At Convocation last week, Barnard’s new president, Sian Beilock, delivered the welcome address and took the opportunity to introduce herself to the student body. Her introduction served to reflect on her short time on campus, but most importantly to give us a picture of who she will be for Barnard going forward.
She began her address by defining what she sees as her distinctive quality: “I am a scientist. But I wouldn’t be a very good one without the liberal arts education I received. … It’s not just the laboratory that allowed me to do my best thinking. It has always been a much broader, more holistic view of how people behave and what makes us tick.” Beilock offers a unique background for taking on leadership of the humanities-focused Barnard College. Thus, the question that remains about Beilock is: what does having a scientist-president mean for the Barnard administration and student body?
Unlike former President Debora Spar, who used her first convocation address to share her vision for the school with the students, President Beilock chose to use convocation to tell the students about herself—she shared where she is coming from and who she plans to be for Barnard, not what she hopes Barnard will become under her. By addressing how her research as a scientist has been greatly affected by observation and interaction with other people, she seemed to be insinuating that her presidency will primarily focus on studying the workings of the college. If the college is to be run by a scientist, it will be understood through its mechanics, the behavior of its individuals, and its collective outcomes.
As a STEM student at Barnard, I can attest to often having received confused looks when I tell people that I plan to major in physics, or when I say I want to merge the study of the principles of physics with other social sciences and humanities. However, as President Beilock emphasized, these things are inextricable. Either field relies on a fundamental understanding of how to think or critically analyze problems, and both fields thrive when offered an array of perspectives from the other. Although one is often associated with the library and the other with the lab, humanities and STEM are most effective in creating change when they are done collaboratively, through research and observation. Beilock’s scientific background means that she will approach problems and critique with this observational and collaborative lens, and she will encourage the student body to do the same.
In essence, the strength and future of the STEM field relies on fundamental principles of a liberal arts education. What is often overlooked when discussing the STEM field as a whole, which ranges from major scientific discoveries and research to basic problem sets in Intro Physics, is an intense collaboration that is necessary for science to thrive. We are often taught that researchers, engineers, and biologists all do their work in solitude—page after page of calculations that wind through their own heads. Yet, that kind of work means very little when it is not communicated properly.
In the same way that humanities courses emphasize deliberation and discourse, STEM also relies on the constant interaction and exchange of ideas, debates on ethics, and the desire for people to collaborate. That way, their ideas can not only complement one another, but create something completely new and completely unexpected.
It is important not only for scientists to be able to harness and utilize aspects of the humanities to conduct effective research, but for those in the humanities to recognize methods of scientific analysis in tackling complex issues. President Beilock’s address appears to be a step onto the bridge between these two distinct fields, and it is the spirit of collaboration that Barnard students already possess that will narrow this gap.
The author is a sophomore at Barnard College studying physics and urban studies.
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