Eli biology majors find group support

Most Yalies associate majoring in science more with the trek up Science Hill than with liquid nitrogen ice cream socials. But student science groups with a social bent have sprouted up in the last few years, designed to encourage students to take their research activities into the extracurricular realm.

Two such organizations, the Yale Undergraduate Society for Biological Science and the Yale Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Undergraduate Group, were formed by students in an effort to address problems common to science majors. Leaders of the groups said they are trying to expand the opportunities available in undergraduate science research and facilitate interactions between students and faculty members.

YEEBUG founder and President Cassie Stoddard volunteers at the Peabody Museum as part of the group’s efforts to reach out to other scientifically-inclined Yalies.
Lauren Woo
YEEBUG founder and President Cassie Stoddard volunteers at the Peabody Museum as part of the group’s efforts to reach out to other scientifically-inclined Yalies.

“Being a member of the YUSBS gave me the opportunity to actually speak with science majors and professors outside of the classroom informally about science,” said Jessica Qu ’10, faculty outreach assistant of YUSBS.

The group was formed in spring 2005, the result of a merger between two groups catering to virtually the same niche of students — namely those in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry departments.

Sarah Hsu ’08, director of YUSBS, explained that the organization primarily works to further undergraduate involvement in the scientific community by engaging with faculty members.

“This includes research and contact with faculty members who are often hard to get to know in large classes and during office hours,” Hsu said.

Neil Kalwani ’09, assistant director of YUSBS, said science majors need the organization for several reasons. First, it is difficult for undergraduate students to get exposure to research. Moreover, he said, it is difficult for science majors to find valuable career information. Most careers lie in biotech and graduate studies, Kalwani said, both of which are better understood by professors than Undergraduate Career Services. Finally, he said, YUSBS wanted to provide fun activities, offering breaks to students during finals weeks as well as other social gatherings throughout the year.

To meet these needs, Hsu said, the group holds journal clubs, in which a group discusses a recently published paper; faculty seminars, in which an invited professor presents his research; faculty lunches, in which students engage in informal conversation with professors over a meal; and social events.

“To make up for doing academic things, we also have purely fun events such as making ice cream using liquid nitrogen,” said Kate Schmidt ’08, informational outreach chair of YUSBS. “And yes, it’s edible … and yummy.”

Fun also seems to be even a big part of the academic events. Schmidt said that although the group may sound boring to some students, it aims to make studying biology a fun experience. For instance, the organizers try to foster a laid-back atmosphere in the journal clubs, providing good food and refreshments to avoid the pressure often felt in class.

YUSBS’ largest event in the spring is the Undergraduate Research Symposium. While it first began as an opportunity for students to present their research, the biology departments and the biophysics and biochemistry department now require that students enrolled in research-for-credit present in the symposium.

YUSBS has tried to branch out this year by hosting an “Alternative Careers in Science Panel” in which students are exposed to post-grad options other than those involving graduate or medical school.

“Given the interest that we saw in our Alternative Careers in Science panel, I think we would also like to expand upon this idea and invite people from a whole spectrum of science-related professions to come speak and answer questions,” Hsu said.

The group organized a Research Open House this semester, in which professors opened their labs for undergraduates at specific times. Hsu hopes this event can also be expanded in an attempt to motivate students to find research opportunities in their own fields of interest.

“We try to be a resource to our members by serving as a bridge between students and faculty, and by providing advice and guidance and organizing science-related activities for all interested students,” Hsu said.

YEEBUG was developed with similar motives in mind. The organization increases interactions among students and with faculty members in the natural sciences, group President Mary Stoddard said.

Like YUSBS, YEEBUG holds special student-faculty dinners with prominent professors. In the past, members have shared meals with E&EB director of undergraduate studies Leo Buss and ichthyologist Tom Near.

But YEEBUG deviates from YUSBS in its emphasis on local community service as well as its focus on ecological science. Stoddard, along with other E&EB students, established the organization last year with the aim of supporting biology-related outreach in New Haven. This year, the group explored some of the world’s most exotic and bizarre insects in a special, behind-the-scenes tour of Yale’s entomology collection.

“YEEBUG allows Yalies to channel their inner-child, that nature-obsessed kid who loved reading about dinosaurs and chasing butterflies and turning over rocks in search of slimy critters beneath,” Stoddard said. “What could be better than that?”

The group also tries to engage the local community by volunteering at the Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven.

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