Important notice: a brain has two sides

July 14, 2006

Gone are the days of unadulterated arts or science study at university. Today's campuses offer a multitude of degree combinations that cross the arts-science divide. C. P. Snow would have been proud given his view that early specialisation in the arts or science was partly responsible for the polarisation of society into "two cultures". He would turn in his grave to hear that, despite taking such positive steps towards bridging the divide, arts and science faculties remain worlds apart.

To me, as a student of neuroscience with German, traversing the arts-science boundary is as simple as crossing the road. My course involves moving from, say, listening to a friend complaining that a DNA construct is not working, after a lecture in the medical school, to a language class translating the latest chart hit into German to explore the subtleties of the subjunctive.

But despite broad agreement among academics that the cross-fertilisation they see in their students is beneficial, pressures on time and resources mean that communication between the faculties is limited. Some might worry that students with a foot in both camps may become watered-down scientists as a result of having split their time and attention. In fact, the student misses out on only a small proportion of what their counterparts cover; often they do the same and it just counts for less. In addition, the compulsory year abroad, spent working in a research institute in a country where the chosen language is spoken, both consolidates language capability and exposes the student to the real world of science. So both sides are happy.

It is not disapproval of combined courses then that causes the silence to persist between faculties, but rather the fact that maintaining dialogue between them is easier said than done. Yet staff need not even venture past the confines of their own department buildings to begin to overcome this impasse. One way is to encourage students on science and language courses to organise seminar groups where research or issues are discussed in the target language. For this to succeed, staff need to use their knowledge of the faculty to help contact other staff and students who are native speakers or are simply interested in practising the language. Providing the odd free lunch will help get the programme off the ground and never fails with hungry students. I have been lucky in my studies to have come across staff who are willing to facilitate initiatives of this kind, to help overcome problems and to deal with loopholes that appear in the infrastructure of interdisciplinary degrees. Despite this, there is room for so much more innovation.

Whatever it is that gets staff interacting, whether it be sorting out timetable clashes for students such as me or bonding over recent strike action, the results can only be good - for staff and for students. For members of the scientific community, an increase in the number of scientists who are also competent communicators should be welcomed with open arms given the importance of effective communication in the field.

Excuse the neuroscientist in me, but I am all for using both sides of the brain.

Holly Griffiths is studying neuroscience with German at Manchester University.

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