UP CLOSE: Ahead of STEM report, Yale takes stock

UP CLOSE:
Ahead of STEM report, Yale takes stock

Published on April 27, 2018

In 1982, when Yale chemistry and molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor Gary Brudvig arrived at the University, the development of the sciences at Yale — particularly with respect to facilities on Science Hill — had been stagnant for two decades. Since the 1960s, when Kline Chemistry Lab, Kline Geology Lab and Kline Biology Tower were built, the University had constructed no new buildings for the sciences.

It remained that way for the next 10 years until the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Center for Molecular and Structural Biology — housing the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Department — was built in 1993. Later, a few years after the turn of the century, the Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center, Class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building and Kroon Hall were added to Science Hill — a result of former University President Richard Levin’s investment in the sciences, which provided new resources for only some of Yale’s scientific disciplines.

“That was a period of about 30 years without really any new construction on Science Hill,” Brudvig said. “Of course, for science to grow, you need to have laboratories to do the research.”

Brudvig and many other faculty members in the sciences are now more optimistic about the growth of science at the University.

In 2007, Yale purchased West Campus from Bayer Pharmaceuticals, providing instant laboratory space that the University needed to expand, mainly in biological fields. With 1.6 million square feet of workspace, West Campus today serves as the home of seven research institutes and the Yale School of Nursing.

In the past five years, Sterling Chemistry Laboratory and Kline Chemistry Laboratory — adjacent buildings for the Chemistry Department — have undergone renovations costing several hundred million dollars. Numerous students, from undergraduates taking introductory chemistry courses to organic chemistry graduate students, have spoken highly of the updates to the 95-year-old Sterling building, which include three new glass-enclosed teaching labs, stronger electrical and plumbing systems and 31,600 square feet of additional space.

Most recently, the new Yale Science Building — located at the site of the old J.W. Gibbs Laboratory — is finally in its initial stages of construction, after financial concerns throughout the decade had previously derailed plans for the building.

The seven-story, 240,000- square-foot building will house the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and part of the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and Physics departments. It was designed to expand the horizons of research at Yale, featuring specialized vibration-free labs for electron microscopy in the basement, a greenhouse on the top floor for ecological research and state-of-the-art labs for organic synthesis and quantitative biology.

In light of Yale’s most recent investments — coupled with the discrepancy between the University’s ranking in STEM and humanities fields — the University must centralize discussions about areas for potential improvement in the sciences and confront the issues facing the scientific community. Administrators hope to accomplish that through the University Science Strategy Committee, created in January 2017 after University President Peter Salovey drew attention to the problems in the sciences in a staff-wide letter.

Chaired by Vice President for West Campus Planning and Program Development Scott Strobel, the committee has met over the past year to pinpoint areas of improvement in the sciences and identify the best paths forward in a report. And while the committee will not disclose details of the report until its release this summer, faculty members interviewed cited fostering recruitment, maintaining state-of-the-art facilities and integrating the University’s distant science campuses as three of the most pressing issues facing STEM at Yale.

Defining science at Yale “for decades to come”

In November of 2016, Salovey wrote a letter to all faculty and staff emphasizing the need for bolder investment in science and engineering. While Yale College has perennially ranked in the top three for undergraduate education, Yale usually places between 10th and 15th in the rankings of world research universities, Salovey said. Out of this incongruity arises an opportunity to bolster science, he explained, as the sciences “most differentiate Yale from those above us on such lists.”

As a follow up to the letter, University Provost Benjamin Polak announced in January 2017 that he would charge a committee with creating a strategic plan for STEM at Yale. The University Science Strategy Committee would analyze the full portfolio of sciences at Yale and identify weak links to target as future priorities.

“While the immediate task of the committee is to provide a set of priorities, it also has the opportunity to define science at Yale for decades to come,” he wrote in a letter to faculty members. “I am asking the committee to ‘dream big,’ unconstrained by resources or realism.”

Comprised of 14 members, the University Science Strategy Committee includes science faculty members as well as top administrators from the Office of Institutional Research and Office of Development. Although the committee members span all of Yale’s science campuses, the group does not act as a representative committee for each of the schools, Strobel said.

“The goal is to think more broadly and as institutionally as possible about what areas need particular attention or prioritization. We’re trying to identify strategic areas that have a campuswide, multi-school, broad impact,” he said. “That’s what the committee was charged to do.”

Since its creation in 2017, the committee has met for more than 70 hours, holding about 50 meetings. So far, one of its main efforts has been soliciting input from faculty members across the University. Now, the committee is evaluating the feedback and condensing it into a few broad ideas and recurring themes.

These “big ideas” are priorities for future fundraising initiatives, rather than plans for allocating current funds, Strobel said. Given that task, the committee must develop a list of ranked priorities, describing each one’s impact, feasibility and comparative advantage, as well as resources required to accomplish it.

Additionally, Polak requested that the committee create a list of targets that could be accomplished at current levels of resources, as well as those possible with another $50 million, $100 million and $150 million in annual expenditures.

“We really are working hard; we’re taking the charge very seriously. We have been really grateful to all the people that have provided quality input, and we do have to make decisions,” Strobel said.

The committee plans to release its report in the next few months, likely over the summer, Strobel said. Until then, its findings, including any of the “big ideas,” will remain confidential, he added.

However, Vice Provost for Research Peter Schiffer, who is not on the committee, speculated that the report will include guidelines for areas of scientific research.

“I expect that the committee’s report will point to areas of opportunity for Yale research, and I imagine that many of our researchers will be excited to explore those opportunities,” he said.

Although unable to share details about the work, committee member Akiko Iwasaki, an immunobiology and molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor, was enthusiastic about strengthening Yale’s science offerings.

“I devote a countless number of hours to this committee because I believe in its mission — to identify bold ideas that would strengthen and transform science at Yale,” Iwasaki said.

Strobel noted that the committee is unlike any other science committee at Yale or peer institutions. While other schools have charged committees with thinking about the engineering school or the basic sciences, for example, this is one of the first times that a campuswide science strategy process has been implemented at a university.

“What became evident was that we couldn’t find an example of a committee that has been charged to think in quite such a broad way about the campus,” Strobel said. “We have an opportunity to see in a broader, more complete way the portfolio of sciences at Yale and think about what’s missing.”

For instance, a faculty committee was charged with producing recommendations for the Yale Science Building, but this committee — the Yale Science Building Committee, chaired by molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor and University Science Strategy Committee member Anna Marie Pyle — focused on the concerns of the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department, which will be housed there.

Levin’s $500 million science initiative spawned several committees of varying scope. The 2003 Chemistry Building Committee planned the development of the Class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building, and the Committee on Yale College Education addressed STEM curricula in their 2003 report as part of the wider topic of undergraduate education.

Unlike these committees, though, the University Science Strategy Committee takes a different approach, identifying broader themes to support excellence in STEM, and STEM alone.

Mark Gerstein, a professor of biomedical informatics, molecular biophysics and biochemistry and computer science, lauded the committee’s creation. It is crucial, he said, to determine a strategy for science at Yale, as opposed to just narrow “tactics,” like specific programs or buildings.

“If we want to maintain our strength as a university — not just in the sciences — we really need to field a full team,” Gerstein said. “It’s like a football team — you can’t win the Super Bowl if you don’t have all the different positions.”

Prioritizing the sciences

In determining the most effective priorities for the strategic growth of the sciences, Yale must balance attention to the sciences and humanities, taking into account the University’s historical eminence in the humanities, arts and social sciences. And Salovey’s letter noted that the Yale does not plan to invest in University-wide science at the expense of the humanities, arts and social sciences.

Gerstein acknowledged that Yale has traditionally been thought to emphasize science less than other universities have.

The University currently has 21 professors in computer science, while Harvard — which announced a 50 percent increase in the size of its computer science faculty in 2014 — has 37. MIT has over 70, many of whom also contribute to the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society.

To some degree, putting “more money in your machine” simply results in more research successes coming out, Gerstein said.

“But Yale is a full-featured university. I do think that’s important in terms of the culture and where Yale is relative to other places,” he said.

He noted that comparisons of Yale to schools at one extreme — like the MIT, which focuses almost exclusively on science — may be misleading.

In 2015, MIT launched the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, which included a new center on statistics and data science. Creating this center has been crucial to promoting the development of academic programs in statistics and data science at MIT while also taking advantage of the university’s strengths in computation, according to David Gamarnik, a professor of operations research at MIT and member of the Statistics and Data Science Center.

At Yale, the Department of Statistics was transformed into the Department of Statistics and Data Science last spring, reflecting the University’s recognition that facilities like the Yale Center for Genome Analysis and instruments like its new cryo-electron microscope produce large quantities of information that must be analyzed.

While Gamarnik said he cannot predict the impact of Yale’s change, he suggested, the new department name does increase the visibility of data science and its opportunities, especially to undergraduates.

As the University expands its comparatively small science programs, the committee will draw on input from current science faculty members to inform its report.

Still, some professors interviewed noted that the committee’s secrecy throughout this process is not necessarily a good thing.

“To maintain excellence in the science, the Yale administration must make a real effort to listen, especially if science isn’t their field — which it very often isn’t,” said molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor Joan Steitz, adding that she has not been asked to provide input to the committee. “I know the committee exists, but I don’t really know anything about it. I think it would make much more of an impact if it were a more open and transparent operation.”

In an email to the News, Strobel disputed claims that the committee lacks transparency, saying that Salovey provided a progress report on the committee’s work earlier in the semester and that more than 100 faculty members have met with the committee. Additionally, he said, there will be a discussion period with the University community following the release of the report.

And while the committee won’t disclose any details about its forthcoming report, to many science faculty at Yale, it is clear where the University must improve.

Roadblocks in faculty recruitment and retainment

Recruiting and retaining faculty members have become two of the most pressing issues for Yale, as the University competes with its peer institutions for the most talented and productive scientists.

“If we try to recruit 50 faculty, for example, you don’t expect all of them to come. But you have to think, if we were some other peer institution, would we have gotten a larger fraction of those people?” Gerstein said. “And that’s a very hard question to answer objectively.”

Delays in the faculty hiring process also play a role in recruitment, according to Steitz.

While peer institutions would take one week to get a job offer out, Yale would take six, she said. The situation has made faculty recruitment for the sciences more difficult at Yale than at other universities, Steitz added.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler said that most job offers are issued within a few days of a Department’s request, but that in complicated cases, it may take a week or two to formalize offers.

Steitz also acknowledged that job offers have become more punctual since Schiffer, the vice provost for research, arrived at Yale.

“Maybe things like that are going to be improving, but they do make a difference. We can’t have the attitude that people will come to Yale and not go to other places just because Yale is Yale,” Steitz said.

Gerstein suggested that Yale’s location in New Haven also serves as a “major factor,” potentially hindering success in faculty recruitment. Especially when compared to California, Boston or New York, living in New Haven may be less appealing to potential professors, he added.

Within the Chemistry Department, however, Yale has been able to make several successful senior hires recently, according to Brudvig. These include organic chemists Scott Miller and Jonathan Ellman, inorganic chemists Patrick Holland and James Mayer and theoretical chemist Sharon Hammes-Schiffer.

“With those five senior hires and a number of very good junior hires — many of them associated with the West Campus — I think chemistry has really made significant improvements in the quality of our faculty and research programs here,” Brudvig said.

Playing catch-up

Imperative to successful faculty recruitment, the University must also become more competitive in terms of facilities, equipment and setup funds. In other words, Yale has to improve upon past fundraising efforts for STEM for its next capital campaign.

While the construction of the Yale Science Building started last year, plans for the building were actually first developed in 1992 — financial concerns repeatedly pushed back the start of construction. These same issues also delayed maintenance of Yale’s existing science facilities while other campus buildings were being renovated over the same period.

Consequently, Levin’s $500 million investment in the sciences in the 2000s served as “a bit of catch-up” according to Jeremiah Ostriker, then provost of Princeton University, in a 2000 Nature article. “I think they realized it was a necessity,” he said.

“Other campuses that I would consider peer campuses were getting flashy new buildings for their science departments, and it took Yale until now to do it instead of 20 years ago,” Steitz said.

From 2001 to 2004, Harvard spent $22 million renovating its Science Center, which was completed in 1972. By contrast, Yale’s Kline Biology Tower, which currently houses the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department, was completed in 1967 and did not receive a major renovation until 2017, when the lower level of the Center for Science and Social Science Information was overhauled.

More recently, Yale took a longer time than many other institutions to invest in advanced cryo-electron microscopy — a revolutionary technique for visualizing biological structures. Top-of-the-line cryo-electron microscopes cost several million dollars each, and because this investment took multiple years, many of the best young researchers in the structural biology field went to other universities.

Over in Cambridge, Harvard has had cryo-EM technology since 1999. Recently, teaming up with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston Children’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital, the university has built a new facility to accommodate three new cryo-electron microscopes. The instruments themselves cost $16 million, while renovation of the facility cost $10 million, according to Zongli Li, the facility director of the new Harvard Cryo-Electron Microscopy Center for Structural Biology.

In New Haven, Yale installed the $8 million Titan Krios cryo-electron microscope — the world’s most powerful cryo-EM instrument — at West Campus last fall. And while there has been single-particle cryo-EM equipment at Yale since 1998, Strobel said those instruments cannot visualize molecules at the same resolution as the Krios.

Marc Llaguno, the manager for cryo-EM at the Center for Cellular and Molecular Imaging, said Yale this year plans to upgrade its old cryo-EM microscope, which arrived in 1999.

But despite the University’s relative delay in investment in the most powerful cryo-EM technology, the new Krios is beginning to draw top professors to Yale, such as Jun Liu, a renowned expert in tomography. Faculty members and administrators hope that maintaining investment in such rapidly evolving technologies and infrastructure will continue Yale’s upward progress.

Integrating three campuses

A final recurring concern is more effectively connecting Yale’s various science campuses — Science Hill, the School of Medicine and West Campus — to enable and foster collaboration across the University. Historically, West Campus, a 30-minute shuttle ride from central campus, has been the hardest to unify with the rest of the University.

In the past, the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Department was split between two sites: Science Hill and the medical school. This divide has been detrimental to research, as science requires collaboration and support, Steitz said. And the recent acquisition of West Campus, although it provided 1.5 million square feet of building space, has merely exacerbated the issue, splitting molecular biophysics and biochemistry into three places.

“There are very few undergraduates out there on West Campus,” Steitz said. “It’s very difficult for the people who are out there. We have some fabulous people in MB&B who are out there, but they just can’t participate, because they’re too far away.”

Although there is no way to physically change West Campus’ location, ensuring Science Hill, the medical campus and West Campus are collaborative will have to be a priority for the strategic committee, professors interviewed said.

For example, Sandy Chang, the associate dean for science education, noted that Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Department workshops and talks are often rotated among the science campuses, encouraging investigators to interact with one another beyond their own facilities.

Part of what has made Harvard’s biostatistics program so strong and dynamic is that the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, medical school and dental school are embedded within Harvard’s campus, according to John Quackenbush, a biostatistics professor at Harvard.

“There’s a lot of cross-collaboration and cross-fertilization between the academic programs and the research programs that are underway in the Harvard hospitals,” he said.

Not an overnight process

A year has passed since Polak convened the University Science Strategy Committee, and faculty members are hopeful that it will help propel Yale to become the next world leader in science research.

“Yale has always made leaders. Yale is very unique in that they have an incredible track record — look at the U.S. presidents, that’s the ultimate leadership,” said Jonathan Rothberg GRD ’91, an adjunct professor at the School of Medicine and medical entrepreneur who funds an innovation prize for Yale students. “Now, they’re training a generation of leadership that understands technology. I think it’s a huge transition for Yale, and it started with Peter Salovey’s letter, saying we must have leadership in science.”

In the next few months, the committee will continue to speak with faculty members, evaluating the suggestions they receive and determining the resources required to make important improvements. What concrete and foreseeable impact the committee will make remains unclear as of now.

“I hope there’s opportunity for some of the ideas to be implemented and acted on with an impact immediately,” Strobel said. “And I expect there are other things where we have to raise money or we have to find other resources before we can start to act.”

Asked about the potential for Yale to “catch up” to its peer institutions, Brudvig was enthusiastic. He pointed to the recently released 2018 U.S. News & World Report graduate program rankings, in which Yale’s chemistry program for the first time cracked the top 10.

While pleased by the improvement in the rankings, Brudvig made clear that bolstering the sciences at Yale — and ultimately rising to the top of those rankings — is a long-term process.

“It’s a slow process, and it doesn’t happen overnight,” Brudvig said. “But with continued support, it will happen.”

Amy Xiong | amy.xiong@yale.edu

 

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