If the Barenaked Ladies had a million dollars, they’d buy you a house. But if Yale chemistry professor Alanna Schepartz had a million dollars, she’d buy you a new chemical biology course.
Thanks to the Maryland-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute, or HHMI, Schepartz now has $1 million — in the form of a grant to enrich undergraduate education in the sciences. Schepartz, one of 20 research scientists awarded the grant, will use the money to create a chemical biology lecture course and a laboratory course that will expose sophomores to cutting-edge scientific research.
Schepartz said that a major problem with the existing method of teaching chemistry is that students spend three years reading about and doing decades-old experiments before they come in contact with any current scientific research. By that time, Schepartz said, they have already lost interest in science.
“Students don’t get a sense of what the most exciting areas of science are until they’re seniors, but by that time they’re already committed to other careers,” she said. “It’s important to expose students to the excitement of research before they become attached to a certain career path.”
And that is the aim of the two courses Schepartz will create for this spring using the grant. The first of these will be a lecture course that includes case studies and primary literature, and the second — taken simultaneously — will be an open-ended, research-driven laboratory course in which students will be expected to write and publish a paper.
Stephen Barkanic, the program director for undergraduate education at HHMI, a private philanthropy dedicated to biomedical research and science education, emphasized the importance of courses like these in reinvigorating undergraduate chemistry education.
“Chemistry education particularly is not current with research [and] tends to be taught going back 10, 20 years if not longer,” Barkanic said. “It’s clear that [it] needs an infusion of the latest research and findings.”
“[Schepartz’s] approach is very timely, very novel and very appropriate,” he added.
Schepartz said she will use the HHMI grant, which will be distributed over a span of four years, to purchase new lab equipment for use in the course, support graduate and postdoctoral mentors for the students, cover administrative costs, and support the time of those in her lab involved in the course.
In designing the courses, Schepartz took into account the significant gap between the percentages of men and women who pursue higher-level scientific education and scientific careers.
She said that she hopes the new chemical biology courses will provide female undergraduates with a positive scientific experience at an early point in their careers and an incentive to go into research or academics.
“There’s an overriding misconception that it is impossible to balance work [as a researcher and professor] with family at a place like Yale,” she said. “It’s important to me to communicate that not only is it not impossible, but that the benefits of an academic career for a woman are very satisfying.”
Josh Dunn ’03, a molecular cellular and developmental biology major in the chemical biology course that Schepartz currently teaches, said that Schepartz’s distinguishing characteristic is her enthusiasm for her subject.
“There are few people who can communicate the beauty that they see in something,” he said. “Chemistry is a hard passion to share, but [Schepartz’s] enthusiasm and genuine interest make students more interested in it.”
Margaret Ebert ’03, an MCDB major who is also taking Schepartz’s class, agreed that Schepartz has a gift for getting students excited about her field.
“She has an enthusiasm for chemical biology that is definitely apparent in her teaching,” Ebert said. “She’s always smiling, always saying, ‘Can you believe so-and-so accomplished this using this simple technique.'”
“She presents the material in a way that lets us admire the scientist behind the work [and] almost aspire to be like these scientists,” she said.
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