It Doesn't All Stem from STEM: How I Realized the Importance of Humanities

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This is my article from issue #1 of 2018 in Cupertino High School’s newspaper, The Prospector

In conversations with friends over the past year, I’ve learned that students at Cupertino High School are doubling down on their science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) course loads, signing up for rigorous classes such as AP Physics or AP Calculus BC, while opting to take fewer advanced literature or history courses. There’s no doubt that a majority of Tino’s graduates will eventually end up in a science or math related job, be it designing the next big smartphone or discovering potential cures for cancer. However, through my forays into academic research, I’ve concluded that an appreciation for the liberal arts is necessary even in the most technical STEM careers.

I spent the summer before my junior year working at the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Hospital alongside medical professionals. Closely monitoring a postoperative wound the weeks following surgery can enable doctors to catch the onset of malignancies early on. Our goal was to develop a tool to assess these wounds automatically. As the sole programmer on the team, I had to learn the medical side of the project so I could appropriately craft a technological solution. The other members of the group, coming from medical backgrounds, found it difficult to understand programming concepts, such as artificial neural networks, that I would rely on to solve the problem.

To overcome these barriers, I summarized how I would solve the problem to the team over lunch every day, and the surgeon, in turn, brought me into the operating room to witness a live surgery and taught me how to label images. Only by laying this two-way path for communication were we able to be successful. Collaboration and communication skills are just as critical as the technical skills used to solve problems in a team. Critical thinking, empathy, and creativity were responsible for the ultimate success of the project, all of which can only be cultivated through a rich liberal arts education, not chemistry labs or math projects.

My next summer solidified my belief that a keen appreciation of the humanities is necessary to succeed in STEM. Working at the UC Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research Lab, I spent my weeks researching computational models for brain tumor segmentation. While my team this time did not vary in terms of academic fields (they all were computer science or engineering doctoral students), they were different from me ethnically. One student could barely speak English, as he recently moved from China, but he wrote extremely impressive code that our project could not do without. The lead of our project moved from Iran for graduate studies. I was amazed by his patience and willingness to guide me whenever I needed help, even though I couldn’t understand him at times. Only through being understanding of other people’s backgrounds and empathizing with each other were we able to complete our work.

Conducting research in the field of artificial intelligence has prompted me to think about ethics. What happens if a self-driving car kills a human? Is it ethical for the Pentagon to automate drone strikes on potential terrorists? Science can provide answers to questions, but ethics demand if the questions should even be asked at all.

I always thought it was strange to debate the significance of the green light in “The Great Gatsby” or learn about the Gilded Age in history class. As an aspiring inventor and engineer, I naively doubted the worth of the humanities. Through my experiences, I have learned that it isn’t the superficial factual knowledge that is important in these classes. It is to be able to genuinely empathize with Jay Gatsby’s sorrows and make connections between the monopolies of the late 1800s to the technology giants of today. The liberal arts provide insight into other opinions and cultures and yields a way to discover new problems to solve with science.