The whole of science, according to Albert Einstein, who knew a thing or two about the subject, is a “refinement of everyday thinking.”
|In the This is Your Life biology lab, from left, Monica Melville ’06, Susannah Rowe ’08 and Meredith Rauhut, adjunct faculty member in biology, work on the chemical manipulation of heart rate, as Stephanie Puszka ’07 looks on.
Traditionally, though, science has not been taught as a “whole.” Rather, students have learned science in separate compartments—biology in this lab, chemistry in that one. Even though an organism or an ecosystem may have both biological and chemical processes—and there may be other sciences at work, too, like physics, psychology, anthropology and mathematics, to name a few—most often, those sciences have been learned in distinctly separate units, often without consideration for how the scientific processes interact.
But Dickinson has always been ahead of the science curve, so it’s no wonder that the boundaries between the sciences at the college are becoming increasingly transparent.
“Crossing borders of disciplines is a distinguishing characteristic of the college,” says Provost and Dean of the College Neil Weissman. “And there is a growing consensus that traditional disciplinary structures are inadequate. This does not mean that traditional structures should be abandoned—they provide a critical foundation for scientific work and education. It does mean that we need to continue to develop ways to cross boundaries in our curriculum and in our research.”
Ben Tiede ’05, a biochemistry & molecular biology and biology major, couldn’t agree more.
“There are countless subjects, like global warming, evolution and the energy crisis,” he says, “that can’t be studied without an interdisciplinary approach. In real life, there are no distinctions between the sciences. Taking a multidisciplinary view of science enables us to ask deeper questions from a variety of directions.”
What started for Tiede as a biology project, working with a professor on the Brome mosaic virus—which was extraordinary in itself, because undergraduates at other schools are rarely permitted the opportunity of doing that level of hands-on research—turned into an exciting experience across the disciplines.
“I was doing biology research with Professor [David] Kushner,” Tiede says, “but then, as the research progressed, I realized that I needed to do some chemistry research. So I went to [Associate] Professor [Amy] Witter. She could see the significance of what I was doing, and she educated me on the use of her lab. I even went to the math department for help with data analysis. As another example, while I was doing my research, [Biology] Professor Janet Wright and one of her students were getting help from Professor Mike Roberts in his molecular biology lab.”
Tiede’s point is that there were no barriers keeping him from other departments. “Dickinson’s faculty members are willing to help out—they’re great. They’re willing to take on extra work within their own departments and across departments—all for the purpose of educating students.”
For Roberts, one of the professors who worked with Tiede, interdisciplinary teaching and hands-on learning are part of the larger goal: a top-tier education. “At Dickinson students are truly co-researchers and collaborators,” he says. “It is not enough for them to be involved in a project that has been done a hundred times before. We want our students to be science leaders in the 21st century.”
Tiede found that his boundary-free undergraduate education has put him in the enviable position of feeling “ahead of the game” as he embarks on a master’s and Ph.D. program in molecular biology at Princeton.
“When I share stories with people from other schools, they are amazed at what I was allowed to do at Dickinson,” Tiede says. “The culture here means that students can take research as far as they want to.”
Tiede’s Dickinson experience also provided him the opportunity of a lifetime: He went to Lindau, Germany, this summer to rub shoulders with Nobel laureates at the 55th Meeting of Nobel Prize Winners. For the last few years, the generosity of trustee emeritus Otto Roethenmund has enabled two recent graduates to attend. Melissa Moidel ’05, a biochemistry & molecular biology and chemistry major, joined Tiede at the conference. Described as “the Olympics of worldwide research,” it attracted 700 outstanding young scientists from 54 countries, a group referred to as “the top 10 percent of their generation.”
“It was amazing,” Tiede says. “My Dickinson education allowed me to attend that conference, listen to lectures from all three disciplines and then be able to ask meaningful questions.”
Interdisciplinarity also means crossing boundaries between the sciences and the other divisions at the college, the humanities and social sciences. “Environmental studies—one of our oldest interdisciplinary majors—is an obvious leader in this kind of synthesis,” notes Weissman. “And its associated program, ALLARM [Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring], with its work on the social problem of water pollution, carries this out into Pennsylvania communities. The archaeology major is one of our newest examples of bridge building among the divisions, bringing together students from such disparate fields as art history and geology. Biological anthropology does the same, combining insights—and students—from biology and the social sciences.”
As part of the college’s efforts to provide science majors with every opportunity to explore connections between the sciences and society, study abroad for Dickinson science majors also is on the rise.
“Dickinson was among the first to provide study-abroad opportunities for science majors,” says President William G. Durden ’71. “Through our campuses in Norwich, England, and Queensland, Australia, Dickinson allows our science majors to pursue their laboratory and research studies without interruption and, by so doing, to participate in the international dialogue that drives the world of science in the 21st century. Nearly one half of the science majors who graduated in the class of 2005 studied abroad—an impressive number by any measure.”
“Dickinson’s core ethos is pluralism,” Weissman notes. “We are very good at letting people follow their interests wherever they lead—and they’re leading straight to where the innovation is, to very big issues.”
According to Weissman, several factors are driving the movement in science toward interdisciplinarity. First, advances in technology and instrumentation continually open new possibilities. For example, the emerging field of bioinformatics—which is being taught at Dickinson—is driven by applications of new technology.
Moreover, Dickinson’s faculty members have interdisciplinary interests—in research and in teaching.
And so do the students. The new neuroscience major, for instance, was inspired in part by the pattern of students double majoring in biology and psychology.
In defining a well-rounded education, Weissman says, “we’ve traditionally talked about breadth and depth. The general-education requirements are said to provide the breadth, while the major provides depth. But, at Dickinson, there is a third dimension at work: synthesis. We are tying together ideas generated from multiple disciplines.” As Stanley Katz, emeritus president of the American Council of Learned Societies, wrote, “One-dimensional training does not prepare students for a three-dimensional world.”
Weissman says there are challenges to providing this level of education.
“There is a lot of talk out there about interdisciplinary education, but few institutions have a serious commitment to doing it right,” he says. “It requires significant faculty resources plus equipment and facilities that encourage and support this type of teaching and research.”
Dickinson’s new science building (see story on page 6) will further bridge the gaps between the disciplines.
“It will enable people to better connect,” says Tiede of the new building, “even across departments. Working in the same space provides opportunities to talk in everyday conversation—it may even be as simple as a casual exchange in the hall. Some of the best ideas come from opportunities like that.”