More than 80 prospective Yale students gathered outside the Class of 1954 Environmental Sciences Center on Sunday afternoon for a behind-the-scenes tour of the Peabody Museum of Natural History’s facilities and collections as a part of the annual Yale Engineering and Science Weekend.
YES-W, now in its sixth year, is held by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions annually to showcase Yale’s STEM resources to high school students given likely letters of admission. While the Peabody has participated in past YES-weekends by offering optional tours to interested students, Sharon Rodriguez, administrative associate at the Peabody, said that this year, all YES-W prospective students were required to attend the Peabody tour because past tours had been rated so highly by prospective students.
“The collections at Yale really help it stand out as a place for undergraduate study,” Peabody Director David Skelly told the touring high school seniors. He noted that the museum was founded to support undergraduates and their research, and that it continues to do so today.
Half the students visited laboratories in Kline Geology Lab where they toured professor of geology and geophysics Stefan Nicolescu’s mineralogy lab and geology and geophysics professor Bhart-Anjan Bhullar’s ’05 vertebrate paleontology lab, while the other half remained in the ESC. Led by Peabody operations manager Rich Boardman and Skelly, the ESC group visited Peabody Senior Collections Manager Eric Lazo-Wasem’s lab where he explained the history of invertebrate zoology — one of the Peabody’s 10 divisions — at Yale.
Lazo-Wasem noted that the Peabody’s invertebrate collections predate the founding of the museum in 1866. The collections include a sample of coral collected in 1841 during the U.S. Navy’s first scientific expedition. The same expedition garnered the collections that led to the founding of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., according to Lazo-Wasem.
“Yale is amazing in that it has unique resources that you can’t find anywhere else,” Lazo-Wasem, who manages the invertebrate zoology collections, said. He showed the group a specimen of deep-water coral collected off the coast of New England from an underwater mountain range at a depth of 1,300 meters. The specimen was the only one of its kind collected during a 10-year survey of the New England sea mountains. The remote-operated vehicle that collected the coral was also used to film “Titanic,” Lazo-Wasem said. The Peabody also owns seashells collected in Florida by President Harry Truman and coral first gathered by Charles Darwin.
Lazo-Wasem called the Peabody’s 13 million-specimen collection — only 0.04 percent of which is on display, according to Skelly — an “embarrassment of riches that, frankly, only Yale, Harvard and a few other universities can actually lay claim to.”
Also in the ESC, Michael Donoghue, a botanist and member of the National Science Foundation, led students in a discussion on various types of tree leaves and explained how the most effective way to study leaf-buds is with a micro CT scanner.
Peabody Director of Collections and Operations Tim White, who gave part of the tour at the KGL, said it was exciting to see Bhullar discuss the interdisciplinary nature of science with the students, while Director of Student Programs David Heiser noted that Bhullar drew on his past undergraduate experience and emphasized Yale as a “place of heart” and “community.” He also gave insight into what it is like to be a student at Yale and to have access to all of its broader facilities, according to Heiser.
When the students visited the mineralogy lab with Nicolescu, they heard instead thoughts on the history of the collections, Yale and the Earth. Nicolescu had the students hold a 4.6-billion-year-old piece of meteorite — a moment that “clearly moved” a number of students, Heiser said.
White and Heiser were pleased with the students’ reception of the tour.
“If there aren’t kids from there that end up at Yale and affiliated with the Peabody, I’d be shocked,” White said.
The prospective freshmen were similarly positive about the tour.
YES-W student Jacob Oeding said he was impressed by how willing the professors were to take time out of their Sundays to talk to prospective students. The staff’s enthusiasm demonstrated that they care about more than just their research, although they were all evidently passionate about their fields of study as well, he added.
“It was amazing because I had no idea how extensive the collection at Yale was,” prospective student Sanjana Rane said. “I’ve been to museums like the Smithsonian before, but this was right on par. I had no idea that such a thing existed.” Rane said she was also excited by the extensive opportunities the museum makes available to undergraduates.
According to Skelly, between 60 and 70 undergraduates do research or work in other capacities at the Peabody each year.