On a campus chock-full of microbes, robots, chemicals, and computers, the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences puts exploring the human experience first, offering students rigorous examinations of literature, economics, philosophy, and so much more. For many, these classes offer a welcome contrast to STEM-focused subjects and an opportunity to expand their knowledge outside their chosen fields. For select others, a degree from HSS was their aim from the start. To understand the impact that HSS has on the student experience, we spoke to a handful of current undergraduates and alumni from both the undergraduate and graduate programs about how the division has had an influence on their studies and their lives.
The Write Stuff
For most high school students, accepting an invitation to join the first-year class at Caltech requires little thought. But current senior Maggie Sui remembers having some reservations about choosing the Institute.
"I actually had a very difficult decision," she recalls. "I was deciding between here and a liberal arts college that I was interested in, and my main concern about coming to Caltech was that there wouldn't be all the English or other humanities courses that I wanted to take."
In the end, she's happy she chose the Institute, where she is pursuing a degree in bioengineering with a minor in English, and she has found that Caltech is much more focused on the humanities and social sciences than she had expected.
"I've been able to find a balance," says Sui, whose interest in writing was able to blossom during her first year at Caltech, starting with a poetry class with HSS lecturer Jenny Factor.
"It was a pretty pivotal year for me, in terms of how much I started writing during and after that class," says Sui, who is now co-editor of Totem, Caltech's literary and visual arts magazine. "It's actually what made me decide to get an English minor."
Geoff Pomraning, a senior studying plasma physics, had a similar experience in finding a deeper interest in writing. It started in Introduction to Academic Writing, an HSS course that some students are asked to take after completing a writing placement test the summer before their first year.
"I learned the art form of technical writing, which was astoundingly cool and made me a much better writer," says Pomraning.
In fact, he became such a good writer that his HSS writing instructor recommended he apply to become a tutor at Caltech's Hixon Writing Center, a place where Sui also volunteers and which she touts as an amazing resource.
"Since I've become a tutor, I've helped dozens of other Caltech kids with essay prompts, graduate admissions materials, etcetera," says Pomraning. "I'm helping people write, and that's something I find very rewarding. But I also think that being exposed to vastly different ways of writing at Caltech and seeing so many examples of very good and very analytical writing has helped me understand how to write well."
Recent graduate Isabel Swafford (BS '22) has been so impacted by her experience with writing at Caltech that she is now pursuing it as a career. She earned her degree in astrophysics with a minor in English, which she was inspired to consider after taking Contemporary American Fiction her first year with Melanie Sherazi, then the Howard E. and Susanne C. Jessen Postdoctoral Instructor in the Humanities. This fall, Swafford started the much-lauded science communication master's program at UC Santa Cruz.
"Every year I was taking two to three humanities classes because, for me, I need a mix of things," says Swafford, who notes that a range of advanced topics—including nineteenth-century poetry, Black Feminisms, and astronomy in literature—kept her engaged with the division. "It's hard for me to do purely one subject, so I felt that the HSS classes were a great break from those kinds of studies but also useful for stretching my brain in another way."
Swafford says that during her senior year, when most of her peers were considering PhD programs, she felt herself drawn more toward sharing and communicating science with other people.
"There was a really well-timed webinar that I attended from the American Astronomical Society about science writing and science communication," she says. "And so that really piqued my interest. I took a class called Communicating Science to Non-Experts with Susanne Hall, who is the director of the Hixon Writing Center [and teaching professor of writing]. At Caltech, since it's a small student body, it's easy to dive into something that you like, but don't have any experience in, and learn a lot."
Anthony Chen (BS '16), who graduated with a degree in biology and minored in English, also found the science communication classes to be extremely useful. They went on to earn a medical degree and are currently completing advanced residency training at UC Davis in diagnostic radiology, with plans to use the lessons they learned in HSS.
"We were taught a way to express our knowledge in a palatable and shareable way to others," says Chen. "In any sort of educational exercise, I find that the only way to prove you have a firm grasp on a subject is to be able to explain it to someone else. To me, the easiest way to bring this accessibility to others is through scientific writing."
The Path Less Traveled
The division graduates relatively few students whose sole focus is in the humanities or social sciences. But those who have earned an undergraduate or graduate degree from HSS—or who have simply found new interests through experiences in the division—have reaped unique rewards.
Meghana Bhatt (PhD '08), who earned a doctorate in economics, says the skills learned in her social sciences studies have been essential to her career in industry.
"Econometrics and causal inference are wildly important, especially if you care about levers for impact in a business," says Bhatt, who after graduation started a small technology business that developed video-recommendation software for media companies. "I also took classes with the computation and neural systems program that created a great foundation for understanding modern neural networks. And I'd say that I use behavioral economics concepts informally on a nearly daily basis. It's at the heart of how you should be thinking about both consumer and organizational behavior, and you need both to be successful as a leader in tech."
Since selling her company to a subsidiary of Nielsen in 2018, Bhatt has led data science teams at Netflix, which she says has allowed her to come full circle and focus on how her teams can use data to help people at the company make better decisions.
"I think what HSS brings to Caltech is a consistent focus on people and societies," she says. "We need to think proactively about how shifts in technology fundamentally impact our social systems, and a [division] like HSS makes that a lot more likely."
Melanie Goodrich (BS '04), who majored in business, economics, and management, has been doing social science and survey research for the federal government since earning her PhD in politics from New York University in 2009.
"The single most impactful class I took in HSS was Introduction to Political Science with Mike Alvarez in the winter of 2001," says Goodrich. "In the aftermath of the presidential election in 2000, Mike introduced a group of Caltech undergrads to the scientific study of American elections and voting behavior. That one class has driven my subsequent academic pursuits, professional career, and personal interests."
And Arnav Das, who is a sophomore planning to option in physics, has already found new paths to explore through the philosophy classes he took in all three terms his first year.
"I think every physicist has a certain amount of prejudice when it comes to thinking about reality," says Das. "One would like to believe that it's all about formal mathematics. Since coming here, however, I've lightened up and looked further into the philosophy of mind and cognitive sciences; and in doing that, I've realized the utility of the many ways that you can approach these foundational ideas."
He became so involved in philosophy in his first year that this past summer he traveled to an interdisciplinary conference in Germany on the nature of entropy and time with Charles (Chip) Sebens, assistant professor of philosophy, and Mario Hubert, who was then the Howard E. and Susanne C. Jessen Postdoctoral Instructor in Philosophy of Physics and is now on the faculty of The American University in Cairo. The experience, according to Das, felt "almost like a modern-day reincarnation of Plato's Academy."
After this exposure to people who have dedicated their careers to foundational questions, Das is excited about bridging what he sees as a gap between the hard sciences and philosophers.
"The philosophical underpinnings to scientific questions are what enable you to look at things in their full holistic context," he explains. "And that's something I have found in the humanities department, people valuing these fuller frameworks of understanding. I think the osmosis of that kind of enthusiasm, even just seeing someone overbrim with what they care about, makes it very easy to stimulate that part of you."
A Broader Perspective
And while not all students will find a new focus or potential career path through HSS classes or resources, a consistent and substantial benefit expressed across the board by undergraduates and alumni we spoke with was the opportunity to look at the world through different lenses.
"Science and engineering are often about pushing boundaries and discovering or creating entirely new frontiers," says Goodrich. "Humanities and social sciences help us understand the one guaranteed constant even in those new frontiers: humanity."
For Daniel Quintana, a senior studying computer science (CS), HSS classes provide an opportunity to sit down once or twice a week and talk about something completely unrelated to his major, which he sees as a healthy approach to education.
"The classes also typically involve exposure to completely new topics and material, which I think is especially important at a school like Caltech, since it's very easy to get fully absorbed into pure science and engineering," he says. "Students have the chance to establish awareness of and interest in new, equally important areas of education."
Quintana also notes that classes in economics have been helpful in relation to his option in CS, as well as in his day-to-day life.
"In the most extreme case, Bayesian Statistics actually covers an essential topic for machine learning, which has helped immensely in my machine learning courses," he says. "Economics courses also help students to become more informed people outside of the classroom. Unsurprisingly, it's very helpful to develop an understanding of, for example, how markets function, how companies and customers behave, or what the effects of governmental policies are. I expect that as I leave college and start my career, this kind of education will prove to be essential."
Daniel Nagles, a junior studying astrophysics, remembers his very first HSS class, Knowledge and Reality, with Frederick Eberhardt, which explores the scope and limitations of rational belief and knowledge.
"It is, to this date, my favorite class, not even out of the humanities and social sciences but possibly in general," he says. "As a theoretical physicist, I want to understand why the world works. All these different interactions, all these different rules give rise to the systems that you observe, and Knowledge and Reality was, in large part, a discussion about that. I can't tell you the number of times I've started a project with one approach and solved it with a completely different one that I got from a totally different field. The humanities give you exactly that, a way to view things from different angles, a new perspective you might not have had had you stayed so STEM-minded."
Elsa Palumbo, a senior, also gained a strong interest in philosophy during her first year at Caltech after taking Philosophy Through Science Fiction with Chip Sebens.
"I had so much fun, it was my favorite class all year, and I was just, like, I need to see more of this," says Palumbo, who is now pursuing degrees in astrophysics and philosophy. "Even though I'm probably not going to do something strictly in philosophy for my career, I just really wanted to learn more for myself."
For her thesis in philosophy, she is exploring ways to develop a more philosophically sound but still practical test for statistical independence. If successful, she says, there could be important applications to the field of causal discovery, which focuses on obtaining causal knowledge directly from observational data.
"Caltech is so heavily focused on science that it's really helpful, I think, to have a chance to look at things from a broader perspective, something that's a bit more tied to, say, people," says Palumbo.
Or, as Nagles puts it, "the STEM classes make our careers, but the HSS classes make us human."
This story originally appeared as the feature story in the HSS 2022 Year in Review publication.
BS '23 (expected), Bioengineering
and English (minor)
BS '23 (expected), Physics and Mathematics
BS '22, Astrophysics and English (minor)
BS '16, Biology and English (minor)
PhD '08, Social Science
BS '04, Business, Economics, and Management
BS '25 (expected), Physics
BS '23 (expected), Computer Science
BS '23 (expected), Astrophysics and Philosophy