Undergraduate education and the research university


What is remarkable about studying in Yale College is that you will have direct access to the scholars I have mentioned, among many others. Distinguished as they are in research, they are also committed to teaching. You will take their courses, participate in their seminars, and have the opportunity to work as their research assistants or do independent research under their supervision. Most of the projects I just described involved students in some capacity, but here are a few more in which the role of undergraduates is central:

Consider, for example, Professor Scott Strobel’s course in which undergraduates travel over spring break to a tropical rain forest to gather endophytes, microorganisms that are found in abundance on plants. The students then return to Yale, where they work for the balance of the spring semester and throughout the summer to characterize the organisms that they have found and discover their properties. On recent rain forest expeditions, students have found several organisms that effectively degrade plastic. One in particular is capable of breaking down polyurethane in the absence of oxygen, holding promise for practical use in the biodegradation of buried trash.

Or perhaps you will be intrigued by the opportunity to hunt for exoplanets—bodies that orbit around stars other than our own sun—under the supervision of Professor Debra Fischer and her colleagues in astronomy. Professor Fischer helped to launch the online citizen science project called Planet Hunters, which engages 40,000 web users in the search for exoplanets using data gathered from a NASA space mission. Three Yale College students collaborated on the first published paper from the Planet Hunters project, announcing the discovery of two previously unidentified exoplanets. Two other undergraduates are coauthors on a paper describing another discovery that is soon to be published. One of the students involved in the first paper is now working on a team that has developed a new device capable of doubling the precision of the Keck Observatory telescope, making the world’s largest telescope even more powerful.

Finally, if you would like to combine an interest in the performing arts with serious study, you might consider participation in the Yale Baroque Opera Project. Conceived by the eminent musicologist Ellen Rosand, who has made major contributions to our understanding of early music, the Baroque Opera Project introduces students to the historical, aesthetic, and performance issues related to Italian opera of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in their coursework, and mounts two full-scale productions each year.

These examples illustrate how you might benefit from participating in the work of a university committed to pathbreaking research. I encourage you in the strongest terms to take full advantage of the people and resources available here. Don’t be shy! Yale’s faculty, libraries, and museums are here for you. If you want to get engaged with the amazing research activities that go on here, do not hesitate to ask a professor, a librarian, or a museum curator. They will welcome your interest.

Let me go one step further. If you want to get the most from your Yale education, be adventurous. Do not content yourself with a familiar path. As you choose your courses, try something different—an expository or creative writing class, statistics instead of more calculus, or a new language, even as you pursue further study of one you already know. Sign up for courses and projects that will challenge you. You may never again have so much opportunity to explore new ideas, to test out new directions, to pursue different routes to discovering your true passion. Stretch yourself.

I offer the same advice in connection with your activities outside the classroom, libraries, and museums. Seek out the unfamiliar. If the friends you make here are exclusively those who come from backgrounds just like your own and who went to high schools just like your own, you will have forfeited half the value of a Yale education. You come from 54 nations, from a wide range of racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Each of your residential colleges contains within itself that rich diversity. Seek out friends with different histories and different interests; you will find that you learn the most from the people least like you.

In the same way, as you choose extracurricular activities, try to move beyond the familiar; try at least one extracurricular activity that is brand new to you. Volunteer for community service and begin to understand how what you have learned here might be of value to others. Work or study abroad on one of our many summer programs, and see the world from a different perspective.

Women and men of the Yale College class of 2016: you may have come here for many different reasons. But now that you are about to begin your four-year journey of discovery, take note that you have come to one of the world’s great centers of learning. This presents you with very special opportunities. Learn from your teachers the joy of participating in the advancement of human understanding of nature and culture. Draw upon the abundant resources of our libraries, museums, and laboratories. Stretch to your limits intellectually and interpersonally. Your effort will be richly rewarded.  


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