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Open curriculum influences grad program

Open Graduate Programs enable interdisciplinary, master’s-level research in secondary field

“When people ask me what I study, I love saying Egyptology and applied math,” said Christian Casey GS. “Their face turns a little pale.”

Expanding the spirit of the undergraduate open curriculum, the Open Graduate Programs, launched last school year, allow doctoral students in the Graduate School to pursue a master’s degree in a secondary field of their choice.

Students participating in the project may combine two degrees that appear to be unrelated, but have been conceptualized by the student to enhance knowledge, said Peter Weber, dean of the Grad School.

“This program doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Weber added. “At other universities, students are only able to pursue a master’s degree in a discipline closely related to their field.”

With the application deadline for next year’s program approaching Friday, Weber expects to receive about 20 to 30 applications and hopes to fund 10 to 15 students in the new cohort, he wrote in an email to The Herald. The numbers have grown from the past two groups, in which around 20 students applied and nine were funded each year.

The new cohort, selected by a committee of deans and senior administrators, will be announced before spring break, Weber said.

Once they are accepted to the Grad School, students are eligible to apply to the program.

The Open Graduate Programs do not provide students with a compass — the nature of the program requires them to navigate their academic plans partially on their own, but gives them “a lot of different tools to grab” when approaching questions and solving problems, Casey said.


Oh, the humanities

Ioana Jucan GS wrote her first play when she was in primary school, casting the most eligible actress — her sister — for the comedy. Jucan was awarded a “distinction for arts” at a school assembly for the production.

Jucan grew up attending theatre festivals and reading philosophy in Romania. Now she is studying performance philosophy, an emerging field in academia, by pursuing a PhD in theater and performing studies and master’s degree in philosophy.

The field examines questions such as how performance or performativity contribute to philosophy and how philosophical ideas are staged in performance, Jucan said.

Despite its recent emergence, the discipline has historical roots. Philosophers for centuries have referred to “the theater of the mind,” Jucan said. Some philosophers argue theater is in opposition to the truth, but Plato expressed his philosophy through dialogue, she said.

Jucan writes and directs plays, and she sometimes acts in her own productions, she said. She is currently working on the third segment of a trilogy about cynicism, in which she collaborates with people in visual art, dance, sculpture and other forms of media.

“It’s interesting to see how the pieces transform when everyone is contributing, occupying the same space,” Jucan said.

Lakshmi Padmanabhan GS is also stimulating dialogue between two disciplines within the humanities through the Open Graduate Programs. By pursuing a PhD in modern culture and media and a master’s in history, Padmanabhan is able to explore LGBTQ movements in India and constructions of India in film and the media.

According to Padmanabhan, a background in history is helpful when pursuing these explorations. She is currently examining media discourse and photographs of protests while thinking about “how the protesters are performing their strength and vulnerability,” she said.


From Egyptian script to STEM

The Open Graduate Programs are not just for those interested in combining disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

Casey is using applied math to decipher ancient Egyptian script. Though he entered college as an undergraduate wanting to study computer science, Casey ended up majoring in classics. When he came to Brown, he decided to pursue both interests in a more intimately connected way.

In the past, Egyptologists have devoted their lifetimes — and sacrificed their necks and backs — to understanding a few scripts, Casey said. With computer technology, more documents can be deciphered in less time, which allows an Egyptologist to “explore multiple questions in their career,” Casey said. He is also interested in using probability and statistics to assess grammatical trends in Egyptian, so scholars can have a better understanding of the grammatical rules, he added.

Though most Egyptian scholars are not opposed to their new and shiny flat-screened partners in academia, “some people aren’t comfortable with the things I want to present because they have a deep mathematical component,” Casey said.

“If you are someone who has studied humanities or social sciences your whole life, these concepts may be difficult to understand,” he added.

The connection between Egyptology and applied math exists in “how you think about problems,” Casey said — for example, thinking of “a computer program as a proof and language as a puzzle you need to make sure you put together right.”

Jing Feng GS is another participant in the Open Graduate Programs, pursuing a PhD in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in the Program in Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship, which teaches students how to start a company or market a product, Feng said.

“Before (PRIME) I spent all my time in the lab,” she said. “Now I have a totally different experience.”

Feng’s research involves creating a device to detect glucose levels in a pain-free way, she said. Using Feng’s device, diabetics can measure glucose through their saliva instead of pricking their fingers.

“Some companies are working toward putting this device on the market, but it is not currently there,” Feng said.


Advising and support

Students in the Open Graduate Programs “feel at home in two departments,” Padmanabhan said. They also find support from the Grad School and among each other.

When Padmanabhan visited Weber before applying for the program, “he helped me map out classes and offered great suggestions,” she said.

“He always has tissues in his office. He jokes that they are for students coming in who break down,” she added.

Casey applied to the program his first semester, but didn’t receive a spot until his second time applying.

“It was disappointing, but I got great feedback from the Grad School,” Casey said. After taking math classes at Brown and reapplying to the program the following year, Casey showed he had the requisite drive and ability, he said.

Though completing two degrees can be difficult and requires discipline, Casey said he doesn’t mind because “what I’m doing in the program is something I would do in my spare time.”



“Even though I am four years away from the job market, I feel there is a demand for people who can think across disciplines,” Padmanabhan said. “The work that I’m doing now can lead me down a variety of paths.”

Feng said she feels PRIME has prepared her for the world of business, teaching skills not often learned in the lab. She said she hopes the knowledge she has gained from PRIME will help her create a company to make the technology she has developed through her research accessible to the general public.

Casey, on the other hand, has created his own niche in academia.

“I’m the only person that I have ever heard of” studying Egyptology and applied math, he said.

Weber anticipates “the program will grow and eventually move out of the pilot phase,” he wrote.



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