At alumni assembly, leading faculty address Yale’s future in the sciences

A science and engineering panel at the recent AYA Assembly & Yale Alumni Fund Convocation featured Peter Schiffer, Akiko Iwasaki, Scott Strobel, and others.
Professor Akiko Iwasaki discusses breakthroughs in inflammation research at a science and engineering panel.

Akiko Iwasaki, the Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Immunobiology and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology discusses breakthroughs in inflammation research at a science and engineering panel for alumni volunteer leaders.

Peter Schiffer ’88 B.S., vice provost for research and professor in applied physics, told alumni at the 2018 Association of Yale Alumni (AYA) Assembly & Yale Alumni Fund Convocation that Yale is committed to making science and engineering a priority now and in the future, “because we have a responsibility to lead in the sciences, to make transformative discoveries, cure diseases … and protect the planet.”

His remarks kicked off a panel featuring other members of the University Science Strategy Committee —  Akiko Iwasaki, the Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Immunobiology and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology; David Skelly, the Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology and director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History; and Scott Strobel, deputy provost for teaching & learning and vice president for West Campus planning and program development.

Strobel, who chaired the committee, says the group was tasked with identifying the biggest challenges that science can address and where Yale can focus its resources to bring about the greatest impact. Over 18 months, the committee heard from over 500 faculty members. Faculty were asked to consider not only where Yale has existing scientific leadership, but what investments they would make if they had an additional $100 million per year. The committee’s efforts yielded an 81-page report, with five major priorities identified. These included the recommendation for an integrated Neuroscience Institute to bring together research across Yale and drive new insights into the development of the brain and the causes of neural disease. Data Science was another key priority. Whether committee members spoke to faculty in public health, personal medicine, or climate science, Strobel said, they found that “everybody needs a better handle on data.” Yale recently hired four new faculty in data science, is continuing to grow the department, and is planning to establish a university-wide Institute for Integrative Data Science and its Mathematical Foundations. 

Other priorities the committee identified include: quantum science, where Yale is already a leader and has the possibility to build the first fully useful quantum computer; advancing inflammation science; and finding interdisciplinary solutions to climate change.

All of these initiatives need support to recruit and train students, invest in infrastructure … and we need diverse representation in students and faculty,” Strobel said, adding: “It’s a fantastic time to be doing science at Yale.”

Curing modern disease and addressing climate woes

Iwasaki discussed Yale’s leading role in inflammation science, and the committee’s hope to develop a Yale Inflammation Science Institute to better understand how inflammation works and how it can trigger disease. Researchers like Iwasaki have been at the forefront of research into a deeper understanding of the underlying mechanisms of inflammation — which, she noted, has beneficial aspects, including tissue repair and defense from infections and toxins — in order to combat widespread diseases like stroke, heart disease, and diabetes. She mentioned the important breakthroughs made by Louis Pasteur and the Pasteur Institute in the 1800s, which identified the microbial basis for infectious diseases and developed the vaccines to treat them. “We want to do what Pasteur did,” Iwasaki said. “Probe the inflammation theory for modern-day diseases.” She added that Yale has its own contemporary Pasteur in Ruslan Medzhitov, Sterling Professor of Immunobiology, as well as the technology to advance these discoveries.

Skelly spoke of Yale’s unique position to offer new solutions for climate change by bringing in not only science but the social dimension. He referenced William Nordhaus, Sterling Professor of Economics and professor at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, who recently won the Nobel Prize in economic sciences for his work highlighting the link between the climate and global economy. “Climate is global, and we have to deal with it on a global scale,” Skelly said. “To fix the climate, we need the best natural and physical scientists, biologists, and social scientists.”

During the question-and-answer period, one alumnus asked how Yale is working to inspire undergraduates to pursue the sciences. Strobel talked about the transformation of Yale’s campus, from the makerspace for undergraduates called the Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design on Prospect Street, to the two new residential colleges across the street, in close proximity to Science Hill. There are also new undergraduate labs, the redesigned Wright Lab, and a new building for life sciences — the Yale Science Building — which is nearing completion, a 240,000 square-foot laboratory building on Whitney Avenue. 

Skelly spoke of a new course he’s offering called “Collections of the Peabody Museum” which invites 10 first-year students to do research projects using museum materials. “I can see these projects lighting something inside the students,” Skelly said.

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