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Meet Medical Humanities, Biology’s Underrated Little Brother

I grew up thinking there were two kinds of people: STEM people and humanities people. People who were good at science and math and people who were good at English and history. I never questioned this and merely accepted it as a universal truth: that we excelled at one or the other, and that was just the way it was. This was never really a problem for me, who had always stood with both feet planted firmly on the science side without ever thinking twice.

Now, as a high school senior charged with the responsibility of providing that all-promised view from the top, I’ve been examining the roots of my commitment to science. At fourteen, I thought that being a doctor was my calling: my uncle was a trauma doctor and I loved listening to his ER stories, which loosely resembled the plot-lines of Grey’s Anatomy episodes, and I had passed Freshman Biology with relative ease. There was no reason for me to not choose science.

As my high school career progressed, I developed other interests, which was both natural and inevitable. I started writing for The Tempest and realized I really enjoyed combining politics, history, statistics, and my own life experiences to create pieces that people might actually read and resonate with. It was almost taboo for me, who had already professed my love for biology, to be enjoying this new humanities-inspired side of myself. For a long time, writing was my best-kept secret, deliciously my own, and I treated it as a guilty pleasure. I’d sit at my laptop and ignore my AP Biology homework and write San Francisco restaurant guides and unsolicited book reviews and quite frankly anything except papers on phylogenetic trees and cell respiration.

But still, even this new me, who quoted Shakespeare and attempted to film documentaries, couldn’t shake the desire to be a doctor. It wasn’t so much the concept of complex proteins or Darwinian evolution that appealed to me, but the fast pace. How urgent, how necessary the work was.

So that was that. Unsure of where I stood, I considered myself to be a sort of enigma, unable to fit squarely on either side of the barrier that stands between the two subjects. Too humanities for STEM and too STEM for the humanities. I longed for the comfortable footing I once had as a naive, albeit closed-minded, scientist. Being referred to as a ‘writer’ was new, an identity that didn’t belong to me, but I kept it anyway; I felt like I was playing dress-up and forgetting about the science version of myself. I avoided labels, not because I didn’t want to pick a side, because I did, but because I thought I was at fault for not being able to choose.

But in a TEDxTalk by Sayantani Dasgupta, I realized that this wasn’t quite the case. People like me exist, and I was entirely floored upon learning that there was entire interdisciplinary field exploring the complicated relationship between humans and health care. I watched every video Professor DasGupta had to offer, read her papers, visited her website (and actually even learned that hear family co-founded Manavi, which I wrote about in my last article, but I digress!).

Columbia University, where Ms. DasGupta is a professor of Narrative Medicine in the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society (ICLS) and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race (CSER), actually has an entire course of study dedicated to in-betweeners like me! Introduced to the world less than five years ago, Columbia’s Medicine, Literature, and Society major allows students to “explore the biological, social, economic and cultural dimensions of health and medicine in a global and multilingual framework.” Columbia essentially set a precedent for several other institutions to follow suit and incorporate variations into their own curriculums. People like me now can pursue their seemingly disparate interests on a professional level, delving into politics, economics, international relations, human rights, literature, neuroscience, and linguistics in just one major.

Being enthusiastic about STEM and liberal arts is not an enigma. And research in the medical humanities field is changing our perception of the world in some pretty groundbreaking ways. It revolutionizes the way we look at mental health, wellbeing, and even the people around us.

I still don’t know how many kinds of people there are, but if I’m sure of one thing, it’s this: science and writing don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and neither does anything else. Mutual exclusivity is just another way to prevent you from pursuing all the things you care about, and if you care about the intersection of two things, chances are someone else does too.

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Janani is a 17-year-old student and San Francisco native. When she isn’t at school, she likes watching documentaries, reading and talking about politics, and generally plotting for world domination. She centers her work around underrepresented voices and subjects - most recently, domestic violence victims and those with mental illness. She loves TEDxTalks, NASA, and puns.

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Janani is a 17-year-old student and San Francisco native. When she isn’t at school, she likes watching documentaries, reading and talking about politics, and generally plotting for world domination. She centers her work around underrepresented voices and subjects - most recently, domestic violence victims and those with mental illness. She loves TEDxTalks, NASA, and puns.

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