STARS program promotes undergraduate research

Though Yale has traditionally been esteemed for its programs in the liberal arts, Provost Andrew Hamilton said the Science, Technology and Research Scholars Program, or STARS, which convened for its annual ceremony Wednesday night, continues to be “one of the jewels in Yale’s undergraduate education.”

Graduating seniors in the STARS II program presented the results of their two-year research projects to fellow STARS scholars, distinguished administrative and faculty members and representatives from the program’s corporate sponsors on Wednesday night. The 11 seniors explained their research with the aid of PowerPoint presentations as audience members dined in Woolsey Hall’s Presidents Room.

“Students in the STARS program elevate the intellectual profile of science here at Yale,” Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said during a brief introductory welcome.

The STARS program was founded 10 years ago to promote the academic success of historically underrepresented groups — racial, ethnic, and economic minorities, women and physically challenged students — in the natural sciences and engineering, STARS academic director and chemistry professor Iona Black said. Originally, STARS was only open to first- and second-year students, but the program received additional corporate funding that enabled the creation of a sister program for juniors and seniors, STARS II, in 1998.

Salovey said a recent survey of STARS alumni reported that program scholars are particularly successful in the scientific community, due in large part to the hands-on research experience provided by STARS II. The survey showed that students who participated in STARS I — which provides study groups and mentors for freshmen and sophomores — and continued on to conduct summer research with corporate sponsors or to participate in STARS II were almost seven times more likely than non-STARS students to continue working in the sciences.

“Now we have more than a vague sense that this program is a good thing,” Salovey said. “We have data to prove that STARS scholars go on to do great things.”

STARS II scholars are given stipends for 10 hours of research per week in accordance with the University’s work-study guidelines, and the additional five to 10 hours most scholars put in each week is supported by the STARS II funding, Black said.

Senior STARS scholar Dane Mejias ’06 said one of the reasons he has enjoyed his experience in the program is that it has given him the opportunity to become involved with the larger scientific community.

But what sets STARS apart from other undergraduate research opportunities on campus is the close-knit community it creates, said STARS II scholar Vicky Doan-Nguyen ’06, who presented her research, “Effects of denaturant and co-solute on the secondary structure and internal dynamics of Ribonuclease A,” last night.

“When I did independent research my sophomore year, I only had fellow lab members,” Doan-Nguyen said. “But the STARS community is what really makes [the program] unique.”

Hamilton, who is also a chemistry professor, said one of the program’s greatest strengths is that it allows students to encounter science and research on a first-hand basis, interacting with faculty members often in one-on-one settings.

“What STARS brings to Yale, to educations and to science is that it promotes the pleasures of research and scientific inquiry,” Hamilton said. “One of the most valuable parts of the experience is the support structure inherent in the STARS program.”

Students majoring in any of the natural sciences, computer science, engineering or mathematics are eligible to participate in the program. Yesterday’s presenters conducted research on topics as diverse as wireless mouse pointers to the manipulation of genetic expression in fly DNA.

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