students. She has worked to bolster that supportive environment — a byproduct of an all-women’s institution, she believes — in the department.
“Because we are still taught that math is for men, many women are math phobic,” Sweeney says. “At St. Kate’s, it’s different. Students are able to bring their fears here and be understood. We meet students where they are and bring them forward. I didn’t see that attitude at other places that I’ve taught. Students blossom here.”
Andy Steiner is senior writer for SCAN.