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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Birren draws on value of sciences as dean

Published: January 27, 2012
Section: Features

One semester into her new role as dean of Arts and Sciences, Susan Birren has transitioned from her position as teacher to administrator by drawing on her science background and training, to focus on the connections between science and humanities, teaching and research.

A biologist by profession, Birren’s challenge is to advance President Fred Lawrence’s vision of Brandeis as both a liberal-arts and research university.

One semester into the academic year, she explained that science and humanities can be viewed in broader intellectual frameworks rather than in a simple dichotomy.

She advocates applying scientific thinking to other disciplines, and vice versa. “What I want is that when a humanities student leaves this university and is listening to a presidential debate that touches on global climate change, even if they don’t understand the details, they can think about that and assess it as a problem,” Birren said in an interview this week. “Likewise, I want a scientist to be able to think critically about problems that touch on the humanities and arts.”

Though Birren took over as dean of Arts and Sciences on July 1, 2011, she has taught at Brandeis since 1994, when she became an assistant professor of biology after earning her PhD in biological chemistry at UCLA and doing postdoctoral research at Caltech.

Birren cites the small, science-oriented environment of Caltech as an inspiration for coming to Brandeis. “I was interested in going to a place where people did research, where I’d have interesting colleagues, and that most importantly I would be interested in teaching the undergraduates.” Birren said.

A scientist by training, Birren calls herself “a developmental biologist with a research focus on the human nervous system.” Birren has taught courses on basic cell biology, developmental biology, and cancer and stem cells, which are cross-listed in the biology and neuroscience departments, but her work spans other departments as well.

Last semester she taught an interdisciplinary course on autism and human developmental disorders from her research. It fulfilled requirements in the science, social science-based psychology and HSSP programs and served as an example of applying science to solve broader human prob

Birren believes her science background has given her a unique perspective on the role of the humanities and social sciences at Brandeis. She believes that a liberal arts education is increasingly valuable today because “it provides a framework for how to think about the world, and solve problems in a way that has complexity and nuance.”

Birren embraces her dual role of teacher and researcher, which inspires her as a dean. When asked whether she preferred teaching or research, she responded, “Both. When you’re working with students and training them to do their own research in the lab, is there really any difference between teaching and research?”

Birren calls on students to, “Explore. Always explore new interests in different departments, and use that to grow intellectually and grow as a person.”