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Living a Double (Major) Life

UT offers curious young academics just about any area of study imaginable. But for some students, choosing only one just won’t do. Meet eight Longhorns with unexpected dual-degree plans and hear how they’re making it work.

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With 119 undergraduate degree programs (more than 15 of which are ranked in the top 10 nationally) and more than 12,400 courses, The University of Texas at Austin offers curious young academics just about any area of study imaginable.

And for some students, choosing only one just won’t do. Enter the double major. History and religious studies. Finance and economics. Psychology and social work.

But what if your interests aren’t such an obvious pairing? Is it still worth it to major in both? Will the combination benefit you after graduation? Can you survive the workload?

Meet eight Longhorns with unexpected dual-degree plans and hear how they’re making it work.

Olivia Biehle, senior
Math and radio-television-film

“I really like making movies, and math helps out along the way.”

Olivia Biehle

Photo courtesy of the College of Natural Sciences

If anyone doubts that art and science can work together, just listen to how Biehle explains her work in 3D filmmaking:

“You have two cameras perpendicular to one another, and one shoots through glass while the other shoots through a mirror. And all the different controls that you’re using, like your interaxial distance — how far the cameras are from each other — changes your look. The rotation of the cameras changes your look. Your convergence point — what’s in 3D and what’s not in 3D — to me it all had to do with thinking of the world as a three-vector space, which I learned in linear algebra.”

For Biehle, who grew up enamored of Marvel comics and dreaming of life as Spiderman, filmmaking is a mathematical process, and math is about problem solving, a skill very much in demand when producing movies.

“Knowing the definition of a limit might not come in handy when I’m making a movie, but the ways in which I find that definition or work that proof out — it’s the same kind of reasoning that I use,” Biehle says.

Read more about Biehle’s experience in math and RTF on the College of Natural Sciences blog.

Sarah Fischer, junior
Journalism and international relations and global studies

“I have found myself becoming more engaged as a student because I am able to pursue both of my passions.”

Sarah Fischer

Photo courtesy of Sarah Fischer

A self-described “news junkie,” Fischer entered UT as an international relations student, assuming the liberal arts degree would give her enough of a critical understanding of the world to pursue a career in journalism.

But after her freshman year she realized she wanted additional technical training specifically about journalism and communications. With the help of advisors in both the College of Liberal Arts and the Moody College of Communication, she changed plans and added a second major.

Now she’s learning about the history behind modern conflicts in her international relations classes while exploring reporting and creative skills in her journalism courses. Both subjects are crucial to her career goals.

Fischer, who last spring co-founded the Liberal Arts Refugee Alliance to help connect student volunteers with local refugee settlement organizations, wants to report on international humanitarian crises and conflict. She hopes her work can “bring attention to the plight of the survivors and help ameliorate their situations.”

Says Fischer, “It is my belief that for people to begin caring, they first need to be well informed. I hope as a knowledgeable journalist with my educational background that I can enact positive change.”

Ben Parker, senior
Architecture and Asian cultures and languages

“By studying China, I’ve learned that not all architectural solutions are appropriate for all contexts: culture, construction and whom you must collaborate with all need to be taken into account.”

Ben Parker

Photo by Chen Lei

What’s better than a degree from one of the most distinguished programs in the country? How about degrees from two of the most distinguished programs in the country.

Parker hopes to work for an architecture firm that has a long-term commitment to China, and he has already traveled to Beijing twice to study both architecture and language. For Parker, the two areas of study go hand in hand. After all, no discipline exists in a vacuum.

“I chose to study architecture because of the profound impact it can have on people’s lives, and studying another language and culture will help me widen that impact.”

Parker sees pursuing a double major as his chance to have a more fully formed career.

“As only an Asian Studies student, I may have gone into translation work,” he says. “As only an architecture student, I would merely have tried to find a good job after graduating. With a double major, I am carving my own path.”

Sterling Whittemore, senior
Computational biochemistry and communication studies

“I see myself as being multilingual.”

Sterling Whittemore

Photo courtesy of Sterling Whittemore

What is the true nature of the human condition? For Whittemore, there is more than one way to explore that question.

“I find that we, as human beings, are driven completely by language: a physical language and a social one,” Whittemore says of studying both biochemistry and communications.

In pursuing two majors, Whittemore doesn’t see himself pulled in disparate directions, but rather employing distinct lenses to work through problems.

“I can develop my own software solutions for, say, a molecular dynamics problem, interpret the data, and deeply analyze the means by which I should communicate my findings to various audiences,” says Whittemore, who is part of the Integrative Computational Education and Research Traineeship Program through the Texas Advanced Computing Center.

He adds that studying both concurrently has made him a more versatile thinker and introduced him to different kinds of people.

Patricia Bennett, senior
Civil engineering and theatre and dance

“You can’t really predict what opportunities you’ll be faced with. I’ve got two awesome degrees, and my whole life ahead of me to figure out how I want to use them.”

Patricia Bennett

Photo courtesy of Patricia Bennett

The Doty Fine Arts Building sits on the outer edges of campus, but it’s a central hub of collaboration for students with connections all over the Forty Acres.

“A lot of the students [majoring in fine arts] are pursuing dual degrees in liberal arts, business, communications and natural science,” says Bennett. “The theatre building is where we all meet up and get to share our collective knowledge and experiences. The conversations that this department is cultivating are valuable.”

Bennett has impressive credentials in both engineering and theatre and sees herself taking advantage of each of them. She is equally comfortable researching hydraulic conductivity or choreographing Shakespearean fight sequences for a community theater production. Her future plans include pursuing a graduate degree in geotechnical engineering and producing a short play she wrote for the College of Fine Art’s student-run Cohen New Works Festival.

It has been grueling work, but worth it.

“What kept me sane through all of this was my family and my community here at UT,” Bennett says. “I’m so grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve experienced, and I think I’ve been successful because both of these departments are excellent.”

Erica Halpern, junior
Design and computer science

“I love using creativity and logical reasoning to solve problems.”

Erica Halpern

Photo courtesy of Erica Halpern

Halpern entered UT as a design major, intending to pursue a career in industrial design. She was drawn to the idea that she could create tangible products that can help people. But after she gained some experience creating websites, she grew curious about design as it relates to human-computer interaction. She decided that, given how deeply computers are integrated into our daily lives, she could make a bigger impact by using design principles to solve problems in computer science. Fortunately for Halpern, UT is home to the ninth-best computer science program in the country.

Halpern, who this summer will complete a second internship with Google, is already combining her design and computer science skills to work as an undergraduate research assistant in the School of Information. In that position she is helping develop a user interface and experience for an application that will allow people to transcribe handwritten documents by playing games on mobile devices. The technology will be used to transcribe archival medical records from the first psychiatric hospital for freed slaves in the United States.

Halpern says her problem-solving approach remains consistent regardless of whether she is coding the interface for a website or creating a branding system: Start with a goal or a problem and a multitude of potential directions, and then research, brainstorm, prototype, iterate and test her way to a solution. And because she is studying two disciplines, she has a broader knowledge base and skill set to draw from.

All that, she says, gets her closer to working on technology with impact.

“It is crucial to utilize the convergence of good design and computer science to foster positive change and help people do things they previously were not able to do,” Halpern says.

Joshua Kim, senior
Mechanical engineering and radio-television-film

“You never know how one aspect of your life will affect another.”

Joshua Kim

Photo courtesy of Joshua Kim

Michael Crichton was a Harvard-educated physician before he created the medical drama juggernaut “ER.” David E. Kelley was a practicing attorney before launching a string of hit legal televisions shows including “Ally McBeal” and “Boston Legal.” Could Joshua Kim continue in their footsteps?

Maybe one day.

“I see mechanical engineering as a way to uniquely aid my RTF aspirations, and vice versa,” Kim says.

For now, he’s just happy to develop his creative writing skills in his screenwriting classes while also learning about thermodynamics in his mechanical engineering studies.

“Consistently moving between scientific and creative thought keeps my mind constantly buzzing,” Kim says. “For me, it’s just great to feel like I’m exploring all my mental potential.”

Kim says he’s not yet sure exactly what he wants to do after he graduates, but he’s confident that his versatility means there are multiple paths he can take to achieve his dreams in either field he is studying.

“Some advice I’ve taken to heart is: Only you have the power to accomplish your goals, but don’t rule out any routes to see them become reality because you never know where an experience will take you.”

Clay Downham, junior
Jazz performance and philosophy

“The wide array of opportunities between the two departments allows me to craft my education as I see fit for my research.”

Clay Downham

Photo courtesy of Clay Downham

Downham is a performing musician and composer (his principal instrument is the guitar), but his core focus is music theory, so for him, philosophy and jazz performance are interdependent areas of study. “The way I see it, these two majors have everything to do with my profession,” says Downham, who has his sights set on music theory Ph.D. programs.

And whether he’s developing new theories of virtual agency in music with Professor Robert Hatten or playing in the Butler School of Music improvisational ensemble, Downham says the challenge of balancing two different degree fields with at least 20 course hours a week is “exhilarating.”