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Cell biologist welcomes challenges of new post

When Philip Yeagle talks about the department of molecular and cell biology, it almost sounds as if he is describing the entire university.

"Some of our research is among the best in the nation, our teaching component is outstanding and in some ways equivalent to what you would find at an elite private school, and we have some exciting outreach programs that have tremendous potential," Yeagle says. "But there are also some significant challenges in other areas. We have been hit hard by staff reductions. Operating budgets are extremely tight and we have equipment and labs that are literally falling apart."

Yeagle is the new head of molecular and cell biology and also a professor in that department. His observations have a ring of familiarity for other department heads and faculty members on campus. But although he is new to the University, Yeagle senses tremendous opportunity.

"I can tell you that the outside perception of the University of Connecticut is that it is an up-and-coming place," he says. "Academically and with UConn 2000, it is seen by people at other institutions as a university that's on the rise."

Climate change
Yeagle, whose specialty is cell membrane structure and function, came to the University in August from the State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo's School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, where he was a professor of biochemistry. Though he can trace his family's history back to 17th century Massachusetts, he had never before lived in New England.

"I guessed that coming here from Buffalo was like moving to the sunny south," he says.

But Yeagle's real attraction to UConn reflects a different type of climate change. He had heard that the University was committed to pursuing new standards of excellence. UConn 2000 was a very visible proof of this strategy, and he knew of the molecular and cell biology department.

"The department is generally regarded from the outside as a good one with diverse interest and a good scientific reputation," he says. "There are also certain components that stand out nationally and perhaps even internationally."

Yeagle was also interested in more interaction with undergraduates. This type of contact was difficult to find at his former medical school position.

The way undergraduate education is provided by the molecular and cell biology department was one of the things that impressed Yeagle most. The department prides itself on the quality of its instruction and the fact that all classroom teaching is done by faculty.

"That was amazing to me, and something that you don't see at many public institutions," he says. "If you sign up for a professor's class, you get that professor in the classroom, not a grad student."

He adds that grad students do provide instruction, but only in labs.

Yeagle also liked what he saw in the laboratory experiences offered at UConn. Undergraduates in molecular and cell biology courses can take part in ongoing or original research that is at a graduate level or above. These opportunities are not limited to majors in biology or science. Students taking general biology courses often take advantage of hands-on experience with advanced research projects.

The department's commitment to teaching also impressed Yeagle.

"When I first got here, I heard concerns from faculty that we may not be able to provide a certain course this semester, and that other courses might have to be added to make sure that our graduating students are competitive in the job market or pursuing graduate school," he says. "This type of concern is not something I've seen at other institutions."

Yeagle also found outreach programs complementing on-campus education, including formal relationships with state high schools on advanced placement biology courses, and a grade and middle school program called KAST (Kids Are Scientists Too).

"The KAST program in particular has tremendous potential to cultivate interest and future students," he says.

More focused research
There are many bright spots in the department's research that have Yeagle excited, as well. These include work in genetics, cell stress, protein structure, protein-protein interactions and microbiology. There are also strong ties with the National Ultra Centrifugation Center and biotechnology efforts across campus.

But Yeagle admits that the department is not strong in every specialty associated with molecular and cell biology. And that, he says, is not a bad thing.

"The fields have become too specialized and competition is too intense for any university to be the best in everything," he says. "We will continue to provide the broad base of education, but in research, we will have to identify our strengths, focus our resources there and work to become the very best in those areas."

Yeagle adds that molecular and cell biology is well on its way, but that more faculty and resources will have to be acquired before the department can be counted among the top 20 in the nation.

It is at this point where the challenges he mentioned earlier come into play.

Over the last few years, molecular and cell biology has been hit hard by staff reductions. Eight faculty members have taken advantage of retirement packages. Two others died within the past year. Though funding has been granted to hire two new faculty in the next year, Yeagle will not be able to replace all of the faculty the department has lost. In addition, despite desperate need for new equipment in some labs, operating budgets will continue to be tight. There are also demands from the regional campuses to increase course offerings.

"This is where the tough decisions will have to occur," he says. "We won't be able to do it all, but hopefully, we'll make smart decisions."

Despite the challenges, Yeagle remains optimistic.

"This is a great department and a University that really is on the move. There are a lot of opportunities here. It's a very exciting place right now."

David Pesci