Yale biology is evolving.
At a time when the major is undergoing significant restructuring and the biology departments’ facilities will be transformed by a $500 million Science Hill redevelopment project, the biology departments are looking to maintain and strengthen their positions as premiere departments in the University and in the nation.
Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology remain two separate departments but have combined — somewhat controversially — into one Biology major. Despite questions about the relationship between teaching and research in the departments, students and faculty said Yale biology deserves its reputation as one of the University’s strongest areas.
Fusion after Mitosis
While upperclassmen can still major in MCDB or EEB, freshmen and future classes will be simply Biology majors. Within the combined major, students can elect either the EEB concentration or the MCDB concentration.
The most significant difference between the combined major and its two predecessors is the listing of two introductory courses, Principles of MCDB and Principles of EEB, as prerequisites. Previously, a student only needed to take one prerequisite.
But MCDB Professor Joel Rosenbaum said the two introductory prerequisites are unnecessary.
“Making this EEB course a requirement meant diluting out other upper level MCDB requirements,” Rosenbaum said in an e-mail.
Rosenbaum said the introductory requirements are symbolic of the larger problem with combining the major.
“I think there is already more than enough MCDB to learn in four years,” Rosenbaum said. “Moreover, there is plenty of opportunity for MCDB majors to take EEB courses as electives. And electives are what they should be.”
Other faculty members stressed the advantages of a broad approach to the discipline in the undergraduate years.
“I think it’s a benefit to the students,” said Jeffrey Powell, the EEB director of undergraduate studies for the biology major. “I am a believer that one shouldn’t specify too soon, the biology major is a specialized enough designation.”
Rebecca Lohnes ’05, who applied to Yale under the impression that she could major in EEB, said she has found the changes more structural than substantive.
“It’s just a different name, it is still the same courses,” Lohnes said.
Faculty from both the EEB and MCDB departments also agreed that the new jointly-sponsored major will not drastically affect a student’s course choices.
“It is basically a biology major with two areas of concentration,” Powell said. “It’s to encourage students to cross disciplines, but in reality they don’t have to. We’re not forcing students to take a broad range.”
The reunification of the major comes only three years after the original Biology department underwent mitosis to become two majors and two departments in 1998.
Research vs. Teaching
Faculty members in the biology departments said their time is perpetually stretched between the laboratory and the classroom, and that students feel the consequences.
“The real problem I don’t see directly addressed is the importance of teaching versus research,” said Robert Wyman, the MCDB DUS for the biology major. “For undergraduates, teaching is really important. In every department there is very little reward for teaching, while for research the rewards are so great.”
MCDB major Adam Lipworth ’02 said his experience with faculty has been positive in general.
“In the bigger classes I’ve taken, the teachers have been very approachable,” Lipworth said. “It makes the classes seem smaller even when they are large.”
In addition to the pressure on professors to produce research, Lipworth cited another possible obstacle to faculty-student interaction.
“Generally MCDB classes are team taught, so you have to make an effort to go up to professors since you won’t see the same person in class each day,” Lipworth said.
Rosenbaum emphasized that often a faculty member’s teaching skills take a back seat to other considerations.
“The MCDB department, like any department, is ultimately judged by the quality of its faculty,” Rosenbaum said. “And that quality judgment is not made on the basis of how good we are as undergraduate teachers, but by what we publish, and how internationally ‘famous’ we are, in addition to our potential for attracting research grant money which supplies millions of dollars in overhead for the University.
“When we hire faculty, our first priority is their research. If we’re lucky, and many times we’re not, they are also good teachers.”
While acknowledging that improving and rewarding teaching quality will always be an issue, Yale biology professors said they nevertheless believe their departments are on the right track.
“As a teaching place we are probably number one in the country,” Wyman said.
Wyman said he asks the students he advises about the experiences of their friends who are taking biology at other schools, and their impression is they receive more faculty attention at Yale than students at peer institutions such as Stanford or Harvard.
Powell was also enthusiastic about biology at Yale.
“It’s as good as any department in the country,” Powell said. “Our students are accepted into the best medical and graduate schools in the country.”
Powell also cited high scores on tests such as the Graduate Record Examinations as evidence of Yale’s success in the biological sciences.
But both Wyman and Powell were quick to point to the type of students Yale attracts as the reason for these accomplishments.
“Basically, our admissions office does a very good job,” Wyman said.