PROFILE: From Taiwan to Yale, Sandy Chang shoots for the STARS
Associate dean for science & quantitative reasoning Sandy Chang prioritizes democratizing science through mentorship and improving research accessibility.
Ellie Park, Photography Editor
As a third grader, Sandy Chang ’88 was culturing protozoans, taking photomicrographs and recording telescope observations in a little lab he had set up in his Bronx, New York bedroom.
Since then, he’s moved into a slightly bigger lab at Yale to study telomeres. As a physician scientist and professor of laboratory medicine, pathology and molecular biophysics and biochemistry, Chang also serves as the Yale College associate dean for science & quantitative reasoning education. He founded the Science, Technology and Research Scholars program, or STARS, for underrepresented minorities in STEM, revamped STEM recruitment, teaches first year seminars and diagnoses cancer patients as a pathologist, all while running his NIH-funded lab.
“When I came to Yale, I knew I always wanted to be a scientist, and that passion never changed,” Chang said.
Chang immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when was seven. Though he grew up eyeing astronomy, molecular biology ultimately hooked him. He was fascinated by rapid advances in cloning research — as if “a new era of biological science was happening.” He came to Yale College for its Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Department, where he met a FroCo pursuing an MD/PhD program. Realizing how physician-scientists could bridge research with clinical application, Chang started on the same path.
After spending his undergraduate days doing research at two Yale labs, Chang went on to receive his PhD in cell biology from Rockefeller University in 1996. A year later, he finished an MD at Cornell University Medical School before a postdoctoral residency in Boston and a medical job at the Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. After 22 years of country-trotting, he found himself back at Yale, recruited as a professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine, where he then spent his days working toward tenure.
“The academic rat race is getting tenure,” Chang said, with a laugh. “But once I got tenured, I felt like I could now have the ability to do … something else.”
So he expanded beyond working with medical students: he helped teach a first-year seminar called “Perspectives in Biological Research,” which brought in professors from STEM fields to talk to students about their research. Realizing his fondness for interacting with undergraduates — especially as a Yale College alum himself — Chang later went on to direct the class.
But Chang also recognized that the Perspectives class was not accessible to everyone. For one, students had to have high school research experience to secure a spot.
“What if you are a late bloomer, what if you never had the ability to do high school research?” Chang asked. “So I said, ‘why don’t I start a class targeting students who… may not have any kind of research background?’”
In response, he began the class “Topics in Cancer Biology,” an open first-year seminar in which students learn to read scientific papers and write their own grant proposals. This class marked just the beginning of Chang’s journey toward expanding STEM education at Yale.
When Chang started his deanship, only 70 undergraduates opted to stay at Yale over the summer to conduct research. Over his tenure, he’s expanded that number to around 300.
Now, over a hundred of those students come from underrepresented backgrounds. Today, Chang’s STARS program aspires to elevate students from diverse, disadvantaged backgrounds — especially those who have never done research. Through STARS, Chang aims to improve performance and persistence rates of historically represented students in STEM through mentorship, research funding, networking and career planning.
“I think the legacy I would love to leave is that for my short time here, I made Yale undergraduate research much more egalitarian,” Chang said.
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Chang can be found having an 8 a.m. breakfast at Silliman. He might be joined by a student, or multiple, who sit across from him listening to his animated conversation. Hannah Cevasco ’23, one of Chang’s mentees, emphasized his lighthearted humor during these conversations.
“He bought a bearded dragon from someone on Craigslist,” Cevasco said of Chang, “and it reminded me of Hagrid in Harry Potter when he got that dragon from a guy down at the pub.”
Cevasco recalled how Chang emailed her about his new pet named “Scar” and urged her to pay a visit to see him. Students characterized his mentor-mentee relationship as one marked by familiarity and friendliness.
“He’s very approachable to students, and I think that’s why they feel very comfortable [around him],” Donalee Slater — assistant director of science and quantitative reasoning — told the News.
Devin Lin ’24 said he was “very lucky” and “truly honored” to have met and learned from Chang — someone he calls a teacher, friend and mentor — through various courses and programs.
In spring of 2021, Lin took Chang’s course, Topics in Cancer Biology, before participating in the STARS I program and STARS Summer Program. Eventually, Lin became a STARS Mentor in the STARS I program.
“Dean Chang has left lasting influences on me,” Lin said. “His Topics in Cancer Biology class is still one of my favorite classes that I took at Yale. … He achieved what I called a ‘delicate balance’ as an instructor, being able to challenge us and help the students grow, while simultaneously making sure we are not overwhelmed.”
Lin further described the broader impact Chang has made on the Yale community with regard to the STARS programs. The 2022-23 STARS I cohort, he noted, is 200 students — double the number of students from the 2020-21 cohort.
According to Lin, Chang advocated for the expansion of the program and raised funding. As a result, Chang was able to accept around 95 percent of the applications to the Yale College First-Year Summer Research Fellowship in the Sciences & Engineering — a program that provides first-years funding for a summer of research at Yale.
But Chang’s relationships with his mentees run deeper than classes, research programs and advising meetings.
“He was the first professor I had at Yale that made an outward effort to really get to know his students beyond just the surface level,” one of his mentees, Caitlin Brown ’25, said.
Cevasco emphasized how Chang invites his students to attend basketball games and to grab dinner at Ezra Stiles, his residential college when he was an undergrad. Chang even knew all the players by name, Cevasco remarked. At games, he transforms “from a super intellectual professor to the loudest fan,” and tells his students to remain standing and cheer until Yale scores.
He was not always this way — Chang described himself as “a geek” growing up, “antisocial” and buried in his microscopes. But college taught him to embrace both the academic and the fun. Chang reflected fondly on the “amazing dance parties,” which he attended every weekend, hosted by the Asian American Student Alliance.
Today, Chang hopes to enliven the STEM community in the same way. From offering pre-med advice over Whale Tea boba, and to weighing in on students’ aspirations at Geronimo, Chang emphasizes how a simple meal can bring people together.
In fact, Chang met his wife, Anna, while he was working through his MD/PhD and she was in business school. Set up by a mutual friend, they chatted over dinner and then watched a Chinese movie called “Liang Zhu.” Called “The Butterfly Lovers” in English, it’s the most famous Chinese love story, said Chang.
At Yale, he placed into graduate level Chinese and took a course on Chinese poetry. Chang loved reading Wuxia novels and recalled reading the whole selection of Kung Fu books at Sterling Library.
“[My first year], I was totally burnt out before my final exams, so I bought all these Kung Fu novels,” Chang said. “I said, ‘I’m going to read these during reading period, I’m not going to study.’ So, thank God for my roommate, they hid it and said ‘you better go get your work done.’”
Slater described Chang as one of the “most energetic” people she knew. Slater, who has worked alongside Chang for six years, reiterated his dedication to each student’s journey.
“Students are always asking him, ‘Can you be my advisor?’” Slater explained. “He just makes a huge investment in every student and wants to help them succeed.”
Chang’s office, where his bearded dragon resides, is located in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall at 1 Prospect St.