Some people came to Yale because of its hallowed academic history. Some people came because of the architectural achievements of Harkness Tower or Sterling Memorial Library.
But at least one member of the Class of 2010 chose Yale because of a single course: MB&B 230b. Come spring break, that class will take 16 Yalies to the South American rain forest.
“Rain Forest Expedition & Lab” is designed to prepare students for a 10-week, self-designed summer research program, using samples they will collect during the spring trip. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Science Foundation will fund the program — which is being offered for the first time — for the next four years. The class was the brainchild of molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor Scott Strobel, who applied for HHMI’s fellowship for “innovative ideas for undergraduate education.”
Strobel’s father is a plant pathology professor at Montana State University, and, inspired by his father’s work, Strobel decided to involve “the relationship between trees and microbes” in the proposal.
“I thought it would be fun to incorporate what my father does,” Strobel said.
In the first half of the course, students will brainstorm possible ideas for research and decide what kinds of samples to collect. The second half of the course — following the spring break trip — will be used to prepare for the summer lab time, Strobel said.
While the syllabus says the students will be traveling to Ecuador, Strobel said Peru is also under consideration. Each year, the destination will vary — possibilities include Madagascar and Tasmania.
Strobel said he hopes students will attain greater scientific independence through the expedition and research and will complete the program with the sense that they have made a contribution to the field.
“They will be able to design a scientific plan that is their own,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll discover not just something they’ve read about or a bunch of facts they have memorized.”
Jocelyn Keehner ’08, who is taking Rain Forest Expedition & Lab this semester, described the class as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a good experience for her preparation for medical school. She said she hopes to learn more about tropical ecology in rain forests and better understand cultures of South America through the trip.
“It’s going to be kind of independent,” she said. “It’s unlike any other courses at Yale.”
Few universities in the country offer projects on this scale, but several Ivy League schools feature opportunities for fieldwork and research abroad. Princeton University offers a program in Panama to study rain forests and tropical biology. Dartmouth College has a Biology Foreign Studies program, which exposes students to field research in Costa Rica and the Cayman Islands in order to study coral reef and rain forest ecology. But unlike the Princeton or Dartmouth programs, Yale’s program focuses on the molecular and cellular levels of rain forest biology.
The class is made up of primarily sophomores and juniors because prerequisites for the course include introductory level biology and at least a semester of organic chemistry, Strobel said. But enthusiasm is not lacking among younger Elis — Strobel said a student in the class of 2010 contacted him to discuss the class after she was admitted to Yale last year, and chose to matriculate as a result of the program.
Eliza Kelley-Swift ’09 said the course is a rare opportunity for individual research.
“It’s something very unique, out of the ordinary,” she said. “I think it has a potential to be extremely rewarding.”
The National Science Foundation has provided funding for local high school science teachers to participate in the expedition. Funding for the students is being provided by HHMI. Participants will have to obtain passports, receive adequate immunizations and cover the incidental costss of travel. But lodging, travel, meals and stipends for summer research will be covered by $1 million in fellowships.