STEM graduate student sneaks into art history course: a case for a liberal arts education beyond undergrad

By Patricia Tolbert, M.Sc.

Have you ever taken a course in a totally different field, not to fill a requirement but because it interested you? I did and I recommend it! In most universities, a STEM undergraduate degree comes with liberal arts requirements, but in graduate and postdoctoral studies we are asked to forego this portion of our education in pursuit of our respective expertise. However, time and again the importance of liberal arts education has been argued—if you have not yet considered this issue, check out Chad Orzel’s article in Forbes: Why Do We Teach ‘Physics For Poets’ But Not ‘Poetry For Physicists’? or this one in Science: Ten Important Reasons to Include the Humanities in Your Preparation for a Scientific Career.

Last spring, I found myself in the incredibly unlikely but fortunate situation of having a lighter workload and, throwing caution to the wind, signed up for an introductory course in the art history department (before you ask: no, my advisor didn’t know I was doing this). I have no background in art or in history but felt this was as great of a departure from my chemistry coursework as I could possibly find. So, I set out to ask myself not what those outside of STEM must understand about science, but what I might gain from understanding a little bit of something on the other side of the academic spectrum. It took a surprisingly short amount of time to realize how unconventionally relevant the course would be.

Twice a week I would slip outside of Physical Sciences Building, try to remember to take my lab goggles off my forehead, and trek to VISST 2000: Introduction to Visual Studies. The class took place on the ground floor of Klarman Hall, although there were occasional expeditions to the arts quad or to the Johnson Museum. I initially felt as if I was not supposed to be there, or as if I had snuck into this class (imposter syndrome is real and it’s everywhere)! Whenever I told someone in the class that I was a graduate student in chemistry, I expected a surprised laugh, but I never got one. Everyone taking visual studies had found their way there through an unconventional path. The ambiguity of the title of the course and the reputation of the eloquence of the professor, Dr. Andrew Moisey, drew in a surprising number of engineers and life scientists; everyone was eager for a brief digression.

The Cornell course catalogue describes the course: “Visual Studies seeks to define and improve our visual relationship to nature and culture after the modern surge in technology and knowledge…” This manifested itself through readings ranging in subject matter from fascism to typography, from architecture to nature documentaries, Marxism to fashion, surveillance to optometry, with selected readings from philosophy, art, history, social criticism, journalism, film studies, and other fields scattered throughout.

Open book
Photo: Patricia Tolbert

In a lecture in late January we discussed the functionalities, limitations, and remaining mysteries of the model of the eye and the first cameras. We questioned our relative objectivity, something scientists are notorious for disregarding. We even dissected the phrase seeing is believing: we took it to mean that vision is merely the brain’s best guess at reality, and that one’s visual experience is defined by their previous experiences and predispositions. Thinking about this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my microscopy experiments and the conundrum of different people seeing different results within the same image. Microscopy, in theory, should be the single best way to understand the biology of a specimen because it is based directly on our vision, the sense we tend to trust most. Yet, as convincing as a microscopic image capturing the subcellular location of a protein may seem, it has its limitations and still needs to be backed up with further, quantifiable data to be publishable. And so: seeing is believing, but only until further data suggests otherwise.

During one week in February, my class met in the Kroch Library of Rare and Manuscript Collections to discover the university’s collection of 19th century anatomy and physiology texts. This collection includes an original copy of Robert Hooke’s 1665 Micrographia, in which he first coins the term cell in the biological context we now know it. I believe that every biologist on campus should see this—it is a cornerstone of our field. Fueled by this text, my class discussed how often complex scientific concepts are necessarily reduced into simplistic imagery to facilitate a more condensed understanding. How much do the biologists of today have to learn from the founders of our discipline? To what degree has the minimization and abstraction of scientific findings into graphical abstracts and textbook figures altered their interpretation and significance?

Photo: Patricia Tolbert

The breadth of the ideas presented in Introduction to Visual Studies is extensive and thought-provoking in ways I can only begin to describe here. This experience has been invaluable to me. It has been humbling, eye-opening, has inspired within me a new brand of curiosity, and, perhaps most importantly, has given me a renewed perspective of my career as a scientist. The idea of ‘question what you know’ is one that is universally applicable and ties together the pursuits of those that study STEM and the humanities. Cornell’s motto is “any person, any study.” There is no shortage of magnificence in its resources, faculty, or courses and these should be exploited at any cost. Cornell’s Careers Beyond Academia program encourages all its participants to explore their interests and engage in communities and events outside their degree concentration. I’d strongly encourage everyone to consider enrolling in or auditing a course beyond your research and degree requirements and to explore your interests outside of your discipline. Graduate school can be a bubble if you let it be, and it is important to be able to see yourself and your discipline in a greater context.