Turning College Chemistry into an Adventure
Alanna Schepartz thinks it's almost a miracle that anyone ever goes
into chemistry. The Milton Harris '29 Ph.D. Professor of Chemistry at
Yale University, Schepartz says the way college chemistry is typically
taught drives undergraduates away from the field she loves.
"Most undergraduates are seniors by the time they encounter the
thrill of conducting or even reading about current, pioneering
research," she explains. "They are turned off by slogging through three
years of discoveries that are decades or centuries old. By that time,
many are committed to other careers and lost forever to scientific
enterprise. Worst of all, most students graduate with little
appreciation of the role science plays in society."
Schepartz is also concerned about how few women go into academic
research chemistry. Women earn fewer than 30 percent of the Ph.D.
degrees in chemistry from the top 50 chemistry departments in the
United States, and they make up only 11 percent of the faculty of those
chemistry departments, she points out.
As an HHMI Professor, Schepartz is designing a pair of sophomore
courses that she hopes will address these problems. Chemical biology,
which uses the tools of chemistry to understand biological systems, and
an accompanying chemical biology laboratory will expose Yale
undergraduates early in their college careers to one of the
fastest-growing interdisciplinary fields in modern chemistry and
Recent journal articles and case studies will take the place of
textbooks, and real research will drive the lab. Graduate students,
many of them women, will mentor the undergraduates.
"Providing undergraduate women with early, positive experiences in
science and graduate women with early, positive mentoring experiences
could encourage more of them to pursue a career directing research,"
Schepartz suggests. Those who don't go into science will also benefit
by experiencing how science is actually done. "Businesspeople,
politicians, writers and health care professionals who understand
current science practices and culture can help create a more informed
public," she explains.
In her own lab, Schepartz studies protein-protein and protein-DNA
interactions to determine how cells use proteins to regulate genes and
what happens when viruses usurp that regulatory network. She hopes to
use what she learns to design miniature proteins that mimic or even
improve on the functions of natural proteins.
Schepartz's research has been recognized with a National Science
Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award and two American
Chemical Society awards, the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award and the Eli
Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry. Her dedication to teaching has
earned her a Camille and Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award and a
Dylan Hixon '88 Award for Teaching Excellence in the Natural