Students who do cool things: Independent Concentrators


Strong, independent Brown students who don’t need no defined concentration.

“Doesn’t everyone at Brown, like, make up their own major?” You might laugh off questions like this from naïve relatives, but if you wish their imagined version of Brown were actually the real one, an independent concentration is for you. Contrary to popular belief, there are only about 20 independent concentrators per class, but they each have a passion that drove them to design their own focus of study from scratch.

Last week, I attended an Independent Concentration info session to learn about the process of applying for an IC and all of the awesome concentrations that students have already put together. If you’re reading this is and thinking, “Damn, an independent concentration sounds so cool, but I’m already a junior,” it’s not too late: you can apply for an IC through your sixth semester.

But be warned: an independent concentration isn’t for the faint of heart simply looking to get out of other concentration requirements. In fact, an independent concentration takes much more thought and effort than a traditional one, and requires you to have a passion for something completely outside the realm of a current concentration. Students who pursue ICs work closely with a faculty advisor to create a cohesive course trajectory, and round off their concentrations with a capstone project or thesis.

To apply to be an independent concentrator, interested students fill out an online application that includes their intended course selection and a personal statement, and applications are reviewed three times per semester. A subcommittee of student ICers and faculty members read applications and give one of three decisions: accepted, tentative approval pending some changes, or encouraged to resubmit.

Students pursue independent concentrations for a host of reasons. Sometimes, the topic is offered by other schools but Brown doesn’t have a program; in other cases, a student wants to pursue the overlap between two concentrations at Brown in a way that double concentrating wouldn’t allow. You can look up all of the past ICs that have been completed on the Curricular Resource Center database to get an idea of the range 0f concentrations that students have come up with.

The independent concentrations that current students are pursuing are all so cool-sounding and complicated that we thought we’d leave the descriptions up to the ICers themselves. We’ve gathered a few students’ thoughts on their independent concentrations, and they make us wonder if we’re doing Brown wrong. Check out the ICers and their ICs below: 

Rebecca Carrol ’15 
IC: Evolutionary Anthropology
What & why: I’m interested in stories about humans. And the oldest, deepest story I can study is the one about our origins—where we came from, and what our evolution can tell us about where we’re going. I’ve brought together courses from biology, cognitive science/psychology, and anthropology to study the story of human evolution.

Alexandra Urban ’15
IC: Educational Neuroscience
What & why: My IC allows me to study exactly what I am most interested in: how students learn on a biological level in order to improve how we teach.  By combining courses in Neuro, CLPS, Education, and Applied Math, I was able to create my own interdisciplinary concentration – it’s one of the most gratifying activities I’ve done at Brown and enables me to write the cross-discipline thesis I really want to!

Ivy Sokol ’15
IC: Social Innovation
What & why: I define Social Innovation as the field of study concerned with the development of innovative solutions to global systemic problems that are transformative and sustainable. The particular problem I study is environmental degradation; I’m exploring the ways in which education can combat environmental issues by promoting the practice of environmental stewardship. A critical piece of this exploration is a program I’m working on called Moving Mountains, which uses outdoor education to empower urban youth in Providence.

Shayna Zema ’15
IC: Geography
What & why: After struggling to name my academic curiosity, I came into my passion during a semester away studying in Puerto Rico. Conducting field work and taking courses with some of the most amazing professors I will ever have the opportunity to in my life, I fostered my career as a geographer. At Brown, I created an independent concentration the following semester and am thrilled to have designed my own education. Geography can be defined as the study of Earth’s natural and built environments. Geographers explore the processes that shape Earth’s human and non-human environments, transform our lived landscapes, and inform social, economic, and political relationships in and across space.

Amelia Grant-Alfieri ’15
IC: Visual Perception and Art
What & why: Combining visual art, neuroscience, cognitive science, and illustration, I study the relationships between the human visual system and the creation and comprehension of art and design. More recently, my interests have evolved toward education; thus, I hope to apply the interdisciplinary skills and perspectives gained from my IC to better visually communicate current scientific issues, may it be public health or environmental science.

Lauren Galvan ’16
ICMental Health and Healing
What & why: After Sunil Tripathi’s death in 2013, I decided to dedicate my four years in college to learning about mental health. My IC breaks down mental health and healing into the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual correlates in order to better understand it in a holistic and interdisciplinary way as well as to improve healing methods and gain more knowledge about them. My IC curriculum includes courses from a range of departments including Anthropology, Sociology, CLPS, Neuroscience, Science and Society, and TAPS. My hope is that MH&H will help de-stigmatize mental health challenges on and off campus!

Jonah Cader ’16
IC: Computational Neuroscience
What & why: The goal of my IC is to illuminate the brain with computer science, and to use those insights as a template for more efficient machine learning algorithms. It’s inspired by the idea that brains and computers are each impressive computational engines, with complementary strengths and weaknesses. Better understanding of the brain and better machine learning has implications for everything from biomedical research to Netflix’s suggestions for what to binge watch next.

We hope you agree that these ICers are some of the most truly Brunonian Brown students out there. If you were inspired, learn more about independent concentrations here.

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