Where’s the Humanity in STEM?

Lynnette Tibbott

Humanity⁠—it’s a word we use to describe our innate ability for love, compassion, and the arts⁠—but when did humans actually develop these characteristics? Did it begin with our logical, rational brains, developed once the gift of our opposable thumbs helped our ancestors to make spearheads? Travel back in time to the Paleolithic era, where we see the first instance of what we would recognize as art made by our ancient human ancestors on cave walls. Paleontologists and ancient anthropologists alike argue over the theory of what sparked modern human behavior. What was the start of humanity as we know it, and why does our perception of humanity seem to be changing?

When I began college, I knew where my passions lied. I loved writing, and I also loved chemistry and biological sciences. When it became time to choose my major, I mixed both of my interests. I became a writing major with a chemistry minor, and if I had a dollar for every time someone commented that my choice was “surprising,” I would be able to pay off my tuition by now. I placated myself by saying that I had mixed interests, and I was planning on becoming a medical or scientific writer, yet I knew in the back of my mind that it shouldn’t have been surprising. Why are we forced to cooperate in a limited scope of passions? Why is it so surprising to be studying both sciences and humanities? Why should we have to choose one?

We’re seeing a pattern in American society where people are becoming less compassionate, and will strive for their own personal gain. It’s not inherently bad to care about your future, but a social hierarchy in employment and careers can create disparities between jobs that are considered more “valuable” and “important,” leading to bias and putting others down for a chosen career path. People complain that we are just cogs in a never-ceasing machine. Our lives are filled with the humdrum of routine work. School and work are both just a means to an end, but to what end? College students everywhere may be realizing that hard work, determination, and this embedded strive for success may not be all that it seems.

But this pattern doesn’t just start in college.

From a young age, we’re told to have favorites, we’re told we’re either “good” at something or we’re not. We’re taught in early education that we have to pick a career. This mindset follows us through middle school, where we’re pressured to do well for high school. In high school, we’re forced to do well for college. In college, it gets more complicated. We’re obsessed with the idea of majors, yet we’re burdened by the financial responsibility of becoming adults. We’re told that every action and decision we make matters, and usually young adults have no choice but to choose financial stability and practicality while what truly makes them happy is forced to take a back seat. This pressure forces college students to believe they must choose science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers to achieve higher paying salaries in comparison to other career paths. In turn, choosing a major that is not of full interest can create an unhappy lifestyle. Others choose a job that may get them a high-paying salary, but is it what they truly want? The pressure to live the American Dream is embedded in all of us, but the reality is it might not be worth it. In fact, some college students are realizing the American Dream may not even exist. Instead of chasing after a false and idealized reality of their own future success defined by society, college students need to realize there is freedom to choose a custom path instead of a cookie-cutter mold.

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In recent years, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) has taken priority over humanities courses. STEM classes are valued highly in society, include more difficult technical application and content, and yield better job security after college as well as a higher paying salary. Although the world revolves around money, that does not mean money has to be the sole purpose of our lives. Humanities—such as literature, writing, history, philosophy, and music—earn the stigma of being useless and unproductive. This stigma has been growing for years and does not seem to be shifting, even though the humanities are vital parts of human nature, culture, health, and individuality. Participating in and de-stigmatizing the humanities does not require a whole career change, but can be supplemented and mixed with other passions for an overall more meaningful lifestyle. 

Not all college students are forced to give up their creative passions for STEM. Some have found that combining both gives them an outlet to grow not only as individuals but as professionals. Biological sciences major Saikeerthana Chodavarapu is a 2022 senior at Pitt who is also earning  Creative writing and Theater minors. After college, she will attend medical school. Chodavarapu said that her love for creative writing and theater have helped bridge the gap between healthcare and understanding.

“I got excited about the humanities, specifically in writing and theater, and what I like most about those both is that they force me to take on different perspectives,” Chodavararupa said. “I think it’s a really visceral way to get into the mind of someone else, especially going into healthcare. It’s really important because you will be interacting with so many different patients from different backgrounds.”

Chodavararupa also said that creative work helps her to better understand the intersectionality of a person’s life, which in turn can help her to provide thoughtful healthcare.

“It’s important to understand that their background is just as important to their treatment plan as are the symptoms that they’re showing. It [a person’s background] influences a lot of the types of treatments people can afford or what they’re allowed based on cultural values, whether it’s accessible to them. Understanding a person’s background is very important to healthcare.”

Not only is understanding different perspectives invaluable for patient understanding and empathy, but Chodavararupa also said that her love for the arts has helped her personal growth and communication with patients. 

“I think I’ve always just loved people in general. I think the coolest thing about human existence is how common everyone’s experiences can be,” Chodavararupa said. “We all have these shared threads of emotion even if we don’t experience the same exact things, we all know what incandescent joy is, we all know what anxiety is like. Connecting with people based on those shared threads is the solution to so many things wrong with the world. Just trying to see more of yourself in other people and more of other people in yourself can solve a lot of problems.”

Another Pitt student, Gayatri Gupta-Casale, is a 2022 junior earning a Neuroscience major and Gender studies minor. Although she has a love for STEM, she also finds passion in the arts, specifically through dance. Gupta-Casale said that her path to public health would not be the same without her intersectionality with the humanities. By studying the humanities, she intends to gain a broader view of science and public health overall.

Gupta-Casale also emphasized that the humanities are inescapable when talking about policy, healthcare, and public health. She notes the importance of well-rounded interests in both humanities and STEM to improve communication.

“With public health, it’s broader and you get a lot of disciplines, so you get a lot more viewpoints. You can create more equitable policies in healthcare,” Gupta-Casale said. “I’m also doing a Global health certificate because it’s a good combination of health and humanities. We have writing and papers that are also health based, and it’s important to have a background in both so that you’re easily able to communicate with everyone.”

Gupta-Casale and Chadavararupa both exemplify what it means to break boundaries between STEM and the humanities. We, as humans, are able to compete with dual interests in our minds. Neither should we place emphasis on scientific brains or creative brains. There’s no such thing. There is only being human. 

Although some people may be more adept at one subject, that does not equate to a lack of knowledge in the other. Science and writing are considered polar opposites, yet they have a lot in common. Both require analytical skills, complex concepts, attention to detail, application processes,  as well as creativity and empathy. Science—healthcare especially—is dependent on writing because of the importance of written and verbal communication. In fact, the healthcare field has just as much writing and communication as any humanities class. Proper communication can be to explain concepts to patients, students, or the public. Having scientific knowledge is half of the battle, and the other half is translating this information in different mediums of communication and expression.

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To communicate effectively, a strong degree of empathy and compassion is required. The people who cling to sciences and neglect humanities often have lower levels of compassion and empathy. In a medical setting, this lack of compassion can lead to a sterile, unwelcoming environment. However, the humanities can be helpful in strengthening communication skills and consequently our ability to be empathetic and compassionate. Furthermore, the humanities encourage us to practice creativity, which equates to better problem-solving skills.

The humanity debate has been tainted by the way society functions. We are encouraged to pick one desire and to follow it, but people forget that humans are not meant to pursue one goal, or one passion. Despite society’s growing trend to shame the humanities in favor of STEM, the world we live in will never truly be able to take the humanity out of individuals.

This article poses the question: where’s the humanity in STEM?

The answer, I believe, is in the current generation, and the future generations who help to break the barrier between STEM and humanities.

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