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Bakker: Combining interests in humanities, science

STANFORD -- Is she a scientist who happens to have a strong interest in the humanities or a humanist who is looking forward to a career in science and medicine?

Angela Bakker, a Stanford University English major who is planning a career in medicine, spent a couple of years trying to come up with a satisfactory answer to that question. Finally, she said, as she prepares to graduate June 13, her scattered academic life is starting to make sense.

Bakker now sees "a lot of relationships between humanities and the natural sciences."

"Science is a lot like English," she said. "Science is writing a story that's trying to understand something, but at the same time depending on assumptions, on the way a problem is framed. The solution comes out of the way you see the problem."

Bakker arrived at Stanford thinking she would concentrate on engineering or computer science. But captivated by the first few English classes she took, particularly Professor Diane Middlebrook's poetry course, she decided to major in English, she said.

At the same time, a strong scientific curiosity led her to enroll in the yearlong human biology introductory sequence of courses. She enjoyed the experience, so much that she returned the next year to serve as a teaching assistant in the human biology core courses.

Both as a student and as a teaching assistant, Bakker found that the human biology discussion sections did not allow enough time for students to consider the kinds of ethical issues raised by contemporary work in biology or biotechnology: fetal tissue research, for example, or gene therapy.

So she spent most of last summer working to put together a seminar in bioethics, offered for the first time this year, with Dr. William Hurlbut as faculty coordinator. Guest speakers made the presentations and discussed with students such issues as the ethics of giving hormone therapy to spur growth in youngsters who are very short, but otherwise normal, or the controversy surrounding the use of the so-called "morning- after" contraceptive pill, RU-486.

She found her undergraduate experience enhanced by what she called Stanford's "uniquely flexible and open" attitude.

"I don't think there are many places where you can go to a department and say, 'Let's offer this class next year,' and be taken seriously," Bakker said.

Bakker's interest in human biology also led her to Dr. Carolyn Russo, Stanford assistant professor of pediatrics. She worked for a year with Russo and Laurie Leventhal-Belfer, a psychologist with the Children's Health Council in Palo Alto, on a project looking at the effects on parents of having a child who has survived cancer. The three co-authored a paper that has been accepted by the Journal of Psychosocial Oncology.

Previous studies on such parents have shown that they fall within normal psychological parameters, Bakker said. However, she said, parents whose child has completed cancer treatments still have pervasive concerns about their child's future health, continue to fear the possibility of relapse, and experience a great deal of stress.

An overwhelming majority of the parents they surveyed, Bakker said, expressed a desire to maintain contact with health-care providers for continuing support and education.

Next year, Bakker plans to coordinate a program for parents of childhood cancer survivors organized through the long-term survivors' clinic at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. The program would refer parents with questions to social workers or other community resources and would organize two or three annual mini-conferences where parents could meet others with similar concerns.

Bakker also will be working for a master's degree in biology at Stanford, and plans to focus on immunology.

Her plans include medical school; she is considering a combined M.D./Ph.D. program. She likes the approach taken by Stanford Medical School, which encourages students to do research and to take classes anywhere in the university.

The latter is especially appealing to Bakker, who confessed, "I love the academic environment. If I had the funds, I'd stay in school as long as possible."

Bakker grew up in what she describes as a stereotypical one-horse town in rural Washington state ("we don't even have a stoplight"), where reading was her primary form of entertainment.

Her parents emigrated from Holland to the United States, where they met. The fact that her mother and father were willing to take the risk of moving to a new country, she said, gave her the determination to reach for opportunities whenever she could.

That determination, ironically, was reinforced by an automobile accident she was involved in just before starting her freshman year at Stanford. The accident left her with a number of serious physical problems, including headaches, backaches and disequilibrium. During spring break of her freshman year, she underwent surgery at Stanford to correct those problems, and the doctors suggested that she take a year off to recuperate.

Bakker thought it over, but decided that stopping out was not the medicine she needed. She was back in school spring quarter.



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