Liberal Arts and STEM studies at the world’s preeminent women’s college

04/01/2012  |  Anne Yu
Women’s Colleges

In 1909, the Wellesley College yearbook published a tongue-in-cheek drawing that depicted the varying ways a Wellesley woman is viewed by different people, including herself. In the image, the young woman is viewed by her mother as a quiet girl who reads and knits, by the world as an idyllic scholar, and by herself as a hardworking student who, if you look closely, doesn’t even have time to do her dishes.

Ask a student today what people say when she tells them she goes to an all women’s school, and you’ll hear responses ranging from “aren’t all of the students radical feminists?” to “so you just study, like, poetry, right?” to “do you ever see any guys at all?” One alumna reported that someone once asked her if she went to a “finishing school” which, classically defined, equates to a school for girls that emphasizes training in cultural and social activities.

“The worst misconception is that we’re all pampered princesses, or [that we’re] prissy,” said Maria Prebble, a senior from Marshfield, Wisconsin majoring in International Relations and History. Wellesley, one of the world’s leading liberal arts colleges, is neither a finishing school, nor a haven for the prissy. The school is known for intellectual rigor and for cultivating an inclusive pragmatic approach to leadership. In fact, many are surprised to hear that STEM fields make up fully half of the top ten most popular majors at Wellesley.

“For many of my peers from high school, co-ed environments have reinforced the idea of the ‘proper’ majors and roles for women and men,” said Linnea Johnson, a senior majoring in Art History and Psychology from Kansas City, Missouri. According to Johnson, some of her friends’ schools reinforce the notion that arts, humanities, and support positions are for women, while science and leadership positions are for men. “At Wellesley, I feel liberated from the expectations for my gender.”

With 52 majors and more than 1,000 course offerings, Wellesley’s liberal arts curriculum encourages students to explore classes and fields of study. One of the most popular elective classes at Wellesley is Neuroscience 100, an introductory class that is open to all students (no prerequisite coursework required); approximately 20 percent of the general student body takes Neuroscience 100 as an elective.

Neuroscience, which was first offered as a major at Wellesley in 1999 (replacing an existing program in psychobiology), has grown dramatically in the last decade and now holds a spot in the top ten most popular majors at the College.

Professor Barbara Beltz, who serves as Program Director for Wellesley’s Neuroscience program, says that a lot of students take the introductory class because they want to figure out if they can understand what is wrong with their grandmother or someone else they know. Then, “those who have even a scrap of science in them get hooked,” Beltz said, “even if they didn’t know they were a scientist before coming here.”

Sophomore Sarah Finkelstein, a neuroscience student from East Brunswick, New Jersey, enrolled planning to study anthropology. She took the introductory neuroscience course on the advice of an upperclasswoman and she says she “never turned back.” Beltz estimates that 15 to 20 percent of the students who end up majoring in neuroscience originally planned to study something else.

“My first semester I decided to take a Biology course to fulfill my laboratory requirement and I loved it,” Finkelstein said. “We were studying the different organ systems of the body, and I was intrigued and wanted to know more”

Finkelstein, who is now working on a project investigating the effect of estradiol on the expression of progestin receptors, said she feels fortunate to have ended up at a school that puts such an emphasis on undergraduate research. “I don’t know if I want to go to Graduate or Medical School yet, but I do know that I wherever I end up, I want to pursue a career in medical research.”

In another lab on campus, Sophomores Maria Jun and Alyssa Bacay, and senior Julia Solomon are following up on a promising lead in the fight against pancreatic cancer. In 2006, a naturally occurring compound was found to exhibit anti-cancer activity, specifically against pancreatic cancer. Working with students, Dora Carrico-Moniz, assistant professor of chemistry at Wellesley, began to prepare and modify the compound artificially in her lab.

The research resulted in the discovery of a new compound that exhibits potent activity against pancreatic cancer cells and is easier to synthesize than the original. “We know we’re going in a great direction. We’ve got a great lead on our hands,” Carrico-Moniz said. Professor Carrico-Moniz coauthored a study on her work with three students, now alumnae, who are continuing their work as graduate students at Yale University.

“Students are the foundation of the work we do,” Beltz said. “It’s not just about results, it’s also critical training they get as undergraduates on how to ask questions, analyze data and form conclusions. Learning about science by doing science is the most important skill Wellesley students get.”

The other majors counted among the top ten at Wellesley are: Economics, Psychology, Political Science, Biological Sciences, English, Chemistry, History, Mathematics and Spanish. Neuroscience ranks sixth on this list, between English and Chemistry.

Students at Wellesley study social sciences, arts and humanities, and STEM fields. They come from all 50 states and 75 countries and represent varying ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The reasons Wellesley students select single-sex education is as unique as the women themselves, but many report feeling that they are more able to express themselves or follow an educational path they might not have explored elsewhere.

And, by the way, the answer to that other question that’s often asked is yes --Wellesley students do interact with male students during their time on campus. Although Wellesley admits only women, men do attend classes through cross-registration programs with nearby Babson College and Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, and Wellesley students can take classes at coeducational institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Anne Yu is the Assistant Director of Media Relations at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. For more information about Wellesley College, visit
Comments & Ratings