Liberal Arts Take Center Stage: STEM majors explore their artistic practice while studying abroad

Dec. 19, 2023

Story was originally published in the 2023 edition of Princeton University’s international magazine, Princeton International.

From left, Albert Zhou ’24, Tanaka Dunbar Ngwara ’24, Taylor Akin ’23, Nina Shih ’24 at the Royal College of Music.

From left, Albert Zhou ’24, Tanaka Dunbar Ngwara ’24, Taylor Akin ’23, Nina Shih ’24 at the Royal College of Music.

When Aneekah Uddin, a senior majoring in computer science, was exploring semester-long study abroad opportunities, she initially browsed program offerings that were related to her major. However, she ultimately committed to a program that would not only immerse her in a different country — an experience she already had as a Novogratz Bridge Year Program participant in Indonesia — but also allow her to pursue a different passion: acting.

From creativity and innovation to problem-solving and critical thinking, the benefits STEM students receive when exploring the arts are invaluable especially in an ever-evolving and interdependent world. In line with Princeton’s commitment to the liberal arts, the Study Abroad Program provides a wide range of opportunities for undergraduates of all majors, including STEM, to not only immerse themselves in different parts of the world, but also to explore and build on skills outside of their major through interdisciplinary programs.

This fall, Uddin, who is also pursuing a certificate in theater, is studying abroad at the world-renowned London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA), a drama school where students take immersive classes in acting, voice, movement and historical dance.

“I looked at the actors who have studied at LAMDA and I said to myself, I want to be in those same hallways,” she explained. “This was an opportunity to pursue something that I will never have access to again. It’s something that I’m really passionate about and an art form that I want to grow as a person with.”

Albert Zhou ’24, a molecular biology major and viola player, spent the fall 2022 semester studying abroad at the Royal College of Music (RCM) in London, an institution that was on his radar even before coming to Princeton.

“I was torn between majoring in music performance, or something related to biology or chemistry. Knowing that there was this option to spend an entire semester as a conservatory student — even as a STEM major — ended up being a large factor in my decision to come to Princeton,” he explained. “I primarily wanted to see how much I could grow musically, but there was also the draw of London being considered by many the music capital of the world.”

Taylor Akin ’23, right, in a studio class with Roberto Giaccaglia, bassoon professor and principal bassoon with the BBC Philharmonic

Taylor Akin ’23, right, in a studio class with Roberto Giaccaglia, bassoon professor and principal bassoon with the BBC Philharmonic

Recent graduate Taylor Akin ’23, a computer science major and a bassoonist, also spent fall 2022 abroad at the RCM. “The main things I had hoped to gain were the experience of living abroad, immersing myself in music and the opportunity to do something completely different,” he said.

In place of problem sets and lab experiments, Zhou and Akin’s coursework at the RCM included a heavy emphasis on individual lessons in their area of musical specialization or “principal study,” alongside performance practice and masterclasses.

In addition to major differences in coursework between the STEM and the arts, the overall structure of the program was a surprise for Zhou.

“There was a lot of ‘free time,’ but much of that was blocked out for us with the assumption that we Fall 2023 23 would practice on our own or have the initiative to pursue personal projects,” said Zhou. “I found it very different from STEM programs which tend to have more explicit time commitments and expectations.”

However, Zhou found that adapting to a different pace helped him develop skills that would also play an important role upon returning to STEM work noting that the “less structured approach helped me to better structure my time, which is something that has been transferable to my STEM coursework,” and that this was “applicable to my independent work, as conducting laboratory research efficiently requires a lot of long-range planning to ensure that there is enough time to run each experiment, and to slot tasks or other procedures into the waiting periods in my ’main’ experiment for the day.”

Similarly for Akin, focusing on music helped him develop a new perspective on how he views his work in technology.

“The time spent in the practice room is quintessential to a musician; you have to continually shift your focus, stay on task and consistently hone your practice,” he said. “It helped me as a technologist by looking at the bigger picture and zone in on details when I needed to, but also being able to look back at the progress of the entire journey.”

For STEM students, pursuing opportunities to immerse themselves in a completely different field of study is beneficial in that it allows them to pursue interests outside of their discipline, and also leads to broadening their skills beyond what they acquire solely through STEM.

Uddin said, “I think that’s the ethos of a liberal arts education; it’s about expanding your mindset to make it more interdisciplinary and gain tools to solve a problem, learn to approach a problem differently and get to an answer that someone might not have been able to see if they had a very strict engineering mindset. And that’s how innovation happens.”

“To a fellow STEM student, I would encourage them to view a study abroad program in the arts as a way to broaden their horizons,” said Zhou. “Studying abroad allowed me to focus on something outside my major that I love doing and to grow in something that isn’t STEM while also gaining insights and experiences living on my own in another culture on the other side of the globe.