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 says.
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 Xenopus laevis.
"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 says.
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 undergraduates.
"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."