In the months leading up to this event, I kept thinking about how fitting it is that we open the Yale Science Building at this moment in the university’s history.
This year, we celebrated a number of anniversaries that honor the trailblazers in our history who helped to create the Yale of today and who changed the world. We commemorate fifty years of coeducation in Yale College and 150 years of women studying on Yale’s campus. And we honor the students, faculty, and staff who formed the House, the Yale Chapter of MEChA, the Asian American Students Alliance, and the Department of African American Studies fifty years ago.
The pioneers of that era also contributed to society in other meaningful ways. During those periods of change, our community fostered a wide range of scientific discoveries that transformed our lives. In the last century, Yale faculty members discovered Vitamin A and melatonin, revealed the enzymatic function of RNA, elucidated the molecular mechanisms required to detect tastes and smells, and created cancer-fighting drugs through a deep understanding of cellular disposal systems.
Not only did the faculty of that era give us brilliant inventions, they also educated future leaders who went on to generate new ideas of their own and put them into action. Florence Seibert, a biochemist who identified and purified the active substance in tuberculin, contributed to the development of a test for tuberculosis. Leona Baumgartner, an immunologist and medical doctor, served as the first woman commissioner of public health of New York City. She led innovative campaigns for the polio vaccine and to prevent smoking. William Cumming Rose, a biochemist and nutritionist, figured out that we need to eat essential amino acids to grow and survive. He also discovered one of the essential amino acids: threonine.
When we look back in our history, we can identify the moments when faculty and students added to Yale’s legacy—to when they produced the knowledge and wisdom we benefit from today. In a hundred years, when people look back to this moment, they will see that this was when we put a stake in the ground for our aspirations in research and education.
They will see that this building played a vital role in fulfilling our shared vision to accelerate the pace of scientific discovery at Yale to benefit the lives of people around the world. And this building exemplifies our approach to expanding scientific understanding—an approach based on bringing together experts from multiple disciplines to ensure that the insights of one field rapidly drive innovation in another.
I saw that in action when I had the opportunity to walk around the seven levels of this building soon after the first twenty-two research groups moved in. I was here around lunch time, and I got the chance to say hello to the students and faculty eating in the common areas. Over salads, sandwiches, and many mugs of coffee, they spoke about their experiments, their roadblocks, and their hopes.
On the white boards that lined the walls in hallways and laboratories, I saw additional conversations taking place—this time in the language of formulas and equations. That’s what this facility is about: creating a fellowship of brilliant thinkers.
The lab spaces in this building are not extraordinary because they house amazing equipment and instruments—even if they are impressive in function and cost! I’m thinking of the cryo electron microscopy facility, which will allow us to visualize molecules down to the atomic detail and has a multimillion-dollar price tag!
This building stands out because it is designed purposefully to enable faculty members and graduate students to share ideas, solve problems, and ask new questions about our natural world. And it is built to draw undergraduates from all majors to Science Hill.
In the O.C. Marsh Lecture Hall, as students learn biology, psychology, or economics, they may also be motivated to participate in the research taking place here. Or they could be inspired by the triceratops skull or the other amazing specimens in the lobby to walk next door and look for opportunities to conduct research with the curators and scholars at the Peabody Museum.
When I saw how this building serves as a hub for innovative thinkers, I was reminded of something Professor Thomas Steitz wrote. As many of you know, Professor Steitz won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the structure and function of the ribosome, the molecular machine that makes proteins in cells. He joined Yale’s faculty in 1970. And for the next few decades, he combined insights and methods from several fields—chemistry, biochemistry, biophysics, and computational science—to answer questions and open new avenues of inquiry. He contributed immensely to our understanding of how antibiotics worked and to the development of new drugs that target bacteria.
I reread his Nobel Prize autobiography recently. In it, he highlighted the importance of shared spaces to building an enriching research environment and to inspiring innovative thinking. He wrote, “A very important factor in making the quality of structural biology so excellent at Yale beginning in the 1970s was the shared computation and x-ray facility, the ‘core’ laboratory, and the many interactions it facilitated.”
The communal spaces, he recalled, “provided perhaps the best environment in the world for doing structural biology in general and determining the structure of the ribosome in particular.” I remembered his words because this building maximizes the use of shared spaces and the potential for discoveries.
The cryo-EM and imaging facilities, the pavilion, the connected laboratories, the lounge, and the dining and meeting areas all represent Yale’s commitment to nurturing multidisciplinary collaboration and fostering new ideas.
Today, as we dedicate this landmark project on Science Hill, we also celebrate the investigators and the students, past and present, who encourage and inspire one another to make our lives better.
The research groups that call this building home are directing their collective knowledge and creative energy to explore the natural world. And they don’t explore alone. The entire history of Yale and the whole of this university are with them.
Thank you, all, for being here with me at the beginning of the new paths that will be set upon in the years ahead.