STEM students need to prioritize academic interaction

Lack of communication from and between STEM fields is a detriment to growth

Interaction between different fields of study leads to richer education. PHOTO: ThisisEngineering RAEng / Unsplash

by Jacob Mattie, SFU Student

In the 1990s, Dr. Mary M. Tai, a researcher working in diabetes care at New York University, published a paper highlighting a new method to obtain the area under a graph useful for many diagnostic and treatment procedures. Dr. Tai had, in effect, redeveloped calculus. 

This discovery would have revolutionized a number of fields were it not already widely used. 

This event highlights a major problem in STEM-related academia: lack of communication between disciplines leads to a redundancy in research and growth of knowledge. In Dr. Tai’s case, had calculus been better recognized in her field, not only could medical treatments have been improved faster, but Dr. Tai — evidently a promising mathematician might have been able to make more helpful contributions to the field. 

While lack of communication is most noticeable among working professionals, it begins in the time we spend in university. SFU, in particular, tries to solve this imbalanced education by mandating that students — including those in STEM fields — take courses outside of their chosen department. However, this is only a partial solution, and staying involved with peers outside of our immediate vicinity is ultimately made a student responsibility. Despite this, keeping ties with our peers in other departments and faculties becomes more difficult as we lose ourselves in an increasingly specific course load.

Traditionally, drawing together students from various academic backgrounds is facilitated by clubs. However, many leisure clubs — such as the SFU Anime and SFU Tea Clubs — do not have academic networking as a primary goal. Project-oriented clubs that do prioritize academia tend to be smaller, and draw a specific demographic within STEM. For example, SFU’s robotics clubs are likely populated by mostly mechatronics and computing science students. 

It is understandable that STEM students focus on their interests and develop their skills accordingly but, in a larger context, this begins to cause problems. Being surrounded by peers that share the same perspectives and abilities can lead to misconceptions. This manifests most clearly in interactions between departments. 

A chemist friend of mine once asked me to read an essay of his, which had the goal of describing a recent chemical innovation to the non-chemist — in my case, a mathematician. After about a page of discussion on the topic, it mentioned off-handedly that the entire concept could be thought of as a biodegradable switch. The inclusion of this simple metaphor was the key to describing the impact of the discovery, and should have taken precedence over the multiple paragraphs of scientific jargon.

I hope that if my friend reads this he forgives me for describing his work in such an unflattering light. But communication attempts such as these, which fail to really grasp the perspective and knowledge of the non-specialist reader, are all too common among STEM fields. Despite SFU’s best attempts to fix this, the onus on bringing about change lies on us.

I’m not saying that we should strive to become all-encompassing repositories of knowledge, but that we would do well to socialize and work more regularly with those outside of our areas of study. It is by being clear about what we know or don’t, by sharing knowledge, and by connecting with peers outside of our disciplines, we will be able to make genuinely impactful changes to the areas in which we choose to apply ourselves — and hopefully avoid a situation like Dr. Tai’s.