Science Is Cool
When Darcy Kelley was a high school student, her teachers told her
she had too exuberant a personality to go into science. "That was a
misperception on their part of the character of scientists," she
Kelley, a professor of biological sciences and co-director of the
Doctoral Subcommittee in Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia
University, has had one singular mission as a teacher ever
since—to show students that science is cool.
"I feel very strongly that students in general don't get to
experience the excitement of science when they come to college," she
says. "Our aim is to introduce all the kids to cutting edge science and
give them all the analytical skills—what an experiment is, how you
build a model. We want to enlarge the constituency of scientists.
Rather than have students shrink from science, we want to show them how
cool it is. Our hope is that they will want to go into research."
Editor of the Journal of Neurobiology, Kelley studies the
biological origins of sexual differences, and in particular the actions
of the gonadal steroid hormones androgen and estrogen. Her studies
focus on the vocal behaviors of the South African clawed frog
"I decided it would be a lot of fun to work on vocal communication
behaviors—the songs males and females sing to one another," she
A major focus of her lab has been setting up a project to study the
genetic underpinnings of perception and production of song in the frog.
As an HHMI Professor, her hope is to involve more students, including
"The frog work is for kids who want to hit the ground running and do
research in a lab right away," she says. "This will give more of them
the opportunity to do that."
She also is involved in the design of two additional courses, the
first, geared toward biology majors—most of whom will head to
careers in clinical medicine—will teach them how clinical trials
are designed and analyzed.
The second is a series of lectures and discussion groups covering
the great ideas of science, for example, evolution, how the brain
works, the origins of the universe. This course is for the entire
entering class at Columbia, some 1,000 students.
"Columbia is really strong on the humanities, and I'm all for that,"
she says. "The question is: How can you combine that with a really
exciting experience in science? People don't appreciate how creative
science is. People think it's just grinding numbers. It's just as
creative as composing a piece of music. Your papers are stories you use
to explain the experiments you do. If you're really good, you can write
a really good story."