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Public Service

December 2, 2014

Community service is highly valued at Yale. In fact, it is embedded in the original charter, when the “Collegiate School,” as it was then called, was established in 1701 to train young people “for Publick employment both in Church and Civil State.”

Graduate students today have many ways to make the world a better place. Some choose research topics and then devote themselves to careers that protect the environment, prevent and cure diseases, alleviate poverty, promote education, or in some other way make a positive impact on the community. (See the articles about Gregg Gonsalves and Myra Jones-Taylor.)

Rachel Zwick (MCDB) is a good example. She works both in and outside the lab to improve health, expand scientific research, and spread science education. Her dissertation project explores how the human breast changes after a mother weans her baby. In the course of her research, she identified a type of adult stem cell previously unknown to reside in the breast.

We think that these cells could be important for orchestrating the complex regeneration process that occurs after lactation,” Rachel says. She is collaborating with a clinician to use this basic research “to better understand and eventually treat the aggressive breast cancers that take the lives of so many women.”

In addition to her own research, Rachel has stepped up to advocate for better funding for the National Institutes of Health. She recently spoke at a press conference organized by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would increase NIH funding for biomedical research (HR 5580).

Because she believes that “it is our responsibility as scientists to convince the public of the importance of scientific research,” Rachel is an active member of Yale Science Diplomats, a group of volunteers that organizes educational and advocacy programs to improve communication among scientists, policy-makers, and the general public. [https://www.sites.google.com/site/sciencediplomats/home].

Not all scholarly disciplines lend themselves to solving real-world problems as readily as some of the sciences, but all graduate students can make a difference by volunteering time and energy to bettering the lives of others. Many students participate in blood drives, register voters, assist with refugee resettlement, cook and serve at soup kitchens, bring music into the schools, provide literacy tutoring, and much more. Some volunteer on their own, and others participate in community service through the McDougal Center for Graduate Student Life.

The McDougal Center’s Public Service Fellows, Tim Lorek (History) and Danielle Williams (MB&B), organize volunteer opportunities for their fellow students.

Tim studies modern environmental and agricultural history in Latin America. He came to Yale with a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico, a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University, and a long-standing commitment to community service. As a Public Service fellow, he is eager to “help foster experiences for Yale graduate students in the greater New Haven community. We try to do a variety of different activities that encourage social interaction among students and get them outside of the campus bubble. It feels good to be able to give back to the community beyond Yale in some small way. After all, Yale is not just where we study and hang out with friends, but part of a larger, connected, and vibrant city,” he says.

Danielle is doing research on protein engineering, building molecular vehicles for drug delivery. She came to Yale with an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Ohio State University and a commitment to public service that dates back to her teenage years, when she volunteered in the emergency room at a local hospital. Since coming to Yale three years ago, she has tutored at New Haven Reads, the local book bank and learning center.

I really enjoy getting to work with kids,” she says. “I was the youngest in my family growing up, and I have no nieces or nephews yet, so I don't have much experience with younger children. It can be frustrating when a child becomes impatient or isn’t interested in doing more academic work after sitting through school all day, but it's rewarding when you — and they — see the progress they’ve made. You realize that you’ve made a difference, no matter how small,” she says.

Anya Montiel (American Studies) also tutors at New Haven Reads and calls it a “wonderful program.” She spends an hour a week with a first grader, helping him with his literacy skills through computer programs, workbooks, games, and books at his reading level. “When my student sees me each week, he greets me with a big smile and says, ‘Let me tell you about my day at school.’ It is amazing to see his progress over a short time and his increased confidence in reading,” she says. 

As a Public Service fellow, Danielle has gone beyond her own volunteer efforts at the book bank and, while coordinating events with Tim, met “wonderful people from other departments and schools,” she says. “I love showing them all the hidden gems that are just outside Yale's campus.”  

Tim adds, “It is exciting to see students coming together and interacting with community members they would otherwise probably never meet. It’s also fun to see them gain a greater appreciation for New Haven by discovering a new site or activity.”  

One of the events the Public Service fellows organized this year was at the Eli Whitney Museum, where graduate students put together educational activity kits. Roger Sheu (Environmental Engineering) took part, because he “saw an opportunity to give back to the New Haven community, and science projects are right up my alley!” He and others coiled wires for a craft project and assembled items for an experiment about light. It was “not particularly hard, and a lot of fun!” he says. He’s a first-year student, and this was the first time he volunteered at Yale, but says it probably won’t be the last.

In addition to the Eli Whitney event, Tim and Danielle have coordinated the building of a demonstration children's garden with a local non-profit organization, All Our Kin, and organized cleanup events at Lighthouse Point and Edgewood Park.

One volunteer at Lighthouse Point was Ila Tyagi (American Studies, Film Studies), whose research focuses on the American oil industry in moving images.

By participating in the September 13 beach cleanup at Lighthouse Point Park, I hoped, in a very small way, to mitigate some of the damage we’ve inflicted on our ecosystem,” she says. She and others collected trash that had been discarded on the sand, at the playground, and under the stone pier. “The work was not difficult. It was fun to be outdoors, though, and to talk to other students on the trip that I likely wouldn’t have met otherwise. This was my first time volunteering in New Haven, and I would certainly do so again.” 

Other recent events were Yoga for a Cause on November 9, which raised money for Girls on the Run, a local organization that encourages participation in athletics; and meal preparation and service at Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen on November 17. 

There will be lots of opportunities for Ila, Roger, and other graduate students to contribute to the community this month and next semester. Coming soon: Holiday Card Workshop, Thursday, December 4. Participants will create greeting cards for residents of local nursing homes.