Coming to study at Yale, a school that embraces the liberal arts model of education, we are told we can pursue whatever our hearts wish. But, after shopping for classes and reading lists after lists of requirements we soon realize that we do, eventually, need to find a major or two that will appear on our diploma. Of course, for the flighty minds of 18-year-olds, choosing a major can be a grounding step towards figuring out what we will end up doing when all the studying is done. Yet, there are simultaneously too many and not enough choices, and we fear that making a choice will inevitably result in lost opportunities.
Even so, this stress can be somewhat reduced if colleges and institutions are attuned to what students are doing with their coursework and respond to the trends they observe constructively. This is what was happening when Yale College announced it was offering two new majors last spring — data science and statistics, or DS2, and neuroscience. Daniel Spielman ’92, one of the two directors of undergraduate studies for DS2, explained that the new major offers a way to bring the young and exciting area of data science into the College’s programs of study. He also mentioned that, as the former DUS of applied math for over a decade, he has encountered many students who had a keen interest in data science but couldn’t focus their studies in this area, due to a lack of concrete framework.
James Diao ’18, who was initially only majoring in molecular biochemistry and biophysics, said this framework allowed him to use classes he was taking for personal interest towards DS2 as a second major. He explained how in the past he had considered majoring in applied mathematics. But, its strict core requirements made it difficult for him to double major. “If two classes conflict, you just can’t do it,” Diao said, referring to how one cannot take the core requirements for two majors if there are scheduling conflicts. In DS2 this problem is minimized due to the flexibility of the major’s requirements.
Beyond taking prerequisites in subjects like math, students majoring in DS2 have the freedom to choose from several categories of requirements. Spielman said the major’s flexibility allows students with different interests and backgrounds to come together under the DS2 umbrella.
“[Diversity] is something that I want, because these are very different types of people,” he added. “The way some people look at data science as it is done in the industry, they don’t always talk about data scientists, they talk about data science teams. They talk about assembling groups of people with different competencies to solve problem.”
Neuroscience also offers a similar adaptability — the major’s greatest appeal, according to its two directors of undergraduate studies Damon Clark and Nicholas Turk-Browne GRD ’09. Turk-Browne pointed out that, much like data science, neuroscience is a field that benefits from the different skill sets people bring to the table.
For instance, Clark jokingly said that he bet he and Turk-Browne took zero classes in common in graduate school. Yet, not only are Turk-Brown and Clark co-DUSs, they share similar academic pursuits.
Geeta Rao ’19, a junior majoring in neuroscience and one of the founders of the undergraduate organization YNeuro, is one of the students who is benefitting from this major’s diversity. Rao said that before the announcement of the new major, she was struggling to balance her two majors — history of science and medicine and psychology with the neuroscience track — with the premed sequence.
The new major, she said, works exceptionally well with the premed requirement. Now, she feels less stressed about her coursework. “Something that I was doing as a third thing because of a double major didn’t seem as stressful anymore, because it all came together,” Rao said.
Renee Tung ’21, a first year interested in the major, commented how while the addition of the new major was not a factor in her decision to come to Yale, she too believes that the neuroscience major was a better fit for her than pursuing the neurobiology track of the molecular, cellular and developmental biology major.
But for Rao, the main appeal of the neuroscience major is not its overlap with premed. As a first year, she joined a neuroscience lab and felt overwhelmed by the concepts she was tackling in her research. “When Dean Chun and [Professor] Clark started the neuroscience major it seemed like the perfect opportunity to dive deep into that content and actually come away from Yale with a mastery of concepts,” Rao said.
A joint program between Psychology and MCDB, the neuroscience major has most of its required classes cross-listed in both departments. In fact, Turk-Browne said it is unlikely in the foreseeable future that there will be pure neuroscience courses because the courses necessary to get a comprehensive understanding of neuroscience are already available for undergraduates. The two departments worked together in creating combinations of these courses to accomplish their goal of creating a new major.
Data science, on the other hand, is a different story. Spielman said he and his faculty team have changed the former Department of Statistics into the current Department of DS2, and are working on hiring new professors to flesh out a graduate program.
“Most of the universities have been going for master’s programs, partially because it brings in a lot of money to the university, and getting a major at most universities is a much more politically difficult thing,” he added.
But tensions arise when one department stakes a claim over the field. “The Statistics Department starts and the Computer Science Department are upset. Or the Economics Department starts it and someone else is upset, it’s sort of a shame,” Spielman said. At Yale, the creation of DS2 brings together the discipline’s myriad of applications under one roof.
The neuroscience major also aims to integrate different interests. Turk-Browne mentioned how he was recently told that “as a collection of interests” neuroscience is the biggest group of faculty at the university, boasting 140 faculty members with an interest in the field. Therefore, he views the new major as a way to bring together these people and “build bridges across the University.” Clark agreed that the creation of a community of students “explicitly interested” in pursuing neuroscience is a great asset.
While both the DS2 and neuroscience majors are Yale’s responses to the changing needs of the student community, they are also a reaction to the latest global trends, one in which computation has become increasingly relevant for many fields.
Spielman said the DS2 department is trying to accommodate people who are also much more interested in computational aspects of data science. This effort, he explained, is in accord with the burgeoning prevalence of high-performance computing, big data and machine learning.
Turk-Browne added that the department wants to place a particular emphasis on the quantitative and computational aspects of neuroscience. “People can actually make it through the major coming in from more of a computer science background just by adding a few extra courses,” he said.
The move to add these two majors into Yale College’s course offerings is signaling a greater change. The structures of both majors are less rigid than what one might expect of a typical college major. While questions may arise about what it means to choose a major if there are vastly different tracks that lead to the same degree, there is immense support and excitement about how these pathways of study are designed to accommodate both students’ wishes and the careers they hope to eventually pursue. Whether these two fields are uniquely suited for such a flexible and interdisciplinary approach, or whether the introduction of two new majors is part of a grander reimagination of college education, remains a question.
Eren Kafadar | email@example.com .