Center for Interdisciplinary Studies fosters diverse, cross-disciplinary academic interests

Julie Dobrow, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, poses for a portrait outside her office on May 12, 2015. Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily Archives

What do neurotechnology, behavioral economics and storytelling for social good have in common? They are all titles of Interdisciplinary Studies majors offered by the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies (CIS) at Tufts and are representative of students who wanted to study a specific cross-section of classes to develop knowledge in a particular area of focus.

According to the CIS website, the major gives students a chance to cater a tailored combination of courses in a variety of disciplines more freely than in the case of established majors at Tufts. “A major that is truly interdisciplinary is one that represents an integration of traditional disciplines, a melding of fields that cannot be accomplished by the usual structure of a major/minor or a double major/minor,” the website says.

Interdisciplinary Studies students also all have to create a senior capstone project and must develop a working thesis for it as sophomores, even if it changes, according to the CIS website and Julie Dobrow, the director of the CIS. Dobrow also mentioned that there is a significant interview process to pursue a major in Interdisciplinary Studies (IS), and that the students must submit a narrative.

“There’s a fairly rigorous process that students have to go through to apply for an IS major. I always recommend that students who are interested potentially in doing an IS major come and talk to me. And I would say that doing an IS major isn’t for everybody,” she said.

In discussing her involvement with the CIS, Dobrow said that she has been involved with the CIS since she came to Tufts.

“My own interests have always been very interdisciplinary, my background is very interdisciplinary and a lot of the work that I do is very interdisciplinary, so it was sort of a logical meeting of minds,” she said.

Dobrow said that she obtained her master’s degree and Ph.D. in media and communication studies from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, but that she studied a wide variety of disciplines.

“I was taking graduate-level courses in anthropology, sociology, but then also education and folklore and in the school of social work … So my own interests have always really been focused on how … we take some of these ideas from different disciplines and cross-fertilize them,” she said.

This idea of cross-fertilizing ideas has resonated with many students who are majoring in interdisciplinary studies and those that are considering it. These include junior Isabel Fernandez, junior Jeffrey Bui, junior Cole Fiorita and sophomore Audrey Carver, all of whom mentioned appreciating the cross-section of various majors offered at Tufts.

The title of Jeffrey Bui’s major is “neurotechnology,” and it represents an amalgamation of majors in computer science, biomedical engineering and cognitive and brain sciences, with some human factors engineering.

“Coming to Tufts, I knew that I had a passion for cognitive science and technology, so I assumed I would major in cognitive and brain sciences (CBS),” he said.

He changed his mind, however, after working at a neurotechnology firm called Brain Power, which uses Google Glass to help children with autism.

“I realized I wanted to do a major in neurotechnology to build devices after this experience. The CBS major involves primarily software, and there is no hardware component, so I decided that I wanted to create my own major,” Bui said.

Bui also mentioned that he has used his major to try and develop a device to help people sleep better.

“I have always struggled with sleep my whole life, and I have never had a consistent sleep schedule,” Bui said. “I remember thinking that I could use something like this, and I got a couple of friends interested.”

He hopes to develop this device further and possibly move it into production in the future.

Isabel Fernandez is a junior majoring in “storytelling for social good” and mentioned being interested in many areas of focus and discipline.

Professor Dobrow actually encouraged me to do the interdisciplinary studies from the start because I was having a lot of trouble sort of focusing my track of study on a single thing,” Fernandez said.

Her major is a combination of film and media studies, gender studies, American studies and a justice-related component. She said that in creating her major, she had already started taking classes in her areas of interest, and her major naturally landed in those areas of interest.

Fernandez said that while she didn’t know that Tufts had an interdisciplinary studies program before she applied, she tended to gravitate towards schools that gave students a chance to create their own majors.

Tufts ended up being the best fit for me, so I came here and thank goodness, because I didn’t know that interdisciplinary studies was a thing. Thanks to Professor Dobrow, I realized that [this] was an option for me still, even though I didn’t know about it when I was applying to Tufts,” Fernandez said.

Cole Fiorita is a junior majoring in behavioral economics, which consists of economics, psychology and human factors engineering. He mentioned that this field analyzes how consumers behave financially, and what dictates this behavior.

“What this entails is basic economic models to look at what consumers should be doing,” Fiorita said. “The field studies … a bunch of fallacies [in the field] that say where we go wrong financially, and then how we can apply those notions to market to people better,” he said.

He also said that for him, the IS application process was initially difficult, involving two tries with his narrative to get it approved.

“You have to have a full two-page narrative of your major, and for me I had to submit it twice to get it approved,” he said.

For Fiorita, one of the main motivating factors for choosing the interdisciplinary studies major was the roadblocks he found with the economics major.

“Economics is a weird major. I do go back and forth on whether it is a useful major and whether it gets you jobs, but the opportunities with it are nothing you can’t get with [behavioral economics],” he said.

He also mentioned that he did not feel he could do the standard economics major because it involved a lot of math and taking quantitative classes, a route different from the one he started on at Tufts.

Currently, Cole is abroad in China studying the consumer market there as a part of an independent study abroad program.

“Our peers are taking on huge amounts of debt, and both on the savings side and the spending side, there is a lot of opportunity here,” he said.

Fiorita, Bui and Fernandez are just a sampling of students who have already made progress in their interdisciplinary majors, but many current sophomores like Audrey Carver are formulating their academic plans now and are considering how to form their narrative as they apply for an IS major.

“I feel like I am very passionate about multiple things, so this is a way to do them all. I am a pretty self-motivated person, so this is a way for me to take control of what I want to do,” Carver said.

Her areas of interest include anthropology, visual studies and environmental sciences. She said that she wishes to combine these into a focus on climate communications. Carver was a BFA student at the SMFA, but she realized that she wanted to transfer to the School of Arts and Sciences to take more academic classes.

“The SMFA was great, but it did not allow me to take advantage of all the great resources on this campus,” she said.

While Carver is undecided about her future career path, she mentioned that she wanted to continue blending biology and art in her future career.

“What has led me here is that I started interning for an environmental research company in high school … and I started illustrating research on how climate change was affecting the marine biology of San Diego … It was just this thing I didn’t know about, that the role of the artist in science was a thing,” she said.

Carver is also currently conducting an independent study project and helping a professor illustrate research on coffee farms.

These examples of students pursuing interdisciplinary majors provide just a small sample of the many kinds of majors students can create to cater to their specific interests.

“We’ve had different people who’ve done different things over the years. They often culminate in extremely interesting and sometimes nontraditional capstone senior projects,” Dobrow said.

She cited an example of a student who took on a “bio-dramatics” major and wrote a play about an ethical issue in biology as his capstone project.

“I had a student a few years ago who’d combined child development, film and media studies and environmental studies. His senior project was an original television script for an animated series aimed at children to teach them about climate change,” she said, illustrating another such unique example.

In general, the IS major is a popular and useful way for students to pursue unique interests that may not be addressed by a traditional major at Tufts, as mentioned by both Dobrow and the CIS website. Dobrow also mentioned that the program is continuing to grow, with prospective students often seeking to come to Tufts because of the existence of such a program. And with each new major created, the creativity and diversity of the program continues to grow.

“I always love working with the IS students because they do such creative things. And I learn a ton from working with them because their interests are just so varied,” Dobrow said.