The American Academy of Arts and Sciences –– an honor society that recognizes achievement in a variety of fields –– elected three Cornell faculty members as fellows on Tuesday. The professors, along with 217 other inductees, will join “some of the world’s most accomplished scholars, scientists, writers, artists and civic, corporate and philanthropic leaders” by becoming AAAS fellows, according to a press release from the Academy.
This year’s Cornellian nominees are Prof. Joseph Fins, division of medical ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College; Prof. Steven Strogatz, applied mathematics and mechanical and aerospace engineering; and Prof. Thomas Gilovich, psychology. The three will join dozens of Cornell faculty in the AAAS, which was founded in 1780.
Fins said he was “absolutely delighted, surprised and completely humbled” to be elected. He said he found the nomination particularly rewarding because although he has worked extensively in the medical field, he was recognized by the academy for his work in public affairs.
“Although I’m a physician and I work in the sciences, I’ve spent my whole career trying to be a bridge between the humanities and the sciences,” Fins said.
Fins attributed his multi-dimensional academic career to the liberal arts education he received at Wesleyan University.
“I remember I would be carrying a large organic chemistry textbook in one arm and Ulysses under the other,” Fins said, recalling his time as a pre-med undergraduate.
Strogatz, another nominee, has also successfully combined work in the humanities and sciences into his career. He has used his roles as both a professor and columnist for The New York Times to teach a broad audience about “the beauty and importance of math.”
“I’ve always felt like I wanted to teach. That was the calling — more than math, or anything else,” Strogatz said. “What I really liked trying to do is explain things in a clear way, in a way that makes them fun and interesting to people.”
Strogatz will be joined by his neighbor, friend and weekly tennis partner, Gilovich, at the AAAS induction in Cambridge, Mass., this fall.
A professor at Cornell since 1981, Gilovich has extensively explored people’s everyday judgment and decision-making in his research. Gilovich said that he drew from his work to “advise ‘unnamed’ campaigns to hone their message” in the last two presidential election cycles — a project he found extremely gratifying because he was able to “have an impact on an extremely important domain,” he said.
Gilovich said his progression into psychology was a natural one. Although he entered college thinking he wanted to be a lawyer, he said he found himself taking psychology courses and thinking, “Hmph, I must really like this.”
Gilovich emphasized the importance of critical thinking within any realm of education or major –– a sentiment also echoed by Fins.
“The best way to succeed in a world with evermore communication is to have the basic ability to think critically and write well,” Fins said. “I think the humanities cultivates those skills.”
Strogatz cautioned against specializing too quickly as an undergraduate. For instance, he said, many of his students and advisees express a desire to pursue finance early in their college careers.
“Certainly, those fields do pay very well — by that measure, they’re very attractive — but I just worry that people are afraid to pursue their own passion or even figure out what their passion really is,” he said.
Fins, Strogatz and Gilovich will join celebrities and leaders such as Hillary Clinton, Clint Eastwood and Sir Paul McCartney in the 232nd class of AAAS fellows.
“There are a lot of good things that a person can do in the world. It’s just hard to predict what that will be,” Strogatz said. “That’s the argument for a liberal education.”