Why an Interdisciplinary Lens Matters: New Directions Fellow G. Gabrielle Starr

Pomona College President Gabrielle Starr on the intersection of the humanities and neuroscience, and how her New Directions Fellowship paved the way.

In this short video, Pomona College President and New Directions Fellow Gabrielle Starr explains why an interdisciplinary lens is fundamental to solving today’s complex societal challenges.

The future of American colleges and universities relies on our finding the right balance between specialization and the ability to think ever more broadly in a changing world.

Throughout her career, G. Gabrielle Starr has consistently employed a multidisciplinary approach—as a scholar, published author, professor of 18th-century English literature, neuroscience researcher, department chair, academic dean at New York University’s College of Arts and Science, and now, as 10th president of Pomona College.

Her most recent book, Feeling Beauty:  The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience, (MIT Press, 2013), uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore how people respond to paintings, music, and other art forms.

Gabi Book White Sides.pngStarr's book, Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience, (MIT Press, 2013) was a finalist for the Phi Beta Kappa Society's 2014 Christian Gauss Award.

Starr received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in women’s studies at Emory University before going on to Harvard University to earn her doctorate in English and American literature.  Curious about how the neural underpinnings of the human brain shape our conceptions of aesthetics and the arts, Starr went on to become a New Directions fellow in 2003, which facilitated her training in neuroscience; her scholarly work has focused on its intersection with aesthetics ever since.

The Mellon Foundation has awarded 190 New Directions Fellowships since 2002.  These multi-year fellowships require faculty members in the humanities and humanistic social sciences to pursue systematic training outside their own areas of special interest.  

We spoke with Starr during her recent visit to New York about the interdisciplinary training, thought, and analysis that define the Mellon Foundation’s New Directions Fellowship, and why people benefit from looking at challenges and conflicts from many different angles.

woman standing in front of neoclassical buildingGabi Starr, President, Pomona College, and New Directions Fellow. New Directions Fellows have the opportunity to work on problems that interest them and encourage the highest standards in cross-disciplinary research. Photo courtesy of Pomona College.

Q&A:  Gabrielle Starr

You set off for Emory University as an undergraduate at the tender age of 15.  Tell us about growing up in a family of educators in Tallahassee, Florida.  How do you think that influenced your professional trajectory? 

Both my parents really believed that education access is life access.  So there was never any question for me or anyone in our family that we were following the path of higher education as far as we could.  And so that was important for me personally, but it also has shaped the way that I think about what the purpose of education really is.  It was transformative.

What inspired you to become a women’s studies major, and to follow that field of study through to a master’s degree?

One of the reasons that I studied women's studies was because of a great teacher. There was a faculty member at Emory, Dalia Judovitz, who really opened my eyes to the way that the story of humanity was not fully told.  I had been studying the sciences for many years, and was doing research in chemistry.  Women's studies opened my imagination in a way that, at that time, structural chemistry could not.  Women's studies is fundamentally interdisciplinary:  you study sociology, art history, literature, politics, biology, and the environment, and that was great training. 

Why did you choose to earn a PhD in English and Literature? 

I wanted to be a college professor and I knew that I wanted to work in the humanities.  English struck me, at the time, as one of the most capacious of them; English departments in general have had a long history of welcoming different kinds of disciplines within them, disciplinary contact with philosophy, psychology, history, economics.  And so it seemed like a great path to pursue.

When did neuroscience first become a topic of interest for you?  What sparked the early connections you discovered between science and the humanities? 

Most of my research, when I was in graduate school, focused on 18th-century British literature and culture.  In that period, scholars didn't see a need to encapsulate knowledge in small or large disciplinary boundaries.  People were pursuing questions in ways we would think of as cross-disciplinary now.  When you look at Adam Smith, he's writing The Wealth of Nations, but also The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  And Newton was a theologian as well as a mathematician.

When I was going to pursue a post doc at Caltech, I knew the next project that I wanted to work on had to do with imagination and imagery.  And there were new ways of thinking about internal experience that were emerging with fMRI that had been unavailable before.  Caltech had bought a new magnet and wanted people to use it.

RestingStateModels.jpgStudy showing four functional networks that were found to be highly consistent across subjects. Source: PLoS One 7, no. 8 (2012).

At what point in your tenure as a scholar and faculty member did you begin to realize that you really wanted to expand your knowledge beyond the framework of what you were already working on?

When I started to read cognitive neuroscience seriously, I realized that it was not going to be sufficient to read the work.  I needed to be able to actually do the work.  So, that meant learning how to design experiments.  It meant learning how to ask questions that are actually tractable with what resources and equipment you have.  And it meant trying to think like a scientist, as well as think like a humanist.  Getting training in neuroscience--real training--seemed to be the absolute path I had to take.  There's no way that you can be a credible scholar around the neuroscience of aesthetics without having experimental expertise.

You received a New Directions fellowship in 2003 to facilitate training in neuroscience.  Tell us about your experience. 

I spent a year taking the first-year neuroscience PhD course sequence at NYU.  I had a good solid foundation that helped me to navigate the coursework.  Going back to a PhD classroom required that I lean on my undergraduate experience, which had been pretty broad, at a liberal arts college.  I had studied biology through genetics.  I had done organic chemistry.  I had studied math through linear algebra, physics.  Although I didn't feel like I was at square zero or square one, it felt like a long haul.  Even after that one year, that's not enough to enable you to have a real disciplinary shift.  So the work that I did following that took quite some time to come out.  

What makes the New Directions fellowship unique among fellowships?

Very many fellowships tend to emphasize the other things that we reward in the academy, which primarily involve further and further specialization.  You get rewarded for what makes a contribution to knowledge in a particular field, and that's judged by a subset of scholars who specialize in that particular field.  The New Directions fellowship rewards the desire to become more of a generalist.  The future of American colleges and universities really relies on our finding the right balance between specialization and the ability to think ever more broadly in a changing world.  So, the New Directions fellowship is a concrete way of thinking about how that can be possible for faculty, and that's really important.

Did the fellowship play a role in your decision to move into administrative leadership?

New Directions absolutely played a role in my career path outside of the classroom because one of the things that I gained very quickly was the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues in other disciplines.  And getting outside of the humanities meant that I had a broader understanding of what the different kinds of needs were for different faculty.  I realized that if other people were going to be able to do the kind of work that I had been allowed to do, it required structural kinds of opportunities that had to be produced.  They were not magically going to happen.

As president of Pomona, I have the great good fortune to lead one of the strongest liberal arts colleges in the world, and to help faculty and students reshape and grow a truly collaborative cross-disciplinary environment that prepares students to be able to tackle problems that really matter, because ultimately, the problems that matter in the world, I believe, are not limited to a single discipline.