Those Times I Wrote for STEM Professors

Dr. Loretta Jackson-Hayes, an associate professor of chemistry at Rhodes College in Memphis, wrote a very popular editorial, published today, arguing that colleges should balance the push for STEM majors but not at the expense of a liberal arts curriculum. One reason is that having a strong arts and humanities background helps scientists explain their research.

Scientists are often unable to communicate effectively because, as Cornell University president David J. Skorton points out, “many of us never received the education in the humanities or social sciences that would allow us to explain to nonscientists what we do and why it is important.”

I can personally attest to the benefit of thinking across disciplines, by which I don’t mean a film person writing to a literature scholar. Can we call it disciplinary agnosticism?

Back in my grant-writing powerhouse days, I wrote a few grant applications reviewed by people at the graduate school, not just those in our field. One of the tips we received for writing these was to pitch it to a “New York Times-level reader.” The aim of the advice is to force students to write for intelligent, non-experts. But when I learned that professors from across the university would be reading my proposal, I always imagined a chemist, a mathematician, and an economist poring over my proposal. I pictured the physics professor from my first year of college, and the psychology TA from sophomore year.

In my mind, these “quants” would appreciate something analytical but light on impenetrable theory. I included a brief summary of the historical context, some concise reasons for why the US would care about Latin America during the Cold War, and a step-by-step outline of what I hoped to learn. In other words, I wasn’t seeking to impress my advisor or a panel at a narrowly focused academic conference. I had to explain, in logical terms, what my research was and why it was important.

Did it work? Aside from one time I was pressured to apply for a grant to research my “homeland” in Brazil—my family is from Guatemala—I never was rejected for a grant.

That, and I am happy that I can understand the history of radio frequency allocations in the United States as well as the difference between latency and throughput.

Not only do STEM majors need liberal arts and humanities, but liberal arts and humanities scholars also need to embrace the thinking STEM majors get from their work, too.

A balanced education? What a crazy idea!?!

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