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The road less traveled: Students pursue ‘underground’ majors at Tufts

The Tufts Daily

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By Michael Wu

By Elizabeth Zacks

While many Tufts students stick to the beaten path of popular majors such as international relations or computer science, others are taking the road less traveled. From astrophysics to human factors engineering, some Tufts students are majoring in fields that are often unfamiliar and overlooked.

Nina Houston is majoring in human factors engineering and minoring in engineering management and entrepreneurship. 

“[Human factors engineering] is a mix of psychology, design and engineering,” Houston, a junior, said. “A lot of it is designing the world, websites or products for the user experience.”

Houston knew she wanted to pursue something in a STEM-related field, and she found the human factors engineering major when applying to Tufts. 

“I liked the user [and design] aspect to it, and the combination of both was key,” Houston said.

At Tufts, the human factors engineering courses Houston has taken involve “learning about the tools to become an engineer later on.” However, Houston also expressed her concern with the difficulty of getting into classes required for her major. 

“I think the human factors program definitely needs more attention because it’s growing, and … we just don’t have enough staff, at the moment, to work with the growing population of students,” Houston said.

Houston also added that while her major is more popular than it used to be, it is still relatively unknown. 

“There’s a misconception with engineering in general,“ Houston said. “Engineering is seen as this weird, really STEM-ey bubble, and I think people are just scared to enter into that. … In reality, it’s not that different or scary from anything else.“

Christine Kelly is majoring in environmental health engineering, which combines environmental engineering and public health. 

“I’ve always loved environmental science, math and engineering,” Kelly, a junior, said. “I’ve also loved community service and giving back to my community, and this major combines both in the perfect way because I’m getting to do engineering while also helping improve people’s lives.”

The environmental health engineering program was one reason Kelly applied to Tufts in the first place.

“A lot of schools don’t have it and the Tufts program is particularly new,” Kelly said.

In an email to The Tufts Daily, civil and environmental engineering professor Daniele Lantagne, the program director of environmental health engineering, acknowledged the program’s relative lack of engagement.

“I think it’s uncommon because students don’t know about it coming into Tufts, and so most students that complete the major start in engineering and [transfer] into environmental health engineering when they find environmental health is what they are interested in,” Lantagne said.

Since there are only a few environmental health majors, Kelly’s classes are around ten students, and she noted that it’s easy for her to get research positions with professors in her area of study. However, like other uncommon majors at Tufts, many people haven’t heard of environmental health engineering. 

“What I wish students knew about environmental health engineering is that it is taking [civil and environmental engineering] and linking it to the health of people and populations,” Lantagne said. “[It] incorporates classes with community health, international relations, biology, and anthropology.” 

Isa Schneider, a member of the Tufts squash team, is majoring in architectural studies and minoring in nutrition. While the two disciplines may seem like opposites, Schneider said they have more in common than you think. 

“Architecture is human-centered design, and food is what we put in our body,” Schneider, a junior, said. “So in a way, you’re designing the place where people are eating.“

Schneider’s decision to pursue architecture was partially influenced by her parents’ passions. 

“I’ve always been interested in architecture because my mom’s an artist and my dad’s on the math side,” Schneider said. “Architecture is like the perfect medium.”

The Tufts architectural studies program allows for students, like Schneider, to take both architecture courses in addition to studio and art history courses.

“Many people at Tufts don’t know [architectural studies is] a major,” Schneider said. “But a lot of people take Intro to Architecture, those types of classes, and end up enjoying it, but … they don’t major in it.“

Schneider also noted that there’s often a misconception about architecture, in that it’s assumed to be mostly math related. Yet, there is a large amount of creativity and design in architectural studies.

“I always think the architects design it, and the engineers tell you if it’s possible,” Schneider said. 

In addition to architecture, Schneider has been interested in nutrition her whole life. 

“I also was always interested in nutrition as an athlete because that’s so important,” Schneider said. “I didn’t really grow up with processed food, and so I was always interested in how that affected me.”

At Tufts, food systems and nutrition is only offered as a minor. Schneider said that her peers wished it were a major because of the prestigious Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She also expressed the misconception that is associated with the field of nutritional studies. 

“Most people think nutrition is eating the crazes or the diets, … but it’s so much more than that. It’s a cool system,” Schneider said. 

Cate Fagen is majoring in astrophysics. When she first arrived at Tufts, she didn’t even know that Tufts had an astrophysics major, until she took classes in that department. The Tufts astrophysics department is small, with only about 15–20 students majoring in it every year.

“I didn’t meet anyone interested in astrophysics until this semester, when I took a class in astrophysics,“ Fagen, a sophomore, said. “Even the majority of people in that class were not astrophysics majors. I think it’s because people aren’t exactly sure what you can do with that major.”

According to Fagen, many students who she’s encountered don’t even know that it’s a major at Tufts, or they have misconceptions about the major. 

“Whenever I tell people my major is astrophysics, they’re like, ‘whoa, rocket science,’ … but it’s not so scary,” Fagen said. “And I think that’s why a lot of people are turned off from it because physics, in general, is scary.”

Anna Sajina, an associate professor of astrophysics, has noticed the astrophysics program at Tufts grow for the over a decade she has been affiliated with the university.

“When I started, there were very few [astrophysics] majors, so we would only have one or two a year at most, but it has grown a lot,” Sajina said. “One aspect of that is that the number of undergrads in general at Tufts has been growing for the last few years.“

Sajina said that while the number of students in the department is growing, there is still a strong sense of community. 

“We tend to get to know everybody … you see [advisees] from start to finish and that’s always very exciting, to see the students’ growth,” Sajina said. 

Another Tufts sophomore with an uncommon program of studies is Roger Burtonpatel. Alongside computer science, Burtonpatel is also majoring in music and minoring in Portuguese. 

“I originally started majoring in computer science and then quickly realized that I would be wanting to take a music class every semester,” Burtonpatel said. “[I] decided to pick up the music major, which has led me to all manner of classes that I wouldn’t have otherwise done.”

As a musician, Burtonpatel has found the Tufts music department to be fantastic. 

“We have a lot of great people and also … the professors will give you a lot of attention. I decided to just go beyond just playing music and really go into the major itself,” Burtonpatel said. 

Burtonpatel expressed his appreciation for the department, noting that students can follow their own interests. 

“It was entirely revamped recently, and now it’s more or less a choose your own adventure type thing, but it still maintains its rigor,” Burtonpatel said.

In addition to his music major, Burtonpatel is minoring in Portuguese, which he became interested in after participating in the Tufts 1+4 Program, where he lived in Brazil for a year before attending Tufts. 

“I was able to seamlessly transition right into this fantastic Portuguese department,” Burtonpatel said. “Taking classes there has really been a gift.”

Tufts’ departments, no matter how big or small, have a plethora of classes and opportunities for students. Yet, for some students, choosing a department and major can be a difficult decision.

“Go with whatever interests you,” Kelly said. “Look at the classes that you’ve taken, pick ones that you enjoy and see if you can find some kind of combination of majors and minors.“

Even once a student declares a major, they can always change it. 

“Do not think of it as something that’s going to stick,“ Fagen said. “Even once you graduate college with that major, it’s still not permanent, so there shouldn’t be a lot of stress around it.“

 At the end of the day, whether a Tufts student chooses an uncommon major or not, their possibilities and opportunities are endless.

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The Tufts Daily is the entirely student-run newspaper of record at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. An editorially and financially independent organization, the Daily’s staff of more than 100 covers news, features, arts and sports on Tufts’ four campuses and in its host communities. The Daily’s editorial board and columnists provide opinions and commentary alongside op-eds submitted by readers and members of the Tufts community. In recent years, the Daily has also expanded into multimedia, including podcasts and videojournalism. Founded in 1980, the Daily publishes a print edition four days each week and a digital edition every weekday during the academic year. All of the Daily’s coverage can be found on its consistently updated website devoted to upholding its motto: “Where you read it first.”

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