Institute Promotes ‘A New Way of Thinking About Science’

Yale College senior Jocelyn Traina is studying a protein implicated in Alzheimer's disease. She needs to know physics to understand the lasers that she uses, biology to purify the protein for experiments, chemistry to test how it reacts in those experiments and biochemistry to understand how the protein folds and aggregates.

Yale College senior Jocelyn Traina is studying a protein implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. She needs to know physics to understand the lasers that she uses, biology to purify the protein for experiments, chemistry to test how it reacts in those experiments and biochemistry to understand how the protein folds and aggregates.

“It is hard to know where physics ends and biology begins,” Traina says. “The more you learn, the more you understand the breadth and depth of knowledge you need.”

This summer Traina crossed many of the arbitrary lines that have separated academic disciplines while working as an undergraduate researcher in the laboratory of Elizabeth Rhoades, assistant professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and of physics. Thanks to an undergraduate fellowship from The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences, Traina has been able to learn the intricacies of lasers that aid her research on the protein tau, which is associated with the pathology of Alzheimer’s.

The Yale senior was one of the first cohort of six Sackler Undergraduate Fellows, who hailed from Yale and its partners, Claflin University and Connecticut College. “We intend to increase these numbers in the coming years,” notes Corey O’Hern, associate professor of mechanical engineering, professor of physics and director of undergraduate programs for Yale’s Sackler Institute. “Many of the fellows have decided to pursue graduate degrees in interdisciplinary research in the physical and biological sciences.”

At the Yale institute, faculty from disparate disciplines can pursue research that bridges the gaps between traditional scientific disciplines. The institute encourages integrated, interdisciplinary research and teaching across campus, while linking undergraduates, graduate students and faculty. Professors from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have embraced the new approach.

“The boundaries between different areas of science are artificial, and often the most exciting and groundbreaking research is at the interface between ‘traditional’ disciplines,” says Lynne Regan, professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, professor of chemistry, and director of the Sackler Institute at Yale.

This semester the institute launched the Integrated Graduate Program in Physical and Engineering Biology, aimed at training truly interdisciplinary scientists.

“I am delighted by the new courses we have established for this program. Faculty from all disciplines are participating. I think that ‘Methods and Logica in Interdisciplinary Research’ may have the most diverse group of science faculty in any course ever taught at Yale,” says Regan.

The program includes “Bootcamp Biology” for students with physical and engineering backgrounds, and a “sister course” titled “Mathematical Methods in Biophysics” for students with biological backgrounds.

O’Hern — whose own research on protein structure and dynamics combines physics, engineering and biology — teaches in the latter course. “The students are very eager to learn mathematical and computational tools that they can use to explain the biological systems that they are studying in their labs,” he says.

The institute is sponsoring an inaugural symposium, which will celebrate the establishment of the Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences as well as the arrival of the first class of graduate students in the Integrated Graduate Program.

An all-star assembly of scientists who have demonstrated the power of integrating knowledge from many different scientific disciplines will participate in the one-day symposium to be held Oct. 16 at Yale’s West Campus. The event is open to members of the Yale community.

For instance, one of the presenters will be Martin Chalfie, Nobel Prize-winning professor of biological sciences at Columbia University, whose story illustrates how knowledge from different disciplines can leverage great scientific advances.

Chalfie is a basic biologist who studies a nearly transparent worm Caenorhabditis elegans. While attending a conference, he heard about the bioluminescent properties of a certain protein called Green Fluorescent Protein. He knew nothing about chemical reactions that caused the protein to glow or the optical properties that gave the protein its green color. Chalfie, however, built upon the work of those disciplines. He figured out a way to fuse the Green Fluorescent Protein sequence into the DNA of his worms, a feat that enables scientists to track their genetic activity.

For information on the symposium, visit www.sackler.yale.edu/#symposium.

“We are thrilled and proud of all of the interdisciplinary research and teaching efforts in the biological, physical and engineering sciences at Yale,” Regan says. “Interdisciplinary training will be required to tackle the future grand challenges in biology. Yale recognizes this fact and we are taking steps to become leaders in this area.”

The enthusiasm for Sackler initiatives is being transferred to a new generation of researchers.

“I used to think I could ask a question, run an experiment, and get an answer, but it is not such a straight shot,” Traina says. “Working in the lab now is more like weaving threads together and you are not sure what the pattern will be when you are done. … It’s not just the skill sets I’ve learned, but the new way of thinking about science that has been most valuable for me.”

— By Bill Hathaway

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Media Contact

Bill Hathaway: william.hathaway@yale.edu, 203-432-1322