Connecting the humanities, medicine and STEM

National Endowment for the Humanities chairman takes part in panel at Rice

At a time when the number of humanities majors nationwide is declining, a Dec. 8 panel at Rice highlighted the growing opportunities for critical engagement among the humanities, medicine and the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The panel featured the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), William Adams.

From left, NEH Chairman William Adams, Rice Professor of Religion and Art History Marcia Brennan, UT McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics Director Thomas Cole and Rice Professor in the Practice of Bioengineering Education Ann Saterbak participated in the panel discussion in Herring Hall's Room 100. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

“I think it is becoming clear across the country, and I think Rice is a little bit further along in this than many institutions … that new fields of engagement are opening up … for the integration of the humanities, classically understood, with the STEM fields and medicine,” Adams said. Prior to his appointment as NEH chairman in 2014, he served as the president of Colby College.

Adams visited Rice as part of a tour of Texas universities. “Our interest in this at the endowment is to find ways in which we can insert ourselves in this interesting development and begin soon to support initiatives at undergraduate institutions that to seek to take advantage of these opportunities for integration,” he said.

Hosted by Dean of Humanities Nicolas Shumway, the panel was moderated by Kirsten Ostherr, professor of English and director of medical humanities at Rice, and featured presentations by Marcia Brennan, professor of religion and art history at Rice; Thomas Cole, director of the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston; Ann Saterbak, associate dean of undergraduate education at the George R. Brown School of Engineering and professor in the practice of bioengineering education; and Ostherr.

Brennan spoke about her experiences as an artist-in-residence in the Department of Palliative Medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, a position she has held since March 2009. Working in this clinical context, Brennan applies her skills as a creative writer when visiting critically ill patients and encouraging them to reflect on their lives and experiences in words. She recounted insights a patient felt that Brennan should share with her pre-med students: “Doctors need to know what is humanly tolerable, not just in the body,” the patient said. “Most doctors treat the disease. The disease is a physical organism. In this hospital, they treat humans with the disease. It’s the human that is important, its feelings, its spiritual needs. People encourage you to keep fighting the cancer. To know when to surrender is also a fight. Also, the hospital is an international center, and it’s helpful for doctors to have background on where patients come from and what is important to them.”

Rice English Professor Kirsten Ostherr moderated the panel.

As an educator in medical humanities, Cole serves students seeking degrees in the health, medical and biomedical fields. “Our students are pursuing professional careers; they’re pursuing practices. They’re driven. They’re competitive. They’re goal-oriented. They want to know what’s going to be on the next test,” Cole said. “For us, the issue partly is how to get them to care, how to get them to see the personal relevance to learn about and reflect on existential, ethical, historical, literary and cultural dimensions of science, technology and clinical care.”

Cole said the medical humanities must prod today’s students to not only learn about the history of medicine or bioethics or health policy, but to ask to the question, “Who am I in relationship to what I’m learning? How do I understand myself, my historical location, my religious, familial and cultural influences and what are my beliefs? Strange to say, no one has asked them these questions since they applied to medical school,” Cole said.

In her remarks, Saterbak discussed her work bringing together undergraduate humanities and engineering students on engineering projects designed to improve people’s lives locally and globally. She highlighted the unique qualities humanities students bring to the engineering design process. “There are lots of places where I believe that students in the humanities and the social sciences can really integrate well within engineering,” Saterbak said. “There’s usually a part that exists before the design process that we teach, where you have to find appropriate problems. And then there’s this part at the end, too, called implementation, where you work with the individuals who will be using the product to really fully understand how they’re using it and what is some feedback. And then also, not to knock on engineers, but we’re not always creative all the time, and so (for) this idea of developing solutions, options and brainstorming, I think that multidisciplinary teams are much more effective.”

“We also know that the human experience of illness cannot be reduced to data sets and digital signals, but how do we get the human piece of that story brought back out from the data that’s enabling us to do new things in health care?” — Kirsten Ostherr

Ostherr, who specializes in health and medical visualizations, highlighted digital medical humanities projects led by Rice students she teaches. “In terms of health, we know that we are facing an aging population that is heavily burdened with preventable chronic disease and that is facing crushing medical debt at the individual and the national level,” Ostherr said. “We’ve also had this revolution in digital culture, where we’ve been able to amass more and more data about the things that we do in our daily lives, the things we are exposed to and how all those things may relate to health. This is giving us the potential to be much smarter about health care, about urban design … but it’s also raising some really big challenges about the ways that we understand ourselves, if that is primarily through data, and how we interact with others, if that is often vectored through a screen rather than face-to-face human interaction.”

For example, working with physicians at MD Anderson, Ostherr’s students used digital innovation and technology to enhance enrollment to complicated yet critical cancer clinical trials so that discovery is accelerated.

“We do know in the medical humanities that the human experience of illness does not equate to the numerical values that are inscribed on a patient’s chart,” Ostherr said of the opportunities that lie ahead for her field. “We also know that the human experience of illness cannot be reduced to data sets and digital signals, but how do we get the human piece of that story brought back out from the data that’s enabling us to do new things in health care?”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.