Deans’ panel discusses crossing boundaries at alumni assembly

Panel with deans Sten Vermund, Lynn Cooley, and Robert Alpern.
Left to right: Yale School of Public Health Dean Sten Vermund, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Lynn Cooley, and Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern.

A panel of deans at the 2018 AYA Assembly & Yale Alumni Fund Convocation spoke about “crossing boundaries” — a quality that moderator Tamar Gendler ’87 B.A., dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Yale, called “distinctly Yale.” She said: “Yale is an institution where crossing boundaries is a profound part of how we cooperate.”

 The panelists — including Robert Alpern, dean of the Yale School of Medicine; Lynn Cooley, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; and Sten Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health —each discussed how their respective schools have worked across disciplines to advance knowledge and understanding.

Alpern used the example of neuroscience, noting that the study of the brain “is probably the greatest scientific challenge — almost every single neuron is different.” Since brain-affecting diseases range from Alzheimer’s to addiction, study and discovery relies on a host of different departments, including neuroscience, cellular biology, psychology, psychiatry, pathology, and even ophthalmology, Alpern noted. He added that Yale College has recently added an interdisciplinary major in neuroscience, either as a B.S. or B.A., jointly sponsored by the Department of Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology and the Department of Psychology.

Calling graduate students “the engines of discovery at Yale,” Cooley said her goal is to “put in place anything that will harness their creativity and curiosity.”  She talked about the Yale Combined Program in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS), established in the 1990s, which encompasses 12 departments and features eight tracks. Students who pursue a BBS degree “become affiliated with a field instead of a department,” Cooley said. She added that administrators are now exploring that successful model for the physical sciences as well.  

All of the headline-worthy problems tackled at the Yale School of Public Health must be understood and solved using an interdisciplinary approach, said Vermund. As an example, he cited obesity as a public health crisis that has become “an almost perfect storm in the U.S. of dysfunction.” It’s related to school budget cuts and the video game/TV culture, he said, as well as to a culture shift toward comfort at any cost. “Then there is the biology of obesity,” Vermund said, adding that adipose tissue developed in childhood never goes away.

Preparing students for success

The panelists also discussed the ways in which their schools and degree programs were preparing students for later success. Alpern said the mission statement of the Yale School of Medicine, particularly its directive to “educate and inspire scholars and future leaders,” guides its approach. The school has resisted expanding class size as a result and continues to require a research thesis to obtain a degree. In fact, Alpern notes, “70% of our students stay for a fifth year to spend more time on their research thesis. We don’t charge tuition and provide stipends to most students who stay.” He spoke also of the emphasis on getting students out of the classroom so that they might find and develop their specialties and embark on a leadership path.

For graduate students, the Center for Teaching and Learning in Sterling Memorial Library is a decentralized hub of resources for students and faculty, offering training in writing, speaking, and technology, and supporting career advancement.  “You can go there and get help designing an experiment,” said Cooley. “You can try out new technology.”

Vermund discussed how the Yale School of Public health has overhauled its curriculum in the last 18 months, providing new core courses that map to other parts of the university and give students critical skills for careers in health policy and health care systems. These include focuses on biostatistics; social justice; social, environmental, and biological determinants of major health threats; and ethics. “We’re doing a lot more case-based education,” Vermund said.

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Brita Belli: brita.belli@yale.edu, 203-804-1911