Sciences upgrade presence on campus

Professor Scott Strobel, chair of the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Department, doesn’t buy the argument that Yale is primarily a humanities school.

“My experience at Yale is that it’s a science campus,” he said. “It’s a place where there’s world-class research, but with a strong focus on undergraduate education. You don’t get that everywhere.”

The science departments at Yale boast some impressive attributes: 68 members of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering, 36 members of the Institute of Medicine, 16 Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators and one Nobel laureate, just to name a few. But Yale isn’t resting on its laurels: From the highest level of administration on down, the University is acting on a $500 million commitment to improving the sciences.

Some of the improvements are tangible. The new Class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building, Class of 1954 Environmental Sciences Center and the Malone Center for Biomedical Engineering, located less than halfway up Science Hill on Prospect Street, are part of an effort to better integrate the sciences into the central part of campus.

But Yale’s pledge goes beyond buildings. Two of the top four Yale administrators are scientists: Provost Andrew Hamilton, the University’s chief academic and administrative officer after the president, is a chemist who still runs a lab, and Yale College Dean Peter Salovey is a health psychologist who has received funding from the National Institutes of Health. A new position, Associate Dean of Science Education, has been created and filled by William Segraves, a lecturer and research scientist in molecular, cellular and developmental biology.

Strobel said that while Segraves’ work is not readily apparent to students, it is already reaping dividends.

“It has allowed him to coordinate things behind the scenes,” he said. “The administration is now more science-savvy than they’ve been in a while.”

But science students at Yale may have a disconnect with those of years before. No longer “Group IV” majors, students from the Class of 2009 and beyond will work toward graduation under a different set of distributional requirements. In lieu of the Group IV requirement — three science and math courses, including at least two natural science classes — all students now must take two natural science courses and two courses focused on quantitative reasoning. In a change that will likely only affect non-science majors, these classes can no longer be taken Credit/D/Fail, but must be taken for a grade.

Research plays a crucial role in undergraduate science education too, Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department chair Thomas Pollard said. As a large research institution, Yale can offer independent research to science-focused undergraduates, he said, something smaller schools cannot provide. Pollard said the vast majority of biology majors do research as part of their education.

A new building is planned for Science Hill to encompass all of the MCDB Department’s lab spaces on just four floors, instead of the 11 they are on now. While the building is still in the planning stages, Segraves said he expects students from the Class of 2010 will do research in the new building at some point during their time at Yale.

Unusual opportunities for science majors start as early as freshman year. In the Perspectives on Science program for freshmen, students meet weekly to hear lectures from some of the University’s leading scientists and have discussions led by faculty members and fellow students about key scientific principles demonstrated and problems raised by the lectures. Professor Richard Larson, director of undergraduate studies in astronomy, said undergraduates can work on projects related to the small observatory built recently at the top of Science Hill. Although Yale does not have a much larger one, he said the small scale of the telescope allows students to do meaningful work with it, opportunities unavailable at most other institutions.

Sarah Mendillo ’07 said she came to Yale intending to focus on the humanities, but ended up deciding to major in chemistry.

“I get more out of Yale by doing science,” she said. “I decided I came to this school to challenge myself.”

Mendillo said science at Yale is not easy, but ultimately worth it.

“I feel like I get to tap into the amenities of Yale more — the new facilities, the huge research labs.”

Pollard said Yale’s strength in the humanities is important for students who, after college, will focus on just science for the rest of their lives.

“The big advantage of being at a university so strong in the humanities and arts is that some people can actually get an education,” he said.

Comments