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Program that links human biology, behavior celebrates 25th year
STANFORD -- Hum Bio turns 25 this year.
Alumni have been invited back during homecoming weekend to celebrate the anniversary of the interdisciplinary Program in Human Biology. The festivities will include an open house Friday, Oct. 13, at Hum Bio's home in the seismically retrofitted Building 80 in the Quad, and a dinner dance on Saturday, Oct. 14, featuring live music by the Heartbeats and a presentation by the program's founding faculty members.
The program had its inception in 1969, "cursed by success" from the start, sociology Professor Emeritus Sanford Dornbusch recalled in a memoir in the latest HumBio Update newsletter. The idea of a cross-disciplinary program in human biology was compelling: Teach undergraduates both the biology of the human organism and the social and political constructs that the organism creates. Eight faculty members from Humanities and Sciences and the School of Medicine signed on as founders, five of whom were chairs of departments at the time: Sanford Dornbusch, Paul Ehrlich, David Hamburg, Albert Hastorf, Donald Kennedy, Norman Kretchmer, Joshua Lederberg and Colin Pittendrigh. Although they envisioned a modest core of courses serving about 50 students, hundreds of students expressed interest in signing up.
The Ford Foundation offered $1 million to pay all costs for five years. But "it was my task to gulp and refuse," Dornbusch said.
The founders knew the program would not survive unless it started out with an endowment that would keep it going without having to siphon funds from academic departments. Dornbusch and Kretchmer talked the Ford Foundation into donating $2.6 million, an amount that later was doubled by other donors.
Hum Bio now averages 150 graduating seniors per year, making it one of the three largest undergraduate majors at Stanford. More than 60 faculty members participate in Hum Bio courses or teach courses that are cross-listed for the program's majors. Five endowed chairs support faculty with joint appointments in human biology and their respective disciplines.
Annual Spring Break field seminars have taken students and "overgrads" (students of the Alumni Association's continuing education program) for a firsthand look at conservation issues in the Galapagos and Costa Rica. A curriculum for 7th and 8th grade students based on Hum Bio's integration of the biological and behavioral sciences is currently being tested in 13 pilot site schools across the nation.
Anthropologist Bill Durham, the Bing Professor in Human Biology and the program's seventh director, was a student in the first official course in human biology in 1970.
"It grew beyond anyone's wildest dream," he said. "I think it has developed into one of the most exciting and dynamic interdisciplinary programs in the country.
"The founders thought there would be a half-dozen upper- division courses focusing on the great diseases facing humanity, or environment, or health, or other issues of the time. We now have 10 or more courses of that kind per quarter."
Durham defended the program against critics who say that Hum Bio students do not learn the rigors of a scientific or social sciences discipline.
"That's comparing apples and oranges. When people say Hum Bio is not an apple, I say, 'That's because we are an orange.'
"We are not trying to be an alternative to a conventional natural science course," Durham said. "We are wedded to the view that many Stanford graduates will go into the policy world -- that the country, if not the world, needs the kind of professional who has been charged to understand both the biology of the organism and the problems that organism creates."
Students choose an area of concentration and take courses throughout the university that fulfill requirements in that field. Individual concentrations include biological and social aspects of disease; perceptual neurosciences; biomedical design; indigenous people and the environment.
Approximately one-third of the program's graduates go on to careers in the health sciences and another one-third go on to graduate school. A list of careers from a recent alumni survey includes university faculty member, doctor, venture capitalist, freelance screenwriter, and the program director for life sciences at the Earthwatch Foundation.
"These are students who are looking for a big challenge, the kind of challenge that the world's biosocial problems represent," Durham said. "And when you see the energy and enterprise they take to work out problems as they head out, it's clear there's something special about the mix."
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