What distribution classes will make me a better researcher?

How do I square my research with my class schedule — and content?

The University of Sussex, where I spent my Junior Spring, is like many European universities in that its three-year undergraduate courses are focused nearly exclusively upon one subject. Whether they wanted to or not, the third-year chemists I studied with there could never have sampled from the broad menu of courses I have at Princeton. Seeing the alternative, I am more-than-ever grateful to be at a liberal arts university where even the most technical-minded engineers can – indeed must – explore topics far afield from their specialties. As with all exploration, I have found some electives more fruitful than others. But many non-technical classes have been incredibly useful in honing my ability to communicate my research, collaborate with researchers from around the world, and understand the political and philosophical implications of my work.


Every researcher must be able to share her work with her intellectual community and with the public. Perhaps in recognition of this, there have for some time been a few voices here calling for a writing seminar focused explicitly on science writing. Color me unconvinced. I won’t deny the value of the scientific writing training I got through CHM’s junior independent work seminars, but what I got from writing sem and my other humanities, writing-heavy classes was something more. You see, researchers must constantly switch between which backgrounds and communities we tailor our communication to – journalists or politicians, students, the general public, or experts in a parallel field will all demand different ways of presenting our work. To communicate effectively, then, we must be able to easily enter intellectual conversations in widely varied fields, and express our ideas cogently and in-context. No task better develops this skill than entering a brand new field through a writing seminar or writing-heavy distribution – and assimilating enough of the field to produce a paper on, say, Al-Qaeda’s co-opting of Islamic martyrdom narratives (my writing sem) or linguistic paradoxes (PHI/LIN 346: Intro to Formal Semantics). So take classes that will make you write about ideas you may never have otherwise given a second thought.

Global collaboration

Sometimes we need to communicate and collaborate across wider gulfs than those between disciplines – modern research is necessarily international and cross-cultural. For example, the Iraqi graduate student I work under here is devoutly Muslim. She wears a hijab, takes breaks in the afternoon and at sunset for prayers and – most relevant to me – has strict restrictions on how she can interact with men, like myself, who she is not related to. In a stunning coincidence, I took an NES class called Muslims and the Qur’an last semester, which gave me a historical and philosophical context for such restrictions. Though a single class cannot fully bridge the divide between our backgrounds, a firm scholarly basis for understanding her background has done wonders to enhance my empathy and understanding and, therefore, our collaborative research.

“Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus rex; humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea.”

Research and society

The implications of research can stretch to very immediate political and societal arenas. My own field of biochemistry is constantly playing a sort of regulatory catch-up as numerous techniques – cloning, embryonic stem-cells, and now precise, heritable DNA editing – pop up in a society unsure of how to use its newfound god-like powers. I was thus both dismayed and excited to see so many policy students in my Science, Technology, and Public Policy freshman seminar. Yes, it is refreshing to see those who will write our future policies take interest in the science behind them. But it was discouraging they were not met by an equal number of future scientists eager to ensure that research – whether into cloning or macroeconomics – is responsibly implemented by scientists and politicians who control it. As I’ve heard said, flippantly but cogently, “science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus rex; humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea.”

Not every class can, or should, be valued on the basis of its usefulness to researchers. The power of such a broad curriculum is that you can explore any outside interest you desire. But as you do so, finding classes that train you in communicating effectively across disciplinary and cultural lines, or in ensuring that your field has an evidence-based, responsible influence on politics and society, will empower you and give your work the best and broadest impact possible.

— Bennett McIntosh, Natural Sciences Correspondent