The gates of the Class of 1954 Chemistry Building at the crest of Prospect Street are locked, their sleek black metal unyielding to the average key card. Beyond them, the brick and glass chemistry lab complex sprawls down the hill; beyond that, there lie the geology labs, the biochemistry labs, the genetics labs and the physics labs, and all the lecture halls where students absorb the fruits of scientific labor. To some, the border of elegant molecular models across the top of the Class of 1954 Chemistry gate is an arbitrary collection of atoms. But to others — the initiated — they spell out “Y-A-L-E-C-H-E-M.”
The best way for undergrads to enter the complex is through Sterling Chemistry Lab, where the department’s lecture halls and teaching labs are located. It’s not a path non-science majors usually take, and there’s not much reason for them to take it, as most fulfill their science requirements with intro courses offered closer to campus. SCL is only four-tenths of a mile from the intersection of College and Grove, but somewhere in those 2,112 feet, the Yale campus becomes Science Hill and the students become a specialized breed: science majors.
Science majors at Yale have a reputation for dedication. Curves are harder in science courses, grades are, on average, lower, and competition is higher, especially in the introductory and intermediate science classes, which are often dominated by pre-med students. Objective tests make direct comparisons between students’ knowledge of the material, leaving no room for interpretation, and science sections focus on understanding and absorbing vast amounts of information, rather than philosophizing about its possible meanings. For many, this deluge of information is daunting, or simply uninspiring. For others, the implicit competition in classes where test scores are rarely negotiable is a deterrent. But for some intrepid Yalies, science is what they do every day — and what they plan to do for a great many years in the future.
Putting a price on progress
In countless brightly lit rooms, students are carrying out research. They lean over trays of tiny tubes and carefully pipet microliters of fluid, their wrists lifting mechanically from reagent bottle to tube, tube to reagent bottle. Their faces are set, concentrating on the task. A moment of inattention can mean a botched experiment, and when an experiment goes wrong, not only are data affected, but a whole lot of money goes down the drain. According to an analysis by Research Corporation in the 1990s, getting a study published — that holy grail for most researchers — costs an average of $36,000 a pop. Thomas Pollard, chair of the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department, says that when salaries are taken into account, the number is closer to $100,000.
So where does the money go? Most grant funds are allocated to supplies and equipment — growth factor antibodies, for example, go for $299 per hundred millionth of a liter. A cryogenically frozen lab mouse susceptible to epilepsy goes for $1,900. You must inquire after prices for microscopes.
A shallow learning curve is expensive in science, but a hastily thrashed-out history paper will probably not cost its writer several thousand dollars. And while even a cursorily researched humanities paper may provide some new insight into the subject, in science, even failures have to be meticulously organized to convey meaningful results. Science researchers have got to be precise, with almost super-human attention to detail, and they have to get that way fast. And this may be one reason why science classes and science students have a reputation for intensity: the stakes are high.
Science courses are designed to give students the information they’ll need to understand modern research in their field and, in many sciences, the depth and breadth of the understanding necessary increase even more quickly than textbooks can be printed. It’s not a coincidence that almost all the 400-level science courses at Yale have multiple, specific prerequisites, nor is it chance that most introductory science courses require the same time commitment as an intensive language course: They are teaching a language, one with specific vocabulary, grammar and syntax, without which a profound understanding of science is difficult, if not impossible. And what you need to know is rarely a matter of interpretation.
In terms of what you do with that information, however, the sky — or grant funding — is the limit. Research at its most fundamental is asking questions, devising models and fashioning elegant tests. For science majors, information-rich classes don’t eliminate creativity. They open the doors to a brand of innovation only accessible through that intricate language. Once students have picked up enough scientific argot, they can design and execute their own experiments under the auspices of a professor’s lab, and although it means hours cloistered in a lab and disappointment when experiments fail, many students find the meticulous work satisfying. Tina Liu ’08 has been working with the miniature architecture of tetratricopeptide repeat protein (“We call it a TPR protein — it’s way too long to say”) since freshman year; her aim is to manipulate the protein so it will bind new molecules, which is a major goal of drug design. For Tina, who has been interested in protein structure since high school, the work is exactly what she wants to be doing.
Regarding the complexity of biochemistry, Liu reflects that the density of information is what makes a course valuable. Afterwards, she says, you can pick up a scientific paper and understand the logic and tools it describes, the tools you use for your own research.
The long uphill battle to “Genomics and Bioinformatics”
All this is not to say that 400-level English or history classes don’t require a great deal of previous knowledge; far from it. They request that students be majors, at times seniors or juniors in the major, to assure sufficient background, and for most intermediate English classes, two previous English credits are required.
Before taking any other classes, art majors must complete “Basic Drawing,” which is similar to introductory science courses in that it teaches a kind of language: how to see.
Julia Hickey ’07, a studio art major and oil painter, reflects that “Basic Drawing is very assignment-based, in many ways very tedious but essential.” The homework — drawing still-lifes, plants — is time-consuming and demanding, and, when students display their work in class, it’s clear when someone has not put in the time on an assignment.
“We’re kind of judgmental,” Hickey remarks, opening her eyes wide and giving a small laugh. “We want to know who’s dedicated enough.”
The sciences use prerequisites, rather than requiring major status, to assure that students have the necessary background knowledge. Students in “Genomics and Bioinformatics” (MCDB 452) must have covered the material in “General Chemistry,” “Organic Chemistry,” “Biochemistry” and “Single Variable Calculus.” For students in “Solid-State Physics” (PHYS 448), the list includes “General Physics,” “Electromagnetic Waves and Devices,” “Basic Quantum Mechanics” and “Introduction to Mathematical Methods of Physics.” Very few students who are not majors in these fields have fulfilled those requirements.
For students interested in higher-level physics, the number of physics courses required is such that fulfilling another major will be quite difficult (this is one of the reasons many premeds are biology majors — to preserve variety in their schedules). Even so, the sheer number of required courses for a major — 23
credits for MB&B, compared to 14 for English — means that science majors are rarely fixtures in non-science classes. When they do take them, it is, by and large, for fun. Science students in her classes are very willing to learn, one humanities teaching assistant remarks, but there is often a certain misconception that must be overcome: “Wait — humanities can be rigorous? It’s not just appreciation?”
Locked in the lab (or the studio)
In her studio above Chapel Street, Hickey perches on a paint-spattered stool with her green suede boots resting on a rung. A seam over one toe has come undone and opens and closes as she flexes her feet. She keeps clothes in her studio sometimes — if her going-out shoes start to hurt in the middle of a night, she’ll leave them at her studio and walk home in her painting shoes. Her studio is her second home on campus, and she shares it with seven other undergraduate painters. Some of them are art majors, and some of them keep another major on the side, continuing to paint to the wee hours of the morning most nights a week.
For many science students, the laboratory is also a place where tightly-knit social groups form among researchers of all ages; undergrads can ask for advice and guidance from grad students, post-docs and professors. Some students will stay into the night, running one more gel or taking another look through the fluorescent scope. The contributions they can make to research are what inspire them.
“It’s very exciting to be part of this movement about understanding more,” Liu says.
For an art major, and for other humanities majors, committing is both a very important step and a leap of faith. The decision to be an artist for better or for worse is daunting.
“You don’t interview, you don’t apply to be a painter,” said Hickey. “Really, to be a painter, you have to paint all the time, and you can work for years and maybe get no recognition.”
She has flecks of white paint on her charcoal turtleneck; she is looking for a job after graduation that will give her time to paint.
For science majors, job security is also a consideration. While the market for lab skills in industry is more dependable than, say, the market for oil painters (Julia herself calls oil somewhat obsolete), many science majors plan to go on to grad school and professorships, a path that is subject to all the vagaries of academia. University-funded research can be frustrating when professorships are few and far between, and achieving tenure, as in all fields, is never a certainty. Academic scientists must wait for long-lasting security, and yet, without the safety net of institutional funding, research becomes impossible.
The science (and philosophy) of picking a major
Beyond disjunctions stemming from style of information, course prerequisites and the issues of research, there is a fundamental philosophical difference between the humanities and the sciences: the humanities focus on individual contributions, while science is about thousands of people each working on very small parts of a very large puzzle. Lynn Saltonstall ’02 GRD ’10, an art history grad student, says that while she always admired the teamwork of her science TAs, she would find it frustrating to be one small part of such a big project.
“I don’t think one group works harder or is more ambitious than the other,” Saltonstall says. “But in the humanities, it’s all about [your] interpretation. [Science majors] want to be part of a larger effort.”
One thing we do all have in common, Saltonstall observes: Yalies all approach whatever field they’re interested in with the attitude of “I’m putting in time on this thing I love.”
“We’re driven by such similar things, but in different fields,” she said.
Whether your all-nighter is spent painting or to purifying proteins, whether your goal is to produce a new interpretation of late 19th-century English fiction or to get a tiny bit closer to understanding metabolism, your studio, your lab or your SCL study carrel houses something you care about. Though the specific, exacting standards (and the daily uphill walk) of a science curriculum may intimidate those less impassioned, the driven will find their place, hunched over the Bunsen burners and test tubes of tomorrow’s scientific breakthroughs.