Curran Phillips, a senior on the men’s gymnastics team, has long wanted to pursue a career in medicine. So when he came to Stanford, he looked for a major that would allow him to explore this field and fulfill the necessary pre-med requirements. He landed on Human Biology.
57 student athletes — 45 from women’s teams and 12 from men’s teams — are recorded as majoring in Human Biology (HumBio), making it the most common path of study among declared Stanford athletes, according to data that The Daily scraped from each team’s 2021-2022 roster on GoStanford. Duplicates were removed from the dataset; for example, athletes competing in both cross country and track and field were not double-counted.
Management Science and Engineering (MS&E) is the second most popular major among athletes with 39 total students. It is followed by Computer Science and Science, Technology & Society (STS), which are tied for third with 37 athletes each. Economics rounds out the top five with 36 declared athletes.
As an interdisciplinary program, the Human Biology major gives students a solid foundation in biology while also allowing them to choose their own area of concentration. According to the program’s director, Lianne Kurina Ph.D. ’98, about half of Stanford’s HumBio majors are looking to pursue medicine, but many others are interested in community health, social justice issues related to health, social determinants of health and human performance, among other related topics.
Women’s volleyball junior opposite hitter Kendall Kipp is one athlete on the human performance track. She said she chose HumBio for reasons similar to Phillips. Kipp has always been interested in science and human performance, and felt she could shape the HumBio major into what she wanted to study.
“There’s so much flexibility with choosing your courses because you can truly create your own track to fit what you want to get out of it,” Kipp said.
Why Human Biology?
As for why so many athletes choose to major in HumBio, Kurina has some ideas. Three factors she believes make the major attractive for athletes are its “flexibility and course options,” athletes’ general interest in “understanding the human body and applications to their sport” and “word of mouth from teammates.”
The major’s popularity makes sense to Phillips, who sees it as an extension of the awareness athletes develop over years of training to get to the elite collegiate level.
“I think a lot of athletes growing up tend to have a close connection and they’re really in tune with their bodies,” Phillips said. “They love talking to people about their stories, how they have developed into who they are.”
While Phillips plans to go to medical school after graduating, Kipp is considering pursuing a career related to athletic training. Like Phillips, she credits the major’s popularity among athletes to its many options. Students select either a B.S. or B.A. degree, pick an area of concentration and then choose courses with guidance from their advisors.
“At the end of the day, every student designs their own course of study, what they’re going to be experts in,” said Kurina.
Navigating HumBio as an athlete
For Phillips, athletic commitments have occasionally complicated the process of scheduling courses. While in season, the men’s gymnastics team often had 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. practices, preventing him from being able to take most classes in the afternoons. During competition weeks, Wednesdays were occupied by inner squads — tryouts to determine which athletes would compete that weekend.
But when Phillips went to the Human Biology department with his predicament, he said they worked with him to build a schedule that did not conflict with his practices or inner squads. And, according to Phillips, this flexibility extends to the rest of the department’s teaching staff.
“They are always willing to work with me,” he said. “I remember traveling, they were always willing to make sure that I stayed on top of the material and gave me resources so that when I came back, I was able to get help from TAs [Teaching Assistants].”
Kipp also praised the department, saying, “I’ve never run into an issue with a HumBio professor before about missing classes… there have been issues with other departments sometimes, but HumBio has always been super supportive.”
As an instructor, Kurina has only positive things to say about the “incredibly proactive” student athletes she has taught. She believes that the department’s professors familiarity with athletes contributes significantly to athletes’ positive experiences within the major.
“Because of the long history of athletes in our classes, HumBio faculty know what wonderful students they are, and the kinds of constraints they’re typically under,” Kurina said.
“This population doesn’t register any differently”
While the department may be familiar with athletes and the obligations they are balancing in addition to their schoolwork, Kurina emphasized that she and her colleagues see the athletes in their classes as regular students and they are treated as such.
“This population doesn’t register any differently,” she said. “I think it’s really important that instructors are consistent in their requirements across students in general. That’s important for students, to know that they’re being treated fairly and equitably.”
Kurina also made clear that while HumBio professors have experience supporting student athletes, their first priority is delivering the best content and course curriculums possible to all students — both athletes and non-athletes.
Phillips and Kipp are grateful for the support they have received from teaching staff, but they expressed that being a Stanford student athlete comes with additional challenges
Phillips said that there have not always been other athletes in his classes, which led him to form study groups with whoever he could.
“I think that’s been good for me too, because I’ve been able to separate myself from the team sometimes and make more relationships and connections with other people who are into human biology,” he said.
And despite vigorous practice and competition schedules, both Kipp and Phillips feel that the Human Biology department has allowed them to make the most of their time at Stanford academically and athletically.
Speaking to the support she has received, Kipp said that she feels the coaching staff and professors “want you to get the most out of your academic experience here.”
“I don’t feel like I lost any potential of learning material,” Phillips said of his busy athletic career and experience in the HumBio major. “I gained more from the experience I’ve had and classes I’ve taken.”