Eric Wang

On walking into the Pauli Murray College dining hall during its grand opening on Aug. 29, Ileana Valdez ’21 encountered a spacious room brimming with students.

After choosing a table with only scattered papers she presumed had been left behind, their owner, physics professor Sidney Cahn, returned to the table with food. Immediately, Valdez struck up a conversation with Cahn that lasted half an hour.

As Yale opens two new residential colleges this fall, adjacent Science Hill community gains an additional link to the undergraduate student body. With the colleges’ dining halls serving as convenient mealtime choices for STEM professors, the eating spaces facilitate increased student-professor interaction, often through spontaneous encounters like Valdez’s.

“I think these conversations can achieve what’s probably the greatest goal of a college, which is to expose students to new ideas and thoughts they have not encountered beforehand,” Valdez said.

Aastha KC ’20, a transfer to Pauli Murray College, also acknowledged the value of individual interaction with professors outside of the classroom. She said that besides the helpful academic advice she’s received, the dining halls have been conducive to stimulating intellectual conversations.

The opening of the residential colleges on Prospect Street comes at a time when the University is increasingly focused on STEM fields. Often perceived as an institution that leans towards social sciences and humanities, Yale has bolstered its science departments, chiefly by investing more than $1 billion in science, engineering and medical facilities since 2001.

Professors interviewed echoed students’ thoughts, saying the new Prospect Street facilities stand to make STEM faculty feel more connected to the student body than ever before.

“I think it definitely helps us,” said Sandy Chang ’88, associate dean for science education and professor of laboratory medicine. “It’s never been easier for us to reach out and meet with students after class, and every time we can do so is a positive thing for our STEM fields.”

Geology and geophysics professor Mary-Louise Timmermans said she hopes to visit the new dining halls to talk to students about the diverse fields of study on Science Hill, including her own.

“A lot of students come here for pre-medical studies and only take biology and chemistry,” she said. “It’s wonderful to stress to people that we have so much research happening in other departments and on fascinating topics like climate and geophysics.”

For lecture classes especially, students hardly meet their professors one-on-one, making learning a less personal endeavor. Students interviewed said speaking with professors in a relaxed setting allows them to see another side of people they would only encounter in the context of a classroom.

“We talked about everything from architecture to the differences between New Haven and New York pizza styles,”  Valdez said. “I’m less worried now about taking physics classes because I know the people teaching them are understanding and relatable.”

Timmermans said she was excited to learn more about students in a different context, including their extracurricular activities, passions and hopes for the future.

“I’ll definitely be eating there more often,” Timmermans said. “You never know who you’re going to sit next to.”