If science ultimately edged out a career path focused around the humanities for Susan Nedza, MD, an emergency physician who will graduate from the Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) program this June, it was hardly by much. Nor did it mean her fondness for the type of thinking and intellectual exploration essential to the liberal arts diminished with time. Quite the opposite, actually.
“I really missed it,” she says. “Even if emergency medicine is one of the more humanistic areas in medicine, it was inevitable that the approach to writing and ability to think critically I’d cultivated while pursuing the liberal arts would taper off a little. The breadth of inquiry you’re allowed in the liberal arts gets squeezed as you become more and more specialized.”
"For me, the whole experience was really one of joy.”
But as her career developed, her focus broadened once again as she embarked on a mission to address and hopefully impact the problems plaguing the medical delivery system in the United States today. Focusing in particular on the economic side of healthcare, she returned to school for her MBA and since finishing has taken on numerous roles that have given her a unique vantage point on how the multiple sectors surrounding the healthcare economy interact and connect with one another.
“These experiences had me recall and appreciate the sort of thinking I’d done while a student pursuing the humanities,” she says. “I could see very clearly how an ability to look at these different contexts sociologically would be a great help. After years of specialization, the sort of synthetic thinking you get from a humanities approach started to seem very valuable and relevant for navigating the different sectors in healthcare.”
In the end, despite the numerous signs goading her to engage seriously once again with the humanities, it took arriving home one day and noticing her son, one of her two children studying at the University of Chicago, reading a book on the couch. The book and the ideas that she knew the book contained ushered her to her next step in life.
“I was profoundly jealous that he had the ability to study and read these books, which I’d probably read some time ago but had since lost much of my fluency in,” she says. “Plus, there was the fact that it was becoming more difficult to have conversations with both children as they delved into these new areas of learning. That’s what finally made me enroll in the MLA program.”
She describes the MLA program as the most stimulating and enjoyable educational experience she’s had, attributing this to the faculty, format, and fellow students.
"You’re forced to step outside your own knowledge and comfort zone [in the MLA classroom], and you have to engage not only with other views, but even with your own views in new ways.”
“Reading and discussing Shakespeare with David Bevington? I don’t think it gets any better than that,” she says. “The driving motivation for me has always been intellectual curiosity, and the MLA program is ideal for that. Everyone there is searching for something. Nobody is forcing anybody to be there.”
She highlights in particular the interactions she had in class with individuals from different backgrounds, who also often held very different views from her own.
“But that’s the point of the MLA classroom,” she says. “The discussions go very deep and become very intense, but they’re always safe as well. You’re forced to step outside your own knowledge and comfort zone, and you have to engage not only with other views, but even with your own views in new ways.”
As a person always looking for innovative ways to make an impact—she also currently serves as president of a foundation overseeing bilingual educational opportunities and clean water projects in Honduras—Dr. Nedza, for her MLA thesis, chose to approach the issue of climate change from a novel angle. Through looking at activist poetry centered around the environmental crisis, she was interested to see what type of effect a non-scientific discourse might have on an issue typically conveyed to the public through the language of science.
“Investigating new ways to communicate a complex scientific issue so as to influence public policy hasn’t just been eye-opening in terms of my work in healthcare,” she says. “After all, something as complex as healthcare requires you to frame issues in different ways for different audiences. But, even more, my thesis experience encapsulates a central characteristic to the MLA program and the excitement I discovered while engaging with the ‘life of the mind’ again. For me, the whole experience was really one of joy.”