Students push for creation of interdisciplinary science majors

Rory Mather | Contributing Reporter

The Society of Physics Students aims to introduce a new major in Biophysics with the help of the Math Club, as well as a second major in Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Physics.

Currently, the physics department only offers undergraduates the opportunity to earn a general physics major. The math department also offers just a single major but differs in that it offers five major tracks, which allow students to specialize in a specific field of mathematics.

By the time current senior Stella Schindler had finished her sophomore year, she had finished enough upper-level physics courses to obtain a master’s degree and had started the research for her master’s thesis in Mathematical Physics with professor Carl Bender.

When it came time for Schindler to pick her major, she found that neither the math nor the physics major fit her research interests.

“I needed to get a major in the sciences, and supplementing my mathematical physics and optics research with coursework in many departments seemed to be the best way [to do] that,” Schindler said.

Rather than mold her coursework to fit into the offered physics major, Schindler took matters into her own hands and applied to design her own major in Mathematical Physics.

Creating a new major requires multiple meetings with Assistant Dean Mary Laurita—the Arts & Sciences coordinator for special majors—designing a personal curriculum from scratch and then getting it approved. The entire process can take months to complete.

As president of the Society of Physics Students (SPS) and senior advisor of the Math Club, Schindler saw that many students expressed interest in following a similar path as her but didn’t want to undergo the arduous process of applying for a special major. She took the opportunity to design a curriculum for an Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Physics major and submitted it to Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences Jennifer Smith.

Sophomore and Communications Director of Math Club Scott Hershberger thinks that this major will help students with interest in mathematical physics be better prepared for their future after college and give them the flexibility to try other fields of study.

“There is a lot of overlap between math and physics, and we need a major to reflect that. I’m double majoring in math and physics, and there are a lot of required courses that aren’t that beneficial for me,” Hershberger said.“ Because you can’t double count classes, the new major would allow people to take classes they need for their future jobs and get other majors and minors outside of math and physics.”

When asked if they thought the new major would be accepted by their respective departments, both the Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies in the math department Blake Thornton and Chair of the Undergraduate Studies Committee in the physics department Henric Krawczynski expressed their optimism but indicated it was too early in the discussion process to give a concrete answer.

After submitting the proposal for the new Applied Mathematics and Applied Mathematical Physics major, SPS noticed that a similar situation had arisen with pre-medical students interested in biophysics.

In the wake of an influx of new biophysics hires in the physics department and Washington University alumnus W. E. Moerner winning the 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in biophysics, many students have pushed for a new major to reflect the University’s dedication to biophysics research.

SPS has begun drafting a proposed curriculum for the new biophysics major and hopes to submit it to the Arts & Sciences curriculum committee before the end of the semester. Schindler thinks these new proposed majors will spark renewed interest in the physics department. “Bringing in new blood from the other departments could help revitalize the physics department. We are just trying to help the department cater to the students’ interest,” Schidler said.

Junior Julia Cohen, SPS historian, states that these new majors could even tackle the physics department’s long standing problem with diversity.

“There are greater percentages of women in biology and mathematics than in physics,” Cohen said. “The interdisciplinary majors will certainly draw some students who might otherwise have majored in those fields. It would not be a stretch to hope that in drawing more students, it also draws a more diverse set of students to physics courses and, in turn, possibly, our field.”

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