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Technically Speaking

Increasing numbers of WPI students recognize how important a liberal arts education is to them. In fact, more and more students are adding a humanities major to their technical, engineering, or scientific studies. “In 2005, we moved from 32 to 60-plus double majors,” says Patrick Quinn, head of the Humanities and Arts Department.

Paul Messier ’05ECE/HU, for one, feels grateful to WPI for giving him a chance to focus on his two favorite pursuits: theatre and engineering. “Both of my advisors—Susan Vick in theatre, and [professor of electrical and computer engineering] Alexander Emanuel—understood the importance of the humanities in a technical education,” says the electrical engineer with BAE Systems in Nashua, N.H. “They also saw how important technical knowledge is in a humanities education. I felt a lot of support from them as I pursued my double major. They recognized that so much in life that is beautiful is expressed through the humanities.”

Messier brought an interest in lighting design and technology with him to WPI, having worked in those capacities at the Spirit of Broadway Theater in Norwich, Conn., for four years prior to starting his undergraduate studies. Like Quinn, Messier sees the intercon-nectedness of science and the humanities. “I need to allow both my creative and my technical juices to flow freely,” he says. “I think both are crucial in understanding our world.”

Messier put that sentiment to work in every technical presentation he made at WPI, by using his theatre training to help him relate new ECE concepts to his colleagues. As he gave his talks, Messier focused as much on keeping his audience engaged as he did on the technical knowledge he needed to impart. “My humanities courses helped me bring something new to these presentations, whether it’s how I used tone of voice, or images, or gestures to emphasize certain concepts,” he says. “And I know that every time I have the opportunity to speak before my team here at BAE, I’ll tap into those dramatic and public speaking skills.”

Chad Whitney ’99MIS/HU finds his writing abilities bring practical benefits in his work as lead program manager with Microsoft Windows Mobile Devices in Redmond, Wash. “I see the benefits of my dual major every day in my career,” he says. “When I first started working here, I wrote design specs all day. No one would have known how to implement those designs if I couldn’t articulate them clearly.”

Now that he’s been promoted to manager of his group, “I have to be very clear in my oral and e-mail communications, too,” he says. “A lot of people throw grammar out the window in their e-mails. I don’t, and I think it helps our work flow more smoothly. I certainly wouldn’t have come this far if I couldn’t write clearly and communicate well.”

On occasion, a WPI student will change course entirely, and follow a purely humanities path. Natalie Cole ’04/HU started in mechanical engineering, but “I decided it wasn’t for me.” With the support of faculty advisors Laura Menides, professor of English (retired 2005), and assistant professor of English Michelle Ephraim, Cole designed her own concentration in creative writing. She’s pursuing this passion further as a graduate student at Columbia University. “I think every school should offer a lot in the way of humanities and the arts,” she says, “because that’s what connects everybody. The humanities give everybody ways to communicate—not just transferring information, but connecting on a human level.”

And then there are those students who enjoy it all. “WPI made it possible for me to pursue two different walks of life,” says Irma (Roberts) Servatius ’04ECE/HU, who discovered her aptitude for electrical engineering when she took a summer class with professor of practice Robert Labonté just before entering WPI. “I’d always heard girls aren’t good at engineering. WPI gave me the confidence to say, ‘That’s not true.’”

Although Servatius had studied violin from an early age, in addition to math and science, she didn’t think she should consider a musical career. “I thought it would be impossible to get anywhere in music,” she says. But that was before administrator of applied music Douglas Weeks encouraged Servatius to try the viola. “I fell in love with it.”

Once her passion for viola had been ignited, Servatius joined the university’s Medwin String Ensemble and discovered a world where technologists embrace art. “It was so incredible, all these engineers getting together to have fun and play music,” she says. Servatius went on tour with the string quartet, traveling to Greece, Italy, and Prague, playing in churches and schools and giving workshops.

Now she dares herself to make a living as a musician as she studies for her master’s in music at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “WPI gave me a lot of confidence,” Servatius says. “If I can get past people saying, ‘There’s no way you can do engineering because you’re female,’ then maybe I can get past the attitude that you can’t possibly make a living playing music. And if I can’t,” she adds, “I have my engineering degree to fall back on.”

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Last modified: Dec 21, 2005, 11:36 EST
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