When Stanford’s Program in Human Biology (HumBio) was first introduced a little over 40 years ago, it was praised for its uniquely interdisciplinary nature — one that combined the two seemingly disparate areas of social science and hard science. It was in a way revolutionary, for at the time interdisciplinary programs were few and far between. Forty years after the first graduating class in the program, the human biology major has grown to be the largest undergraduate major at Stanford.
“We try to integrate across multiple disciplines,” said Carol Boggs, director of the HumBio program. “Students really understand that this is necessary if we’re going to solve the world’s problems.”
The HumBio major is rooted in the core, a set of six classes — three science and three social science — that every student in the major must take, usually in his or her sophomore year.
“The core is a really big time commitment,” said Jenna Wixon-Genack ’12, a student advisor for the HumBio department.
Boggs described the core more humorously.
“It’s a serious bonding experience,” she said with a smile.
Despite the time commitment, many students find the core a worthwhile and rewarding experience.
“The core is a very wonderful learning experience, one that I really enjoyed and one that is somewhat unique in that it is a very well-constructed learning experience,” said Wixon-Genack. “It can be a much more significant experience than taking just one class.”
The major grants students a great deal of freedom. Students can choose their own area of concentration, which can cover many topics including the environment and environmental policy, biomedical science and brain and behavior.
“It is so flexible by design,” said Cristina Leos ’13, who worked at the Stanford Prevention Research Center last summer. “You could have a focus on psychology or evolution or anthropology if you wanted to. It’s a broad scope. It allows people from different backgrounds to find an area that they’re interested in.”
The final component of the HumBio major is perhaps the most intriguing one: students are required to participate in an internship that relates to their area of concentration. These internships combine classroom experience with practical situations, a combination that can produce incredible experiences.
“A couple of years ago I had an advisee who was one of the three accredited members of the delegation to the UN from Tuvalu — he was able to watch UN security discussions in Iraq,” Boggs said. “Another student worked for a Colorado professional soccer team in the training room.”
Of course many students can also choose to fulfill the internship requirement through more traditional means, such as shadowing a physician or working in a Stanford laboratory. Nevertheless, each student gains a unique experience from his or her work.
Year after year, students continue to declare HumBio as their major despite the apparent rigor. Perhaps the most compelling reason for their decisions is the sense of community among HumBio students.
“People would much rather work together to achieve something rather than work against each other separately,” Wixon-Genack said.
“My [study] group would spend hours and hours and hours together,” Leos added. “Obviously it was really a tiring experience, but I had a lot of fun doing it.”
As the HumBio program welcomes the 40th reunion of its first graduating class, current students, alumni and faculty gather to celebrate. Of course, none of it would have been possible without the dedicated faculty, according to Wixon-Genack.
“The professors and the people who are involved in HumBio and have made it what it is today have done a great service to Stanford,” she said.