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Undergrads develop passions across fields

Interdisciplinary students blur the lines between science and the humanities

When she is not pole vaulting for the track and field team or overseeing the Women’s Peer Counselor program at Brown, Hanna McPhee ’14 is doing what many other seniors are doing — completing her thesis. The only difference for McPhee is that when she encounters problems, she doesn’t have a department to turn to for help.

Her independent concentration, titled “Biologically Inspired Design,” is an amalgamation of biology, engineering and arts courses. For many students like McPhee at Brown, studying science in the “traditional” sense is not enough. She wanted to do something with science that allowed her to solve problems and use her creativity to help people, she said, so she decided to create her own concentration to achieve that goal.


An interdisciplinary legacy

Brown’s traditional science program is something the University prides itself on, highlighting its status as an internationally ranked science research university on its website. On the “Science at Brown” webpage, visitors find information on how Brown consistently ranks in the “top five Fulbright Fellowship-producing research institutions nationally,” and on the number of Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards given in the past four years — nearly 2,000.

But toward the bottom of the page, a sentence tells the reader, “Do not be surprised if the science topic that catches your eye has multiple connections in humanities or social sciences; interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary work has been fundamental to Brown academic culture for decades.”

For students like McPhee, this statement rings particularly true. Like many science concentrators, she started at Brown thinking she might want to eventually attend medical school, and began pursuing a bachelor of arts degree in biology, alongside a visual arts degree. But she quickly found that the biology courses she was taking were “too pre-med” focused, and the visual arts courses she was taking were “too fine arts” focused for her liking.

“I realized I didn’t want to be pre-med, and I didn’t want to do research, so why spend semesters slaving over classes like (Organic Chemistry) when I could take four classes I really enjoyed?” McPhee said. Projects like designing a spider web out of hemp to form a biodegradable erosion net or creating gray water filtration systems inspired by natural plant processes appealed far more to her. These opportunities to integrate aesthetics and biology fueled her desire to create her own course of study.

Despite the benefits of an independent concentration, students and faculty members alike said the process of creating one is by no means easy. The review process is “essentially as rigorous as it might be for a faculty member proposing a standard concentration,” said Besenia Rodriguez, associate dean of the College for research and upperclass studies. As students form their independent concentrations, she asks them to consider: “Is there cohesion? Is there synthesis possible between these two ideas?”

Historically, Rodriguez said, science independent concentrations that answered those questions have evolved to become standard concentrations at the University, such as environmental studies, science and society and neuroscience.


‘The perfect meld’

Maahika Srinivasan ’15 encountered a similar problem as McPhee when she began completing her pre-med requirements. “I was so disheartened by my pre-med classes,” Srinivasan said. “It just mattered whether you showed up on the midterm days, took the test and walked out.”

In searching for a sophomore seminar to regain the intimate class feeling she missed, Srinivasan stumbled across a science and society seminar. “We were looking at socially controversial issues through a scientific lens,” she said. “It was one of the most fascinating discussions that I’ve ever had.”

Afterward, the decision to concentrate in science and society — while remaining pre-med — was an easy one, Srinivasan said. Through her science and society concentration, she has had the opportunity to work on research projects that explore the cultural and scientific side of issues. Last summer, for instance, Srinivasan received an Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award to look at the genetic risks of consanguinity, or marriage between cousins, versus the perceived social effects.

“It’s a fantastic way for me to work on the social side of medicine,” Srinivasan said.

Sherine Hamdy, assistant professor of anthropology and member of the science and society steering committee, said the thing that differentiates science and society at Brown from the concentration at other schools is its emphasis on the science portion. “The rule of thumb is that you take enough courses in a science so that you can get enough information to think like someone in that science,” Hamdy said. Science and society concentrators choose one science track and one thematic track to focus their studies on, such as history and philosophy of science or environment and society.

Hamdy said students who study science and society are able to effectively write strong theses, because they can incorporate not just the scientific but also the philosophical and political aspects of what they are studying into their research. She still clearly remembers an honors thesis written by a science and society concentrator on the Aswan Dam in Egypt.

“It was really the perfect meld,” Hamdy said. “He understood about postcolonial development and the political importance of building this big, monumental feat of scientific accomplishment … at the same time (he understood) the irreversible ecological effects the dam had.”

Analise Roland ’13 also appreciates the benefits, direct and indirect, that she derived from her independent concentration in neuroaesthetics. She came to Brown unsure what she wanted to study, but quickly realized that she loved the intersection between art and the brain. “I wanted to know why one person remembered a canvas and laughed and the other person cried,” Roland said.

Interdisciplinary concentrations with more established course requirements like health and human biology attempt to encompass as many aspects of the biology division as possible through sub-foci that include both hard-science courses and related social science or policy courses. Concentrators have pursued themes including women’s/children’s health, culture and health and global/international health.

“Students tend to be extremely aware of and dedicated toward (their) theme courses,” said Marjorie Thompson, associate dean of biological sciences. “That’s what infuses the whole program with its character.”

Thompson added that the health and human biology program at Brown differs from those at other schools in that “ours really is, and was born as, an interdisciplinary program.” Undergraduates are required to take classes outside the biology division for their thematic tracks, Thompson said.


Doubling down

Undergraduates are not only tackling their love for the sciences and other subjects through concentrations termed “interdisciplinary,” though. Some, like William Serratelli ’16, have decided to double-concentrate in science and a different field. Serratelli, who is concentrating in biology and English, said he entered Brown as an English concentrator. But when he didn’t get into his first-choice first-year seminar, he ended up taking a biology seminar and loved it.

“I started noticing all these parallels between my English classes and the stuff I was talking about and all the philosophical implications of the things that were coming up in the bio classes,” Serratelli said. “And so I felt like the two complemented each other really well.”

Despite the interdisciplinary experience he gains within his concentrations, Serratelli said he must “sacrifice” taking certain courses offered by different departments that don’t count for either concentration.

“But what’s great about English,” he added, “is that in some ways it overlaps with departments I wouldn’t have time to take classes in otherwise, like Africana studies or philosophy.”

For Matthew Douglas ’16, the decision to double-concentrate in biology and economics has less to do with the overlap he finds between the two fields and more to do with the fact that he finds both truly enjoyable. Economics, he said, acts as a sort of counterweight to the science courses he takes.

“I felt like the single science of biology at the undergraduate level … was giving me things I was really passionate about, but economics is currently broadening my mind,” Douglas said. “I don’t find that having done biology is helping my economics degree, but it’s not hindering it.”


Life after Brown

Cara Smith ’11 almost graduated with a chemistry degree before deciding to switch and become a science and society concentrator. She said she has come to appreciate her interdisciplinary background derived from science and society far more as she pursues a medical degree/master of arts in urban bioethics. “I was given a really incredible background by my professors on how to really step back and think about the issues that I was presented with,” Smith said. “I feel really lucky for it now.”

Roland said her “ability to synthesize material from a variety of sources” has helped her now that she’s graduated and working for food and environmental sustainability companies, though her work is not directly related to her concentration.

McPhee, who studied biologically inspired designs, has acccepted a job as an account executive at Digitalks, where she will work in marketing and liaise between clients and technology designers. She said she is excited about the opportunity, because it will allow her to pursue her interest in both technology and how designers think.

Serratelli initially wanted to put his biology and English degrees toward science writing, but he has since decided to pursue medicine and is waiting to hear whether he has been admitted to an early-assurance medical program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai called FlexMed.

Douglas doesn’t know what he wants to do after he graduates, but tells his family he’s perhaps interested in biotechnology, because “it’s a hilariously expansive industry at the moment.” But he added that a potential career path did not motivate his decision to double-concentrate. “I’m really honestly just doing the two things because I really enjoy them,” he said.


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