FEATURES • Summer 2002

By Terri McClain

Drama and physics. Architecture and social work. At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, Washington University's talented, inquisitive students pursue their interests across academic boundaries.

Interdisciplinary study is the most distinctive aspect of our undergraduate curriculum, and more than half of the undergraduates take advantage of this opportunity—often creating combinations both exciting and unexpected.

"If you want to do more than one thing, Washington University is the place," says Agnes Tsang, B.F.A. '02. "I did an unusual combination—sculpture and economics. Putting them together was no problem. In fact, my advisers welcomed my idea and encouraged me to cross disciplines. There were no barriers at all."

Philip Martin Meier, B.F.A. '02, wanted his education to follow the "Renaissance recipe" of natural science mixed with analytical thinking. He chose a major in art and in the interdisciplinary program Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology in Arts & Sciences. His focus was on the study of vision and its many mechanisms. "I like to think that I bring art to science and science to art," he says. "There is a strong creative, problem-solving, analytical component to both disciplines."

Washington University has a long tradition of interdisciplinary collaboration among faculty and students—made possible, in part, by the University's medium size, which contributes to communication and partnerships among its schools and departments. This tradition offers students the interdisciplinary tools to explore their potential and find new strategies for achieving social change, scientific discovery, or artistic excellence.

The late Lee Harrison, B.F.A. '52, B.S.M.E. '59, a pioneer of combined studies, integrated his art and engineering skills to create innovative computer animation programs. His work was instrumental in developing computer diagnostic tools used today in medical and other research.

Michael Willis, A.B. '73 (architecture), M.S.W./M.Arch. '76, found his niche in the University's joint master's degree program in architecture and social work. His award-winning firm integrates fine urban design into neighborhood revitalization efforts and public facilities.

Undergraduate students considering combined studies are encouraged to indicate their interests as early as the application process. Students may choose a major/minor combination, two majors, or even two degrees. They may combine studies from different schools within the University or pursue multiple subjects at a single school.

While students are free to think up their own combinations with an academic adviser, the University offers a variety of established interdisciplinary programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, such as International and Area Studies, Literature and History, and American Culture Studies in Arts & Sciences. Graduate combined degree programs include Law/East Asian Studies (School of Law/Arts & Sciences) and the M.B.A./M.S.W. degree (School of Business/School of Social Work), among others. There are possibly as many academic combinations as there are students.

In the School of Art, combined studies are particularly common, and can yield exciting careers. Dexter Fedor, B.S.B.A./B.F.A. '79, has used his artistic vision and business savvy to develop and execute worldwide advertising programs. He's brought many icons into our homes, from the California Dancing Raisins to Levi's© 501 "Blues"; he also worked on the "Why do we love the Mouse?" television campaign for the Walt Disney Company.

Some Washington University students pursue two majors or two degrees in related disciplines—such as computer science and electrical engineering, or fashion design and marketing. The alumni featured next have chosen unexpected combinations, directing their studies into satisfying and interesting careers.

Rita Montgomery Hollie (seated) helped create the joint J.D./M.S.W. graduate program at the University.

Advocate for Social Change

Rita Montgomery Hollie, A.B. '69, J.D./M.S.W. '73, chose social work because she was "concerned about promoting positive change for the poor—people who were disenfranchised, people who were not in the position to really do battle for themselves," she says. "Then I thought that perhaps with a law degree I'd be in a better position to be a more effective agent for change than I could as a social worker alone."

She talked about her goals with her adviser in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work and with representatives from the law school. The result was the joint program in law and social work. Montgomery Hollie was the program's first student.

She went on to work in the Missouri Attorney General's Office, where she successfully applied consumer protection legislation to the problem of lead-based paint in older rental properties. In 1992, Montgomery Hollie helped form an adoption agency, Friends of African-American Families and Children Service Center. "There was some frustration with what was happening in the foster-care system," she says. "I was concerned about the lack of a user-friendly system for recruiting, training, and retaining African-American families who were interested in adopting children or becoming foster parents."

She also taught business law at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and served as a St. Louis municipal judge, all while building her own law practice, where her primary focus is adoptions, guardianships, and child advocacy. She has also served as a guardian ad litem for St. Louis County.

Montgomery Hollie recently completed a master of theology degree in pastoral studies. "The idea is to do ministry part time," she says. "Specifically, I have an interest in bereavement ministry or a ministry of consolation, helping people when they encounter loss. The interesting thing about ministry is that it's probably something that I've been doing all along."

 
Mark Frisse complemented his medical education with a graduate degree in business.

The Business of Medicine

For Mark Frisse, M.D. '78, M.B.A. '97, living is learning. He has built his career on the application of various disciplines to solving problems in the field of medicine.

"I have a passion for trying to figure out how things fit together and how you can make a difference. This passion has taken me into many different fields," he says. "My plan was to be a great doctor at the level of service to individual patients. My desire was to approach that kind of humanistic and idealistic view of patient care from a strong scientific base. That is why I chose Washington University School of Medicine. From my experience at the medical school, I began to ask how one effectively brings information to the point of decision making for physicians and patients."

In pursuit of these goals, Frisse took a leave from teaching to earn a master's degree in computer science. He then returned to Washington University, where he served until 1999 in various capacities, including associate dean of the School of Medicine and director of the Bernard Becker Medical Library, where, he says, "We built a solid model for academic computing support and developed an unparalleled set of Web-based information resources for our faculty and students. And, more important, we built a business model to run a library in a period of rapidly escalating economic pressure."

Frisse left the University in 1999 to join the pharmacy benefits management company Express Scripts, where he became chief medical officer. "For my next training experience," he says, "I'm joining a health-care consulting company where I will work primarily with academic medical centers that are deploying large-scale information systems. I've almost come full circle."

 
Joy Schalders (second from right) studied ceramics and earth and planetary sciences.

Teaching Science as an Art

In high school, Joy Schalders, B.F.A./A.B. '95 (ceramics/earth and planetary sciences), decided to be an artist.

"My parents said, 'Studying art is fine, but you also have to do something a little more practical,'" Schalders says. "They encouraged my interest in science. Then I received a national merit scholarship to study at Washington University and learned about the dual degree program. I visited the campus and saw the amount of flexibility there is for people to pursue multiple degrees in different areas. That was really what swayed me to go to Washington U."

After college, Schalders settled in Denver, where she opened a digital mapping company, employing both her scientific and artistic skills. "But I decided that wasn't for me. I love learning. I missed school."

So she became a teacher.

"Teaching is an art," she says. "You have to be very creative to capture the interest of high school students. I teach physics, chemistry, and geology, and I find that it's very intellectually stimulating. I'm really interested in educational technology—using computer-based data collection devices and getting kids to do experiments in the classroom. I learn new things every day, and I get to share what I know with the students. I think teaching is the most challenging thing that I've ever done."

 
Allan Trautman also blended two disparate disciplines: drama and physics.

Puppet Master

"I started out in physics, looking to have a real career and thinking that acting wasn't really anything to be taken too seriously," says Allan Trautman, A.B. '76. But the lure of acting was too strong. In his sophomore year, Trautman began auditioning for plays and decided to add drama as a second major.

After graduating, he went to California, earned a master of fine arts degree, and began to work as an actor and puppeteer. He was the only American puppeteer in the movie Babe, and he was the lead puppeteer and performance coordinator for Dr. Doolittle.

"We're having to adapt to the new reality of computer animation," Trautman says. "Lately I've been doing most of my work with the Jim Henson Creature Shop. I use my puppet skills with the Henson Digital Performance System to manipulate computer graphic characters. We're able to do character animation in real time, so we can do it a lot faster than traditional key frame animators.

"I've always enjoyed learning," he continues. "That's one of the reasons I loved having a double major at Washington U., because it allowed me to satisfy my urge to learn as much as I can, whether it be about acting or physics. Now I'm enjoying learning all the technology involved in bringing characters to the screen."

Terri McClain is a free-lance writer based in St. Charles, Missouri.

 

 

 

 

 

Agnes Tsang mixed sculpture and economics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Philip Martin Meier followed a "Renaissance recipe," blending art with his studies in philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology.