Insatiably Curious

by David Sadava, Pritzker Family Foundation Professor of Biology

It was the 1980s. Scripps College had just come into money—a lot of it—through the sale of some stock.The Board of Trustees wisely saw this as an opportunity to significantly expand the faculty.The Faculty Executive Committee retreated to an off-campus location to decide the subject areas of these new faculty members.

Student interests were changing: there were more Scripps women than ever interested in the social sciences. So, some of the positions were allocated to areas such as economics, bringing new perspectives to the College. As the day wore on, more positions were allocated—to the arts, humanities, and social sciences. I supported all of these, but near sunset, I suggested another discipline that was not at that time represented on the Scripps faculty—mathematics.

Eyebrows were raised on the faces of my faculty colleagues. Math? At Scripps? No way, some said. The women would be intimidated and never come to the College in the first place, said another. No arguments, such as the documented fact that math was the single most important disciplinary barrier to women’s career advancement, could dissuade these Scripps professors from their negative view of mathematics at their college. But, by the end of the day, the group had relented, and had approved math as the last position to be hired with this new money.

And it was the last—it took more than five years before the new math professor arrived.

It was time for the best students at Scripps to get their “just desserts.”The dean of faculty sponsored a dessert reception for those who made the Dean’s List and their faculty advisers.These were the pre-grade-inflation days, so the numbers of these students were smaller than they are today. I met my advisee at the door to her dorm and we walked proudly over to the living room of what was formerly the president’s house. As our select group got settled, the Dean asked us all to identify ourselves and say what our subject was.

“Biology professor,” I said, and there were nods around the room.”Biologychemistry major,” said my advisee, and there was an audible hush, not just from her fellow students, but also from several faculty.

“You’re incredible,” said a student to my advisee. “Science is so hard,” said another. “I didn’t know you could study that aside from Harvey Mudd,” opined a third. My advisee was embarrassed.Why was she being singled out as some sort of curiosity? Was science that different from the other majors mentioned that day?

As we walked back across campus, she told me how lonely she was as the only science major in her dorm; how fellow students considered her very unusual to be working so hard in the lab and ambitious for a career in medical research; and how she had few role models, as there was only one female professor in the sciences.

How times have changed. Since the early 1990s, more and more Scripps students have arrived on campus intending to major in the sciences and mathematics.And more of them in the social sciences are using sophisticated mathematical analyses in their research projects. Science students are now far from the exception, and the other students no longer hold them in awe. Take this year, for example: of the 70 students who did senior thesis projects in Joint Science this spring, 23 were Scripps women.This is easily double the proportion of graduating seniors majoring in the sciencesa decade ago.

Each year, more ambitious, confident, and courageous women come to Scripps. One of them has been Liz Whitlock ’05. When Dean of Admission Pat Goldsmith called me and asked me to meet this applicant for a James E. Scripps Scholarship from North Carolina, who was “one of the best” (her words), I had high expectations. And as a high school senior interviewing here, Liz did not disappoint. She struck me as bright, inquisitive, self-aware, dedicated, and curious— in short, a real intellectual—the kind of student every professor wants. She seemed to be interested in everything: from Core to music to math, in addition to the sciences. As her teacher and adviser, I have always felt that my role is to gently steer her and present alternatives, rather than lead. She doesn’t really need me to make up her mind for her.

As she heads off to medical school, I am optimistic that she will be that special kind of doctor whose insatiable curiosity about the world will exemplify Aristotle’s maxim, “All (wo)men desire to know.”