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 biology.
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 Sciences.