What is your academic background prior to St. John’s?
Academically, as an undergraduate, I studied pre-med and English literature. And then I worked in a genetics lab for 15 years until I got the opportunity to do a startup lab in Germany. I took German as an undergraduate in part because it’s a great language for the sciences, but also in part because of literature and the poetry, so I got chosen to go. After I came back, I did the Eastern Classics program [at St. John’s]…and I was so enchanted with the pedagogy here, I did the Liberal Arts graduate program as well. In the Eastern Classics, when I saw Sanskrit, I fell in love with the language, so I went to University of Texas in Austin and got my PhD is Sanskrit.
How did you become interested in Sanskrit?
In the genetics lab, I worked with constructed language at a point in time when technology exploded and changed, so the language was changing as well. But you couldn’t be ambiguous, you couldn’t lose your audience, because it did have life and death ramifications. so that also brought me back to questions of what a language is, how it can hold what it holds. I realized that Sanskrit would be a great language for the sciences, and this would be a great language for poetry, my other great love.
How did you hear of St. John’s?
My husband and I attended the lectures on Friday, so we knew about it that way. I’m also a poet and I had a book published in the 90’s and I got to give a poetry reading here in the fireside lounge. At first I was hesitant about the program because I had this conception that a lot of people have that you’re just teaching these dead white men and I had no sense of how living it is and no sense of how cross-disciplinary it is. St. John’s is my dream institution because my whole life I’ve been looking for a place where I can combine my interests in the sciences and my interest in language and literature, and this is the place where that happens.
Why do you think the St. John’s program is so extraordinary?
When I was an undergraduate, I had a professor in the sciences stand up and say, “This theory will never be disproven.” And I thought, “Have you ever looked at any of the history of sciences?” I mean, the whole history of science is disproving what happened before or putting it into a new framework so that it looks so totally different even if you haven’t turned it over and I think that is something really important that our students can get from the way we do things. We look at how the ideas developed based on what was in front of the people at the time and then we see it get turned over. So we’re not teaching our students that this is the way it is now and this is right, because that leads people to think our generation knows and those people in the past were not smart. I think what we do is we show they had some good thoughts and we may not be right. We think we’re so right but things might be different a hundred years from now and from my experience working in the lab, the problems you need to solve, if they were an answer in a book, it wouldn’t be a problem.
If you could choose any author to sit down with and have a meal, who would you choose?
I would love to talk to Virginia Woolf face to face, but there’s so many other people to so it that would probably depend on what day you asked. And then there’s some authors that I really like but I wouldn’t necessarily want to have dinner with…