Finding Passion in the field(s)
Shoshana Wodinsky QC’17 and Jim Stellar
SW is a dual degree undergraduate in Neuroscience and English at Queens College where I was for 5 years before coming to the University at Albany about a year ago. She recently sent me an e-mail, which contained this quote.
“I’ve noticed during my time at Queens that many of the higher level “hard science” classes are filled with the students that work tirelessly to get the best scores possible so that they can apply to top-notch graduate and medical schools. The rigor and determination these students display is amazing – but along the way, I’ve noticed few of them get excited about their classes for what they are. They don’t seem to have a passion for the natural world they study.”
Passion is perhaps the most important attribute that an undergraduate (or anyone) can discover or rediscover in their professional or personal life. Simon Sinek, in his remarkable 2011 book Start with Why, makes this point about why some commercial products, like an iPhone, capture our attention and the market and others do not. So how do you, the student capture the “market” of your passion as you explore the undergraduate fields available to you? Of course, we think some help comes from doing experiential education activities in addition to classes, from picking a field and then trying on the experience of working in that profession to see if you like it. Tell us about your experiences.
I’ve been working with the American Museum of Natural History for over a year – first as a CUNY Service Corps intern and now as a volunteer. They often say that the best way to learn is through teaching, and I have seen that is absolutely the case. Tasked with teaching basic lessons on biodiversity, I’ve been able to translate ideas I’ve learned in the classroom to audiences ranging from infants to adults. Environments like these challenge you to become as proficient in the subject as you can – and this proficiency shows in the fiber of my fellow museum employees. I have found people that are both passionate about the science they do, and are still as curious about the field as when they had first begun.
I have also found that devoting my time to working in my field of choice (neuroscience) has enriched my relationship with it exponentially. For the past year and a half, I have been working under Dr. Carolyn Pytte investigating the way neurodegenerative diseases (Huntington’s disease, specifically) may alter the generation of new neurons in the brain. It is an amazing opportunity – rather than passively accepting the information presented in a textbook, I am actively doing work that may, one day, rewrite it.
Interesting. I was involved in the start-up on the CUNY Service Corps, serving on the committee that helped design and launch the first year. Also, interesting is that Pytte’s lab was the place where another student (also named Shoshana) worked and wrote a previous blog.
So why does this experience work for you to develop your passion, or does it?
It did. The American Museum of Natural History is the environment I was looking for and has renewed my hope that people can, I can, be excited about the science they do, and moreover can still remain as curious about the field as when they had first begun. Volunteering my time to a professor’s basic research lab has also helped me appreciate the work that goes on “behind the scenes” of the sciences that I study with my fellow students.
My question back is how to engage students with scientific disciplines in a way that keeps them curious and interested in the sciences?
Thank you for asking me a question — it is rare that students do that in this blog. I think the fundamental answer is that we do not know. But part of what impresses me about trying to answer that question is that it seems much of how we make decisions involves unconscious processes of which we are not aware or at least not as aware as we are of the words we speak or the facts and theories we learn in the classroom. The classical American parent questions their child with “what did you learn today?” and the classic American student answers with a fact or theory, “that gravity alters the path of light in space” or “that Lee Harper who wrote To Kill a Mocking Bird had a second book that was actually written before.” Parents sometimes ask how their child feels about a subject but even there it is hard to answer such a question. The brain seems to hold these processes Incognito, which is the title of David Eagleman’s important 2011 book on this subject.
This might stem from an educational system that suppresses creativity as far as the sciences are concerned. Students are taught to regurgitate the information and formulas they learn in classes without synthesizing that information and applying it to their everyday life. In every chemistry or biology class I’ve sat in, there has always been students that are so desperate to learn every miniscule fact that they lose sight of the bigger picture – namely, how these basic natural principles govern their life.
Do you think it is possible to bridge the social divide between students in the “hard sciences” and those studying the humanities? In my experience those two groups of people rarely interact, and though I have been working to close the gap, it has proven tricky.
I do think that the attempt to bridge this divide could be very useful as a kind of reflection technique to gain better access to what is going on in those unconscious decision-making processes that determine whether a specific field stirs a student’s passion. The social interaction in any such conversation, particularly face-to-face, could be very important as we are very good at reading each other’s nonverbal cues about how passionate we are in making a point. Done well, the group dynamic can surface these processes so that they can be connected to the conscious brain that we are using right now to talk to each other. To me, that conversation might even be better between groups of sciences and humanities oriented students. Do you think that such conversations would help you explore your own choices about what field to pursue or whether to combine them, e.g. a science writer?
These face-to-face interactions are vital for numerous reasons. They allow students to articulate exactly why a field captures their attention. More importantly, they can articulate in a way that is devoid of the formalities necessary with media that has been recorded or dictated. You are able to engage in a conversation with the other person, and ask them questions in the moment – namely, why are they passionate about this field? What makes them want to (theoretically) devote the rest of their life to applying its concepts?
The “what” of the above question is the key element of this entire interaction. In discovering the root of another person’s passion for a subject, you are able to see the discipline through their eyes, so to speak. While this may or may not influence the field that you ultimately go into, these conversations are important, as they allow you to discover the importance that lies behind a particular topic, be it in the sciences or humanities. In my opinion, these conversations are key to the development of a “well-rounded” individual. In fact, my decision to step down from the bench and become a science writer as opposed to a scientist stemmed from my interactions with those in the humanities in an attempt to retain that balance between the arts and the natural world.
My question remains. Why are these conversations, and this attempt to be better-rounded, seem to be so few and far between amongst college freshmen? Often, they’re only just whittling their presumed passions down into a specific major (or majors), and though students are encouraged to take classes spanning many disciplines, this holistic approach doesn’t seem to “stick”. What’s missing?
Maybe we can write about that issue in another blog.