Science, In Context

David Morgan teaches his Lang Interdisciplinary Science class Space, Time, and Einstein. Photo by Jacob Pritchard.

David Morgan teaches his Lang Interdisciplinary Science class Space, Time, and Einstein. Photo by Jacob Pritchard.

Last year, a student at Eugene Lang The New School for Liberal Arts turned kombucha into Legos. Lang Interdisciplinary Science (IS) student Steven Houang worked with Brooklyn synthetic technology lab Genspace and a team of other undergrads from around the city to trick the bacteria in kombucha – a kind of fermented juice equally popular with yoga moms and young people in Williamsburg – to secrete a form of cellulose that can be used as a building block.

“You can think of them like Lego parts that perform a function,” said Houang, whose team had produced the project as part of the International Genetic Engineering Machine competition. “We submitted a couple of these bio-bricks. It went pretty well, you know?”

Solving problems in unexpected ways and contextualizing the work of science is exactly what attracted Houang to Lang’s IS program. “It’s not a typical science program,” Houang explains, “because it doesn’t just teach you the basic content like you’ll get like in a typical university. You also get a lot of contextual and societal implications that other programs don’t necessarily teach.”

Take the study of DNA, for example. At most other science programs, you learn the ins and outs of the science, and it stops there. Lang goes further. “DNA regulation or gene expression can be interesting in itself,” Houang is quick to say, “but we also put it into context with diseases influenced by DNA, and different policies that might be affected by our knowledge of DNA ­– Eugenics and all of that ­– and that’s the thing that the people that I graduated high school with didn’t really get in their classes. But we really delved into kind of murkier issues like social policy and things like that.”

It’s additions like these, that situate the work of scientists in a broader social context, that makes Lang’s IS program so unique and valuable. “You just get a better sense of what the practice of science is and what it can do,” said Houang. “If I had gone to University of California, it would have been more technical training.”

Lang’s class sizes, recognized again this year by US News and World Report as some of the smallest in the country, also help make Lang’s IS program stand out. ”You get a lot of time devoted to talking about a lot of ideas,” said Houang. “I didn’t think I’d be a science major, but the way that we teach it here makes it so much more relatable and meaningful to me. I probably wouldn’t have gotten that anywhere else.”