Historically Speaking

May 01, 2017

CBS undergraduate Avalon Swenson looks to the past to inform her future as a physician. 

Avalon Swenson

Avalon Swenson looks ahead by looking behind. With a passion and interest in biology and a desire to become a physician, she loves to dig into the details and complexities of science. But another subject area not only piques her interest, but also drives her understanding of the world of medicine.

“I started my freshmen year knowing I needed to have both biology and history in my course load throughout college,” says Swenson. “I love these areas, in part, because of how my own mind works. I'm an exceptionally detail oriented person. In fact, I think it drives my friends a little nuts sometimes. But in my opinion, both biology and history are so, so detailed and intricate.”

This May, she graduates with degrees in biology and history with a focus in medieval studies. Despite studying what some may see as disparate topics, Swenson, who is also the vice president of the CBS Student Board, sees numerous places where her coursework or research has overlapped.

“I read a lot of primary source materials as a historian and I understand what is being written in historical medical texts or old chemical recipes much better,” she says. “The steps of alchemy and substance purification aligned almost perfectly with the same steps, albeit more complex in some ways, that I was taking in organic chemistry lab to extract oils or create plastics.”

In addition to her coursework in these two fields, she also did work on the history of medicine, completing her history bachelor’s thesis on Paracelsus, a 16th century physician. By crossing over these topics repeatedly during her undergraduate career, she also gained a new perspective on how she thinks of these two areas of study.

“I don't differentiate between biology and history of medicine as hard and soft sciences, because I think that's just wrong,” she says. “Humanities and science, such as biology, can be so interdependent on one another both academically and socially.”

While finding both topics personally intriguing, she also sees how she can take this perspective into her career as a physician.

“My patients are people, and their lives and health won't be simply defined by lab work or biochemical pathways in their understanding or handling of it,” she says. “I think my now -intrinsic belief that science and social sciences have to go together will allow me to form better, more individualized relationships with my patients.”


-Lance Janssen