Nearly two decades before an orphaned immigrant from the West Indies arrived in colonial New York and began his revolutionary rap at King’s College, the school established itself next to Trinity Church as one of the growing city’s essential institutions. After the new United States won its independence from the British monarch, the alma mater of Federalists Alexander Hamilton and John Jay reopened as Columbia—though it held on to its crown. From 18th century Park Row and 19th century Midtown to Morningside Heights, Washington Heights and soon, Manhattanville in West Harlem, Columbia’s trajectory, mission and identity have been fundamentally shaped by New York City.

“For the many Columbians who started out life as New Yorkers, and certainly for the many of us who came to study or teach here from around the country and the world, the experience of living and learning in New York is transformational,” said Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger. “That’s why deep engagement in our incomparable city remains so essential to both our academic excellence and our civic purpose.”

This package features the latest collection of stories illustrating just a few of the countless ways that “in the City of New York” isn’t just an official part of the University’s name, but a unique opportunity for teaching, learning and public service by today’s Columbians.

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City as a Classroom: Researching the Realities of Criminal Justice

By Georgette Jasen
April 2016

Samuel Roberts hopes students come away from his courses with real-world experience and skills. Photo by Barbara Alper

For Samuel Roberts, all of New York City is his classroom.

Students taking his seminar on the history of race and mass incarceration go to see holding cells and talk to people awaiting arraignment in the five boroughs. Those enrolled in his course on drug policy visit community organizations in Harlem and the South Bronx that provide services to substance abusers.

“I want my students to see the real world,” says Roberts, an associate professor of history and sociomedical sciences as well as director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies. “These are experiences you can only get in New York.”

The criminal justice class, “Race, Policing and the Carceral State in the 20th Century United States,” looks at racial disparities in the criminal justice system, youth imprisonment, drug policy, mass incarceration and other issues.

The visits to holding cells are done in conjunction with the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit that inspects New York state prisons.

Students are accompanied by an assistant police commissioner as they observe conditions under which suspects are held and ask questions about access to food, water, medication and bathroom facilities. They also talk to police and corrections officers and sit in on arraignments.

Although suspects typically can be held for a maximum of 24 hours before arraignment, “a lot can happen in 24 hours,” says Roberts, adding that in some places students have made inquiries about prisoners who appeared to be in need of medical attention.

“We’re excited to have the students doing this with us,” says Soffiyah Elijah, a longtime defense attorney, law professor, and executive director of the association, who early in the semester briefed students on what to expect. At the end of the semester students will submit reports on their findings.

For most of the Columbia students, it is their first experience with the criminal justice system, and they find it eye-opening. “People have been extremely honest about what they’re experiencing, good and bad,” said history major Elizabeth Runtz (GS’16) after visiting arraignment court holding cells at the Queens County Criminal Court in Kew Gardens.

The visits are followed by classroom discussions about what they have seen. Other topics for reading and discussion include federal sentencing guidelines, the war on drugs and issues facing women in prison.

“It’s a public health issue. People’s bodies and minds are affected.”

Roberts, who came to Columbia in 2002 with a Ph.D. from Princeton, has been part of a working group on mass incarceration at the Mailman School of Public Health and also served as policy director of the Columbia Center for Justice, an initiative that includes faculty from all over the University who are interested in the impact of imprisonment. “It’s a public health issue,” Roberts says. “People’s bodies and minds are affected.” He is currently working on a book about the policy and politics of drug addiction treatment from the 1950s to the present.

Students taking his seminar on the social history of drugs and drug policy have visited harm-reduction programs for substance users and others in the community run by BOOM!Health in the South Bronx and Harlem United in Manhattan.

“Criminalization of drug use drives people underground. They won’t ask for help,” Roberts says. “Harm reduction addresses fundamental questions of inequality—poverty, unemployment, inadequate nutrition, homelessness, all determinants of health.”

When students visited BOOM!Health in March, they observed the range of services it offers, including counseling, testing for HIV and hepatitis C, a needle-exchange program, help finding housing and employment, a food pantry and free haircuts.

Roberts also created a two-week summer program at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies called “The Many Worlds of Black New York,” which has attracted teachers, journalists, artists, independent researchers and faculty from other institutions interested in the history, cultures and institutions of people of African descent in New York City

Last year’s participants included a teacher of English and American culture from Brazil. Seminar leaders include faculty from Columbia and elsewhere. “Community engagement comes in a lot of ways,” says Roberts. “We always should be pushing to have a presence in the nonacademic intellectual community.”

He hopes his Columbia students come away from his courses with real-world experience and skills they can use after graduation, including research and teamwork. “What Columbia has that other institutions don’t is New York,” he says.

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Patricia Culligan is a civil engineer and professor at the Engineering School. Photo by Jeffrey Schifman

Fixing an Aging City’s Infrastructure One Engineering Problem at a Time

By Georgette Jasen
April 2016

How do you make sure aging bridges that are vital links in the city’s transportation network are safe or keep the city’s sewer system from breaking down?

These are among the questions that occupy Andrew Smyth and Patricia Culligan, civil engineers and professors at the Engineering School, who work on New York’s infrastructure.

“There are a lot of nasty, ugly problems here in New York City,” says Smyth. “This is our laboratory.”

Smyth has installed sensors to analyze vibration on some of the city’s bridges and in landmark buildings and museums, while Culligan has focused, among other things, on the functioning of the city’s water system.

They are just two of many Columbia faculty members involved in the upkeep of a city that was founded in the 17th century and has been growing ever since. Other faculty study a wide range of infrastructure related issues—everything from bringing more wind and solar power to the city to maintaining and improving its vast transportation system.

The Smart Cities Center in Columbia’s Data Science Institute, which Smyth chairs and Culligan, associate director of the Data Science Institute, is affiliated with, includes faculty from the Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning and the School of International and Public Affairs as well as professors of economics, computer science, and civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, all working to better understand how cities function and use data to make them more livable.

Much of New York’s infrastructure is aging and needs to be restored, improved and potentially replaced, Smyth says, and at a time when the population is growing. “There is decreasing capacity and increased demand,” he says. “You can’t just take things offline to do repairs.”

The subways, for example, run 24 hours a day and often need to have electrical switches replaced. As any transit rider knows, certain lines are taken down, usually at night or on weekends, so repairs can be made. Engineers face similar problems with bridges; they are constantly exposed to the elements and persistent traffic loads, which ages the structures and can lead to cracks, yet they are critical to the city’s transportation grid.

Smyth, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California and joined the Columbia faculty in 1998, has used vibrationbased diagnostic techniques to look for signs of deterioration on many of the city’s bridges. His graduate students—volunteers in brightly colored safety vests and harnesses—have clambered up Manhattan Bridge cables to install sensors that measure the effects of vehicles crossing the span. They also have climbed onto the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to measure the impact of thousands of footfalls of New York City Marathon runners.

Graduate students—volunteers in brightly colored safety vests and harnesses—have clambered up Manhattan Bridge cables to install sensors that measure the effects of vehicles crossing the span. Photo Courtesy of Carleton Laboratory

His sensors also monitored vibrations during renovation projects at the Metropolitan Museum and the New-York Historical Society. During renovation of the Met’s Costume Institute, museum officials wanted to ensure the safety of fragile objects in the adjacent Egyptian Wing.

Culligan, who co-directs the Earth Institute’s Urban Design Lab, is also a director of an interdisciplinary program with the architecture school that focuses on designs for future cities. She has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University in England and taught at MIT before coming to Columbia in 2003.

She is working on a project involving green roofs, planted vegetation on rooftops to absorb storm water that would otherwise gush into the city’s sewer system. In New York, she explains, storm water and sewage typically flow into a single pipe, and anything wastewater treatment facilities can’t handle goes directly into local waterways, including the Hudson River, and then into the ocean. There are hundreds of green roofs around the city, including seven on the Columbia campus, she points out, and the city is working to create incentives for private homeowners to install more.

“The goal is to work with the community to solve problems,” Culligan says.

These plantings typically take up about half of a rooftop and consist of several layers of engineered material, including a growing medium for plants, on top of a normal roof. Similarly, extended tree pits and landscape elements inserted into sidewalks are designed to soak up rainwater and divert overflow from the street to these green spaces. Sensors measure how much water these systems soak up.

Culligan also works with the community group Bronx River Alliance to monitor water quality standards. Because litter, often thrown into sidewalk green spaces, clogs city drains and adds to water quality problems, she is collaborating with Ester Fuchs, a professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, to understand the location of litter “hot-spots” around the city, with the aim of stopping trash where it starts.

“New York is a city of 8 million with a diversity of conditions and people, so there are a lot of opportunities for a living laboratory,” Culligan says. “Columbia is lucky to be in this great, global city.”

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Sheffield Farms, the Milk Industry and the Public Good

By Acacia O'Connor
April 2016

On the south side of West 125th Street stands a four-story, century-old building whose façade is sheathed in milky white terracotta. Members of the Columbia community know it as Prentis Hall, which houses parts of the School of the Arts. But when it was built in 1909, at the same time that the Morningside Heights campus was taking shape a few blocks down Broadway, it was a state-of-the-art bottling plant for Sheffield Farms, one of the many dairy companies that thrived in the industrial neighborhood of Manhattanville.

This spring, that slice of history is the focus of an interpretive exhibition, “Sheffield Farms, the Milk Industry, and the Public Good,” created by Columbia University Libraries and University Facilities to explain Manhattanville as a New York nexus, and to fulfill part of Columbia’s commitments to New York City and State in building the Manhattanville campus.

“We really wanted to bring this unique history to life,” said La-Verna Fountain, project sponsor and vice president for Construction Business Services and Communications. “Who better to do that than our very own Carole Ann Fabian? The team that she put together created an exhibit that went far beyond what we could have imagined.”

To get at the heart of the area’s history, Fabian, director of Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, enlisted faculty and administrators from across the University, including historian Eric K. Washington, a Columbia Community Scholar and author of Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem. Historical photographs, artifacts and a short documentary offer a panorama of a diverse rural village as it transitioned to an industrial part of a growing New York. Central to this history are the local children who often fell ill due to tainted milk.

“People who learn about this history will not be able to look in their grocery store the same way again,” said exhibition curator Thai Jones, the Herbert H. Lehman Curator for U.S. History at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Farming was commonplace in Upper Manhattan in the 1800s. Livestock grazed on town greens, so fresh milk was close at hand. As the city expanded north, milk production was pushed further uptown. Cows were housed adjacent to breweries and tanneries that spewed fumes and polluted rivers and streams. Increasingly, farming and industry became intertwined in ways that threatened public health.

“Much of the milk produced for New York was this city milk, which they called swill milk,” said Fabian .

New York’s milk was blue and thin, a product of sickly cows feeding on factory runoff, such as the barley mash from nearby breweries. To give milk a wholesome appearance, producers added chalk to give it a whiter color, and dirt or plaster to add thickness.

Just What is Certified Milk? ca. 1920. (pamphlet cover). Photo Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library

“Harlem Mothers Storm Milk Stations,” The Evening World, 1916. Photo Courtesy of Rare Book and Manuscripts Library

Children in East Harlem, Union Settlement House, ca. 1940

Sheffield Farms Milk Bar, 24 East 42nd Street near Grand Central Terminal, ca. 1940. Photo Courtesy of The Museum of the City of New York

“Sheffield Farms- Slawson-Decker Co., Approved Pasteurization Plant,” Architects' and Builders' Magazine v.43, 1910. Sheffield Farms’ built milk pasteurization, now Columbia University’s Prentis Hall. Photo Courtesy of Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library

Worker inspecting milk bottles during the sterilization process at Sheffield Dairy Farms plant, ca. 1926. Photo Courtesy of Underwood Photo Archives

Country milk was hauled in on trains, but it was not pure either. Refrigeration was not yet common, so milk would sit on open train cars or in vats in grocery stores, where people ladled it into an open bucket and carried it home.

Not surprisingly, milk-borne diseases led to soaring infant mortality rates. From 1901 to 1905, nearly two in every 10 children died before their first birthday

“Most people don’t give a moment’s thought to that basic household need. But 100 years ago that decision was a matter of life and death,” said Jones.

To combat this public health emergency, scientists including Columbia chemistry professor Charles F. Chandler joined forces with local leaders and business owners to advance milk science, educate the community and create regulations to make the milk supply safe.

Fabian drew a parallel between the uses of science for the public good then and now, as the University prepares to open the Jerome L. Green Science Center, the first building of the new Manhattanville campus. Where Sheffield Farms once housed its fleet of delivery horses, Nobel prize-winning neuroscientists will gather with a diversity of scholars in search of new insights on the human brain.

“Our goal at Columbia is serving the public good, using all our capacity to solve real world problems through our research efforts, our involvement with the community and our advocacy,” said Fabian. “I don’t think any of us knew when we started our research how relevant the Sheffield Farms story was to how we think about our University now.”

The Sheffield Farms exhibition opens April 4. For more information, visit the exhibition website at

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Kenneth Jackson. Photo by Eileen Barroso

An Endowed Chair for the Study of New York State

By Gary Shapiro
April 2016

The Robert D.L. Gardiner Foundation has donated $3 million to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to establish the Robert Gardiner-Kenneth T. Jackson Professorship in the Department of History. The named chair honors Gardiner, a 1934 graduate of Columbia College who died in 2004, and Kenneth T. Jackson, a longtime professor of history at the University.

“It’s a rare honor to have your name live in association with a subject you feel so emotionally connected to,” said Jackson, the director of the Herbert H. Lehman Center for the Study of American History and the Jacques Barzun Professor of History and the Social Sciences. “I had no expectation that I would even get tenure here 45 years ago, let alone that there would be a chair in my name after I retired. It is a wonderful honor.”

Jackson, who joined Columbia in 1968 an assistant professor, has written notable books on American history including Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States and the landmark Encyclopedia of New York City. For 40 years, he taught a “History of New York City” course that included a midnight bike ride across the city.

“I feel very fortunate that I’ve been at such a wonderful institution that allowed me to do things like trips to Gettysburg or all-night bicycle rides,” he said. “The students are imaginative and inspirational. They’re self-starters. They argue, they disagree, and they are smart.”

The foundation primarily supports the study of New York state history, inspired by Gardiner’s personal passion for the subject. “This gift ensures that our mission will continue to thrive at the university that calls New York home,” said Joseph R. Attonito, the foundation’s president. Gardiner’s ancestors founded Gardiners Island near East Hampton, N.Y. in 1639.

“New York is a wonderful experiment in how you can celebrate and prosper from diversity.”

“We are extremely grateful to the Gardiner Foundation for having the vision to ensure the legacy of both its namesake, Robert D.L. Gardiner, and beloved Columbia professor Kenneth T. Jackson, by endowing this chair,” said David Madigan, executive vice president and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Jackson is currently working on a book about New York City after World War II, showing how it survived a mass exodus of industry and commerce, white flight, a population decline and a fiscal crisis that led it to the brink of bankruptcy. “Somehow between 1975 and 1990 New York turned around and became incredibly attractive,” said Jackson, who is interested in why and how. “There’s no one moment you can point to.”

“Today, New York is a wonderful experiment in how you can celebrate and prosper from diversity,” he said. “You have Bosnians, Serbs, Croats and Herzegovinians, who were killing each other in the former Yugoslavia. You’ve got Pakistanis and Indians who were threatening nuclear war over Kashmir, but here they live peacefully. In so many places people are cutting each other’s throats. Here they eat in each other’s restaurants.”

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Alan Ziegler

School of Arts Community Program Nurtures City’s Aspiring Writers

By Gary Shapiro
April 2016

They teach military veterans, Columbia undergraduates and homeless youth, among others. They don’t receive pay or school credit. What they get is the opportunity to help others while gaining valuable teaching and mentoring experience.

They are the MFA candidates who comprise Columbia Artists/Teachers, a program founded by Professor Alan Ziegler that sends master’s students from the School of the Arts Writing Program into the community to teach writing.

Ziegler, who has taught at Columbia since 1982 and is the Writing Program’s director of pedagogy, has been providing teachers to local schools, community organizations and Columbia classrooms through this student-run program since 2002.

“This program is very much in the city of New York,” he said, noting that the University’s official name is Columbia University in the City of New York.

He took as his model the dozen years he worked with the Teachers and Writers Collaborative, a group of professional writers who provide school-based and after-school writing programs for elementary and high school students and writing workshops for young adults around the city.

During his tenure there, Ziegler might visit a library in Chinatown one day, a school in Bedford Stuyvesant the next, and then a senior center. “I felt I was a better teacher and perhaps a better person from this variety of teaching experiences.”

Community partners for the School of the Arts program include Gilda’s Club, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, a performing arts high school in Astoria, Queens.

In 2010, a new collaboration sprang from a chance meeting between Ziegler and film professor Jamal Joseph when they were in line at the café in Dodge Hall, where the School of the Arts is housed. Joseph, the founder and artistic director of IMPACT, a Harlem-based youth theater company, asked if Ziegler knew of a summer writing workshop for his teenage students. “I do now,” Ziegler replied. “We’ll make one,” adding, “you provide the students, we’ll provide the teachers.”

“We are always on the look out for new partnerships,” said Avia Tadmor (SoA’16), a student director of the program.

Tadmor, who studied psychology as an undergraduate, said the program helps those who participate “open up and express whatever they want—but also to the extent that they want.” For her, it’s meant transitioning from helping cancer patients in a clinical setting to working with them on their writing.

“The program rounds out the whole experience of getting the MFA degree in writing,” said Emily Skillings (SoA’16). “It’s been a huge component for me.”

Ziegler said that while teacher training is not the primary reason for being a part of Columbia Artists/Teachers, it is an important byproduct. The MFA students develop teaching materials, offer advice and comments, and help their students “get to the next level,” said Ziegler, adding that the process instills confidence in both sets of students. At the end of the semester, the MFA students might present their work at a reading or open mic evening.

Asked what qualities make a great teacher for this program, Dorothea Lasky, a professor of poetry and faculty co-advisor, said that empathy was crucial. “But I think the program attracts that anyway.”

A component of Columbia Artists/Teachers is INTRO, run by Michelle Burk (SoA’16), in which students design and teach noncredit creative writing courses to undergraduates and other members of the Columbia community. Students who take Ziegler’s course “The Writer as Teacher” are eligible to participate. MFA students looking for jobs may at some point be asked to propose a class they would teach. “Students from this program have already taught one,” he said.

Ziegler has been involved in creative writing at least since his undergraduate days at Union College, where he wrote for the student newspaper and penned song lyrics. He then received a master’s in creative writing from City College, where he studied with Beat Generation author William Burroughs and novelist Kurt Vonnegut. He has taught at Bronx Community College and for many years was writer in residence at P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side.

School of the Arts alumni return to campus to offer advice on writing, teaching and jobs, Tadmor said. “The community is not just when you’re at Columbia,” she said. “There’s a greater community that soars beyond your time at Columbia.”

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Wade McGillis

Hudson River Lab Works to Revive New York Waterways

By Georgette Jasen
April 2016

Wade McGillis has done research in the Caribbean off Puerto Rico and in watersheds in Haiti, but he always comes back to his laboratory in Piermont, N.Y., on the banks of the Hudson River.

There, a few miles north of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, he monitors the river’s water quality with sensors that stretch from Rockland County to lower Manhattan, tracking the flow of sediment, measuring overflow from waste treatment plants, and monitoring bacteria, nitrates and phosphates.

“You won’t open your mouth in the Hudson River, and that’s symbolic of a lot of things,” says McGillis, an associate research professor at Lamont and also an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering. “We want to figure out if we can restore it to a pristine system. If you don’t know what you’re doing to it, you can’t figure out ways to fix it. ”

McGillis is director of the Center for Rivers and Estuaries, a multidisciplinary group of Columbia scientists—geologists, biologists, climate scientists and others—studying various aspects of these waterways, including the effects of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

He has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. After working in Silicon Valley, he decided to take a research fellowship at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, near where he grew up on Cape Cod. He came to Columbia in 2004 and now teaches a course in field methods for environmental engineering at Columbia Engineering and another on the science of sustainable water in the master’s degree program in sustainability management cosponsored by the Earth Institute and the School of Professional Studies.

He takes students to the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn to see one of the most contaminated waterways in the nation. “I can’t even spell some of what’s in the Gowanus Canal,” he says. “When I go there I almost want to pass out.” He also monitors water quality in the Bronx River as part of a National Science Foundation project and studies marshland in the New York area, much of which has been paved over, to the detriment of the ecosystem.

Wade McGillis had to flee his Hudson River lab in Piermont, N.Y., as floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy swamped the building

His research off the coast of Puerto Rico focused on the impact that climate change and other environmental forces have on coral reefs. In Haiti, two months after the devastating 2010 earthquake, he studied the depth and flow of the Les Anglais River and its potential for hydropower. He has gone back to investigate the effects of El Niño.

McGillis headed to the lab in Piermont as Hurricane Sandy approached the New York area in October 2012 to set up equipment on an adjacent pier to capture the storm’s impact, but he had to flee for safety as floodwaters swamped the lab. Thousands of dollars in equipment was lost.

The Hudson River monitoring project is a multi-institutional effort that in addition to Columbia includes the Hudson River Foundation, a nonprofit based in Manhattan; the state Department of Environmental Conservation; the U.S. Geological Survey; the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies, an environmental research and education center in Millbrook, N.Y., and the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

The river is cleaner than it was in the past, McGillis says, but still contains some industrial waste, and heat from power plants has changed the ecosystem.

McGillis, in addition to his roles at Columbia, is a key player in Hudson River cleanwater initiatives throughout New York. He leads a program created by Earthwatch, the environmental group, and HSBC, the global bank, that has trained some 250 citizen scientists to measure water quality; he is on the advisory board of Riverkeeper, a Westchester-based nonprofit that promotes clean-water programs; and he has helped develop testing methods and materials for a proposed swimming pool that would float in the Hudson in lower Manhattan and filter river water. The pool is a project of Columbia alumnus Dong-Ping Wong (GSAPP’06).

“All urban waterways are contaminated, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” McGillis says. “The more we monitor our systems, the better position we are in to find the right solutions to preserve the environment and avoid health hazards.”

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Architecture School Creates Local Incubator for Innovative Alumni Projects

By Eve Glasberg
April 2016

Imagine the world’s first floating pool that filters river water; software that creates immersive 3-D architectural models in virtual reality; and urban design that addresses issues of migration in a city such as Detroit. These are some of the projects underway at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation’s GSAPP Incubator that supports recent alumni seeking to develop innovative architectural and design projects.

“The Incubator is an opportunity for alumni from our different programs to expand the possibilities of architectural and urban practices together,” said Amale Andraos, dean of the architecture school. “We felt that a 10-year window since graduation allows for a diversity of topics and interdisciplinary methods. We want Incubator members to have the space and freedom to experiment and to realize that they don’t have to go into the usual lines of practice but can pioneer and shape their own.”

Located in downtown Manhattan next door to the New Museum, the Incubator is an anchor tenant in the museum’s NEW INC, a shared space designed to support practitioners in art, design and technology.

A pool designed by Family + Playlab + Pool, a project of alumnus Dong-Ping Wong, acts like a giant strainer dropped into a river. The pool’s filtration system will clean up to half a million gallons of water daily by removing bacteria and contaminants without using chemicals or additives.

A call for applications went out last summer. Dean Andraos and Assistant Professor David Benjamin, who directs the Incubator, selected 11 architectural and design groups for the yearlong program whose goal is to encourage recent graduates to share their experiences and skills while building professional networks and forging connections with New York’s technology sector. Incubator members are required to organize events both on campus and at NEW INC to bridge the two venues and encourage dialogue among current students, faculty and alumni. The next call for applications will go out this summer.

Benjamin (GSAPP’05), like many of Columbia’s architecture professors, also has a design practice, The Living. One of its recent projects involved creating a temporary structure for the courtyard of MoMA PS1 in Long Island City from biodegradable bricks made of chopped-up agricultural waste and the vegetative part of a fungus. The bricks are made with almost no energy or carbon emissions and produce zero waste. After Benjamin’s team “grew” 10,000 bricks, they built a 40-foot-tall structure, where PS1 hosted public events throughout the summer of 2014. The Living then disassembled the structure, composted the bricks and returned the soil to local community gardens.

Some of the Incubator projects feature the same spirit of innovation and recycling. One member, IrisVR, developed technology that enables users to create virtual walk-throughs of 3-D models. Another member, A(n) Office, an architectural practice based in Detroit and New York co-founded by Marcel Lopez-Dinardi (GSAPP’13), developed a prototype for housing for 200 families on a seven-acre, city-owned property in Detroit. Commissioned by the U.S. Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, it will be unveiled in Venice on May 28.

“We are unique because we’re the only incubator in the country run by an architecture school, and also because not all of our members are seeking funding, profit and growth. In fact, one of our groups is a nonprofit organization,” said Benjamin.

Architects, designers and planners never go into the field for the money,” added Andraos, “although we certainly hope that some of the groups will succeed in terms of impact and influence as well as financially. Columbia GSAPP has a great history of fostering new ideas about what it means to be an architect and how you define architecture and engage cities. With the Incubator, we’ve created a platform where we can promote and expand this approach beyond the school.”

One such project is Family + Playlab + Pool, co-founded by Dong-Ping Wong (GSAPP’06). Wong and his team are designing a floating river-water pool for New York City. Like a giant strainer dropped into a river, the pool’s filtration system will clean up to half a million gallons of water daily by removing bacteria and contaminants without using chemicals or additives. “We hope everybody will be swimming by the summer of 2020,” Wong said.

“Architects are by their very nature entrepreneurial,” added Andraos. “We’re always translating ideas and practices into reality.”

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Joseph Ayala. Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Columbia People: Joseph Ayala

By Gary Shapiro
April 2016

Executive Director, Double Discovery Center.


Ayala (CC’94) is the administrator of Columbia College’s 50-year-old service program, which works with local low-income and first generation college-bound students to help them finish high school and attend college. Ayala manages the outreach programs Upward Bound and Talent Search, which help more than 1,000 New York City middle and high school students annually pursue their education. The center recently received a $2 million anonymous gift endowing the Freedom & Citizenship Program, an abridged version of Columbia’s Core Curriculum for high school juniors. There is also a new Science Discovery Program where Columbia master’s degree candidates teach science to high school students, and the College Persistence Initiative, which offers continuing mentoring to students once they’re in college.

Ayala grew up in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, “a pretty and gritty place,” he said. His Puerto Rico-born parents worked for the city; his mother was director of transportation at the Administration for Children’s Services and his father was a police officer.

Through Prep for Prep, a leadership development program for promising New York City students of color, he attended the Allen-Stevenson School and graduated from the Dalton School. “My peer group in the Bronx hoped to make a comfortable living,” he said. “The kids I went to school with at Dalton expected this to happen.” He studied history and political science at Columbia. “I don’t know if I could find the words for how much I learned.”

As a work-study student, he drew the chalk lines in Morningside Park for intramural soccer, sorted mail and worked with an electrician setting up labs in Pupin Hall. He then earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Before joining Double Discovery he worked as director of Upper School counseling at Prep for Prep and then was a manager at Publicolor, a youth development non-profit dedicated to enhancing opportunities for at-risk New York City children. Part of his work entailed painting the walls of public schools. “I joke that I don’t have work clothes. Everything I own has paint on it. All bright colors, too.”

Ayala said, “I couldn’t have asked for anything better than to be of meaningful service in helping create opportunity for students,” especially with the Science Discovery Program that expands opportunities for youth who would not otherwise have the chance to study the subject. Each year at the Double Discovery graduation “we get to celebrate our students and propel them forward.”

The 50th anniversary celebration of Double Discovery in the Low Library Rotunda last fall, attended by the pair who founded the program in 1965, Steven J. Weinberg (CC’66) and Roger Lehecka (CC’67, GSAS’74), who went on to become Columbia College’s dean of students from 1979 to 1998. Many who went through the program were present. That evening embodied “everything that Double Discovery has been, all that it is right now and all that it could be,” said Ayala.

Ayala keeps a unicycle in his office. “I can’t free-mount it anymore, but if you get me up on it, I can still ride it.” Pointing to the torn seat, “you can see where I have fallen.” He enjoys cooking with his three daughters: Rachel 16, Ana 10, and Maggie 8. He also plays pickup basketball in Van Cortlandt Park and sometimes at Dodge. He is a Yankees, Jets and, he said, “sadly, also a Knicks fan.”

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Donald Davis. Photo by Eileen Barroso

Faculty Q&A: Donald Davis on the Economics of New York City

By Bridget O'Brian
April 2016

As chair of the Economics Department, Donald Davis teaches classes on international economics, globalization and trade. But his undergraduate students can, in effect, get a tour of the discipline’s major theories as they are practiced in the real world in the seminar he teaches each spring, “The Economics of New York City.”

“Most of economics talks about the world as if there are no particular locations, no particular policies,” he said. “My idea is that economics is everywhere around us, and it’s interesting to think about how it looks in the environment we actually live in.” Davis considers economics more of a method to understand how people make choices, and what constraints they must operate under. “It’s important to understand what the consequences of a policy will be, rather than just imagine what they will be before it’s implemented,” he said.

The students lead discussions about the required reading, which includes classics such as How the Other Half Lives, the 1890 book by Jacob Riis that brought attention to the abject poverty among immigrants on the Lower East Side, and Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities as well as The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City, by Elizabeth Currid. And they can get extra credit for creating an hour-long neighborhood tour, where they, Davis and their fellow students go to a section of the city that illustrates economic forces, such as urban development, at work.

Born in New Mexico, Davis grew up in Los Angeles and then lived in the Bay area before moving to New York City in the mid-1980s to get his master’s and Ph.D. from Columbia—a tough time to become a New Yorker, given that the city was recovering from its near bankruptcy of the previous decade and experiencing a historic spike in crime. He taught at Harvard from 1992 until 1999, when he returned to the University.

Q. Your course description of “The Economics of New York City” suggests using the city as a laboratory. How do you mean that?

A. The idea is to use the tools and approaches of economics to illuminate issues in a fresh way. Most of economics talks about the world as if there are no particular locations, no particular policies. When it becomes concrete, economists talk about England and Portugal trading cloth and wine, ideas going back to David Ricardo in the early 19th century [an early advocate of free trade.] My idea is that economics is everywhere around us, so why not think about how economics looks in the city we actually live in? We can bring the tools of standard urban economics into the world that we walk through every day

Q. What kinds of things do you look at?

A. We talk a lot about affordable housing. One of the questions I ask my students is how many people in the class are against affordable housing? We get very few hands going up against that. So one thing is the names that things are given can be important. And then the second thing is the actual policy, which means the students need to look at what is being implemented. Does it look anything like the programs you think we should have? And so then you need to get into the nitty gritty of what the actual programs look like, both the good sides and the bad sides.

Q. What are you discussing in class right now?

A. It’s something very concrete and very close to here, the gentrification that’s been going on in certain parts of Harlem from 1950 to 2010, for a long historical view. And then you start asking, well, why does this happen, what are the limits, how much is about social class or about race or ethnicity? Where does crime fit in? If we went back from today to 25 years ago, almost every category of crime was over six times higher. Right now we have about a murder a day in New York City, but in 1990 it was more than six a day. It focuses your mind that we have five fewer funerals a day than we had in 1990.

Q. Could this course be taught using any city?

A. It could, but the institutional details matter a lot for how you evaluate these things. New York isn’t just any city—it makes the issues come more alive on literally any issue that we’re talking about. The list of topics have to do with segregation, transportation, affordable housing, rent stabilization, gentrification, neighborhoods, crime, criminal justice. We discuss why New York is the way it is, even very basic things, such as why do cities differ in size? And if you have different cities of different size how will they differ in their distribution of skills, their distribution of educational attainment, their distribution of industries and occupations? Is New York just bigger than Binghamton or is it fundamentally different? There are a couple of different theories of economic geography, which ask why do cities of different sizes exist?

Q. Didn’t early cities grow because of their proximity to trade?

A. At one time the answer to that question was that some major cities have ports, some have great rivers that flow into the interior of the U.S. And if you have a Dewitt Clinton (CC 1786) someone will dig an Erie Canal for you. You could call these locational fundamentals, which is that cities are different sizes because they have different natural features that make some better than others. Ed Glaeser of Harvard, a leading urban economist, says that New York succeeds because of geography—the port, the Hudson River, the fact that it’s more central to the continent than Boston or Philadelphia. But there are other cities with ports and rivers, and other cities like Los Angeles that have thrived without a natural port or major river.

Q. So what made New York City grow the way it did?

A. Well, it turns out New York is not just a large Binghamton. There are several dimensions to this, but one is that across all of the United States, larger cities are relatively more attractive to more skilled people. Cities always have things that are pulling people in and things that are pushing people out. Productivity is one of the things that pulls people in. In midtown Manhattan you have immense forests of skyscrapers-what is going on there? The answer is that there’s a need to get large numbers of people very close to each other to be able to exchange information, ideas and documents. The Internet has done nothing to change this, and in fact most of my emails go only 30 yards. If anything the Internet has tended to make cities more valuable.

Q. In your 2012 paper called, “A Spatial Knowledge Economy,” [written with former Columbia Ph.D. student, Jonathan I. Dingel, now at the University of Chicago] you posit that skilled workers tend to seek out more populous cities. Why is that?

A. The paper highlights the fact that the function of large cities has changed. Once cities thrived as manufacturing hubs. That is past and won’t come back. Large cities are ever more about bringing people together to exchange ideas and for these ideas to hop from firm to firm through the movement of people through the labor market. Large cities thrive on novel ideas.

The paper acknowledges that all kinds of people are more productive in big cities. But the biggest gains from locating in a city like New York are to those with the highest levels of skill. This tendency for the most skilled to be most prevalent in New York City was for some decades held in check by the high crime rates in New York. It is therefore no surprise that the approximately 85 percent decline in crime rates in recent decades is also accompanied by a surge of population (the city’s population has grown 16 percent since 1990, to 8.5 million in 2014). Our neighborhoods are more attractive, but also more expensive. The two can’t be separated.

Q. Following up on this, do smaller cities have fewer opportunities?

A. On a relative basis, less skilled workers are more prevalent in smaller cities. But then you also have instances where very poor populations tend to be concentrated in larger cities, especially in central cities. If big cities were just terrible places for poor people to live, you wouldn’t find so many there. And the fact that you don’t find very poor people in smaller cities suggests that in some sense smaller cities probably aren’t very functional for them. It’s harder to live without a car in a small city, for example. In New York City many people live without cars.

Q. You’ve discussed what using the city as a lab brings to your teaching of economics. What does Columbia itself bring?

A. When Columbia was founded in 1754, New York City hardly stretched north of the present City Hall. Since then New York’s population has grown from about 13,000 to 8.5 million and Columbia has had a front row view of the entire process. I have recently been collaborating with colleagues at New York University, including Columbia History Ph.D. Jonathan Soffer, and the libraries at Columbia and New York Public, on an NEH-funded effort to digitize the New York City Record. When complete, this will be an incredible resource for historians, economists and other students of the rise of New York City.


  • Chair of the Economics Department
  • Ragnar Nurkse Professor of Economics

Joined Faculty

  • 1999


  • Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of Economics and International Affairs, Columbia University, 2007 – 2014
  • Director, Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy
  • Chair, Department of Economics, Columbia University, 2001 – 2006
  • Associate Professor of Economics, Harvard University, 1996 –1999
  • Assistant Professor of Economics, Harvard University, 1992 –1996

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Charles F. Chandler

Ask Alma's Owl: A Leader in Public Health, Charles Chandler

By Gary Shapiro
April 2016

I study chemistry in the Chandler Building. Can you tell me what its namesake, Charles Chandler did for New York?
—A Healthy Chemist

Dear Healthy Chemist,

Columbia has long had a symbiotic relationship with New York. Seth Low (CC 1870), for example, was mayor of Brooklyn before he became Columbia’s president in 1890, and later became mayor of the newly consolidated New York City.

Countless other Columbians have done civic and academic double duty. One of the most influential was Charles F. Chandler (1837-1915), a longtime chemistry professor and the first dean of the School of Mines, predecessor of the Engineering School. Long before it became common practice, Chandler was an advocate for public health reform, working to provide free vaccinations, clean water and pure milk.

He helped enact laws calling for indoor plumbing and reducing the danger of flammables such as kerosene.

In 1866, two years after he became dean, Chandler was named a consulting chemist for the newly created New York City Board of Health and he was appointed to the Metropolitan Board of Health as its president in 1873. During a smallpox epidemic in the 1870s, he vaccinated himself, set up door-to-door vaccinations and arranged for free vaccinations for New York City children starting school. In addition, he began checks for cholera at points where immigrants entered the country and halted cattle driving on city streets.

He also was, according to Robert McCaughey, a Barnard historian who wrote a book about the engineering school, A Lever Long Enough, an “academic entrepreneur.” McCaughey writes that while at Columbia, when Chandler drew salaries for three professorships and one deanship, he was “unquestionably the highest paid academic in America.” (Chandler, who stepped down as dean in 1897 but continued to teach chemistry until 1911, also was a professor at the medical school and at a pharmacy school that became part of Columbia in 1904.)

Chandler’s name lives on at the University. There is a Chandler medal for an outstanding achievement in chemical science and a lecture born out of a dinner at Chandler’s retirement. Chandler Hall is attached to Havemeyer Hall, a building constructed under Chandler’s leadership, and Havemeyer holds a collection of historical artifacts connected to Chandler and the history of chemistry. The Charles Frederick Chandler Papers are in the Columbia University Archives in Butler Library.

And his legacy continues at the Engineering School. Civil engineer Patricia Culligan is among today’s Columbia faculty who advise city government. “Like Chandler,” she has written, “it is our obligation as engineers to expand our roles in order to make our world healthier.”

Send your questions for Alma’s Owl to

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Nurturing the Next Generation of Local Startups

By Columbia News Video Team
April 2016

As Columbia Entrepreneurship gears up for its third annual #StartupColumbia Festival on April 28, these videos introduce some of the newest companies created by recent graduates. From medical devices to energy technology to freshly brewed iced coffee delivered to your home or office, the common threads of these startups are the innovative ideas of their founders and the support and guidance of Columbia Entrepreneurship experts.



Wandering Bear Coffee

Tara Biosystems


Block Party Suites


Columbia PSA