Sliding from Science

“Wait, you concentrate in chemistry? You always struck me more as the government type.”

Over the three years I spent writing for The Crimson, this was a response that came not too infrequently when I told my friends that I spent more time in the Science Center than in Sever Hall. My fellow writers were always surprised to find a scientist—a budding scientist, anyway—stashed among a staff comprised largely of social studies, government, and history and literature concentrators. My grounding in the sciences made me a bit of a curiosity. And a geek.

And a definite exception not only at 14 Plympton, but also in the College as a whole. Even though a quarter of undergraduates concentrate in the sciences, it always felt like I was a little alone in my choice.

Part of this isolation can be traced to the technicality of science. It’s a lot easier (not to mention interesting) to discuss literary and political theory over dinner with the blockmates than it is to discuss that awesome enzyme mechanism from Chem 27.

And part of it was from a clash with the prevailing culture of college itself. As your study group sits in a dining hall, slogging through the sixth of eight absurd quantum chemistry problems at 4 o’clock on a Friday morning—trying to remember how to complete the square within an exponent inside an integrand so you can solve the damned integral already—the two most depressing sights are, one, the inevitably ravaged state of brain break, and two, tipsy classmates coming back from lord-knows-where in search of the same non-existent bagels.

What I would give to be one of the drunkards, I sometimes thought.

It’s no surprise that more Harvard undergraduates defect from the sciences than the other way around. The temptations are strong and many: fewer hours in lab, easier Core courses, a more flexible homework schedule, and Thursday nights free from problem sets. Science concentrators routinely spend more than 15 hours per week in class and lab, while our humanities and social sciences counterparts rarely crack that number.

Most insidiously, grading in science courses is notoriously stiffer than in humanities and social science courses. Last month, the College Dean’s Office announced that the number of As and A-minuses awarded to undergraduates last year had crept above the 50 percent mark—a figure which is befuddling to any science concentrator stuck in any one of the numerous courses that curves around a B plus or a B.

The sum of these effects is that Harvard is graduating fewer science concentrators than it ought to. The exact number of defections is difficult to finger, but Harvard’s own published numbers can give a rough sense. Many students enter Harvard expressing an interest in concentrating in science—Harvard news releases from the past few years state that just under half of matriculating students are prospective life science, physical science, mathematics, engineering, or computer science concentrators. Meanwhile, a tabulation of data in this year’s Handbook for Students shows that just over a quarter of students with a declared concentration as of November 2005 had a primary concentration in one of those fields.

Something is driving nearly half of matriculating science lovers away from their high school passion.

Some of the attrition is due to the nature of science itself. For me, the joy of science in high school was its rigorous approach to knowledge, its entertaining parlor tricks, and a few spectacular teachers. At Harvard, I learned that science has less to do with classroom stink bombs and more to do with performing tedious lab work, deciphering tedious journal articles, and pouring out dozens of lines of tedious algebra. The basics are difficult to learn. Even the smallest headway in research requires enormous personal dedication. And, of course, the field is inherently cumulative, so advanced study necessitates a pyramid of prerequisites.

Whether or not this annual academic conversion of 400 Harvardians is problematic depends on your view on the role of undergraduate education. If college is a mere credentialing experience, conferring legitimacy upon successful completion of the easiest field, then let them eat Durkheim.

But the academy ought to be more than just a house of thought that happens to award diplomas. A university must identify the nation and the world’s chief challenges, and it should nudge its students into specializations accordingly. A university that fails to do so is derelict in its duty to society.

This was the implicit undertaking of former University President Lawrence H. Summers. He concluded that more emphasis was needed in the areas of global studies and the sciences, particularly the life sciences. The University has largely followed through with this effort, raising hundreds of millions of dollars for new biotechnology initiatives and planning much of the Allston campus around life sciences ventures. This spring, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences recommitted to hiring more science professors—despite an undergraduate-faculty ratio already more favorable than in the humanities or social sciences.

But undergrads aren’t responding in the expected—or needed—numbers. That must change. The College should also undertake a serious study to understand why nearly one-fourth of the freshman class loses interest in science, and what might be done to mitigate it. Smaller introductory courses might prove to be more engaging—neither longtime introductory lectures nor the new “portal” courses in the sciences receive stellar reviews. Mathematics must be considered, too. Many of my friends who say they aced calculus in high school returned wounded from their first semester of college calculus. Hardly last, the College needs to establish parity in grading across the academic domains.

That’s not to say that I haven’t found rewards in studying science. Over four years, my focus has glided from organic chemistry to genomics and finally to environmental science. Some of the skills I’ve picked up will be useful to me in the future; others won’t. I can write quick snippets of computer code, I can pour dangerous liquids with confidence, and I can confidently execute the complete-the-square trick. (Chem 160, I’ll never forget you.) What’s been most rewarding is that I can now peek into the underlying science of the important policy debates of the day. I understand why planting more trees isn’t the answer to global warming. (It was a scary discovery.)

Last week, a friend of mine—a social studies concentrator who is one of the most intelligent peers I’ve met at Harvard—told me that he wouldn’t have made it through a science concentration. I disagree. Any Harvard freshman can complete four years of study in science; all that’s required is a willingness to watch a weekly sunrise over an unfinished problem set.

It’s no surprise that most of us aren’t. I barely was.

Matthew S. Meisel ’07 is a chemistry concentrator in Currier House. He was editorial chair of The Crimson in 2006.