Last spring I took a course where I looked at mouse testicular tissue at 20,000x magnification. It’s a little absurd now to think about how something that started as a gag joke ended up being one of the most influential experiences I’ve had as a science major.
Like many cookie-cutter MCDB majors, I initially didn’t have much interest in taking a class about microscopes; I was a devotee of the “Central Dogma,” blindly faithful to the images of cells in my textbook. Yet after spending hours alone with a transmission electron microscope, I learned more in “Lab in Electron Microscopy” than I did studying for my mandatory lecture courses. With giddy, nerdy triumph, I was figuring out, as if for the first time, what a cell actually looked like.
It was a tragedy to learn in the News last Monday that “Lab in EM” had been discontinued, voted off “Survivor”-style by the faculty of MCDB. Former students, the few of us that were lucky enough to get into the course, are writing letters to the provost and the director of undergraduate studies to attempt to reverse this decision. We reject the necessity of cutting a worthy, underappreciated course from our curriculum.
“Lab in EM” is more than just a fancy way of looking at cells. It is one of the few courses where students carry out their own projects, produce original work and develop the potential to become true research scientists. From precision at the bench, to troubleshooting when something goes wrong, to the final presentation of one’s labor, “Lab in EM” is a comprehensive glimpse into the research world. It is a basic appreciation for something we all take for granted — to confirm what we have learned and what we deem to be true.
The MCDB department is cutting the course for the reason that often makes or breaks scientists: funding. “Lab in EM” admittedly costs more per student than a large lecture like “Intro to Psychology.” I may be blissfully ignorant of the realities of budget deficits, yet there are other ways to cut funds.
We can start with the elusive West Campus. On the undergraduate level, there is little transparency as to what exactly goes on at West Campus, except circulating rumors of very sophisticated, very expensive high-throughput machinery that is routinely bought and maintained. Sure, the forefront of new science technology is there, but these resources are essentially inaccessible for undergraduates. For some illogical reason, the maintenance costs of just two transmission electron microscopes will cut a class that is one of the highest rated classes in MCDB.
It makes me fear that there may be something else motivating this decision, a political one that does not speak well to the mission of diversifying the sciences at Yale. Electron microscopy is, technique-wise, very different than the other lab courses in the MCDB department. Yes, you can outsource microscope work and save money, but how good is it to deny students of a chance at learning it?
There are incredible courses at Yale that should continue to be offered, regardless of budget deficits. As a junior, I am three years too old to write about “Why I Chose Yale.” As a science tour guide, however, I try to sell Yale to the future freshman class, and our message is that Yale is investing in STEM programs to the tune of $1 billion. This is obvious, with the renovations on Science Hill, the hiring of new faculty, the exciting interdisciplinary initiatives. But it is counter-intuitive to cut a class that makes studying science at Yale stand out from any other school. A course parallel to “Lab in EM” is not offered to undergraduates at Harvard, Princeton or even MIT. Rarely in an undergraduate career is it possible to use a transmission electron microscope, a practical and unique skill that allows students to stand out on graduate and medical school applications.
Every major has courses with near 100 percent “Excellent” reviews. The MCDB equivalent to that great political science seminnar like “Public Schools and Public Policy” is the upper-level laboratory courses. Along with “Nucleic Acids” and “Experimental Techniques,” “Lab in Electron Microscopy” is the highlight of the department. Cutting classes that actively engage and develop one’s own potential, as a research scientist or otherwise, is not the Yale mission I bought into.
Jenny Wu is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.