It’s not common for a future scientist to pursue a degree in a foreign language — let alone alongside their professor.
That is, however, the case for Katelyn Tepper, a chemistry major at Purdue Fort Wayne who wound up being classmates with her chemistry professor, Steven Stevenson, whom she also assists with research on a National Science Foundation-funded grant. Over the past few years, the two have been taking a French class together.
“I chose to pursue a French degree, because I was introduced to the language and culture at Carroll High School in Fort Wayne and was fascinated by both of them,” Tepper said. “My knowledge of the language will be useful when I travel abroad and in bilingual job opportunities, such as translation or teaching.”
Stevenson was first introduced to foreign languages as a child by his father, who was fluent in four and “dabbled” in six others. “Of those 10 languages, I loved the way the French language sounded. I admit that I struggled as a kid to pronounce Swahili and Chinese,” he said.
When he started college, Stevenson said he tried to juggle a double major of chemistry and French, “but due to scholarship and time constraints, I had to drop one of the majors. My heart said stay with French. My parents said chemistry. I rationalized and made a promise back in 1990 to someday return to college for that missing French degree.”
Nearly 30 years later, he applied for admission to what was then Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne and enrolled in the French program from which he just graduated.
“The irony is Katelyn graduated this May with a double major in French and chemistry,” he said. “So, each of us now has a B.S. in chemistry and a B.A. in French.”
Stevenson added, “Katelyn and I are the last two French majors who will ever graduate from PFW. We were IU students and graduated with IU degrees under the IPFW teach-out phase. The irony continues because in one moment we would sit together as fellow students in a French class. Then, separated by a few minutes, I was her faculty mentor in chemistry undergraduate research.”
Nancy Virtue, a PFW French professor, considers Stevenson and Tepper to be among the very finest French students she has ever taught in her years at the university.
“They both have a strong command of French and share a passion for French and francophone culture,” Virtue said. “Both Katelyn and Steven understand that the study of international languages and culture, far from being incompatible with disciplines like science and math, only enrich and complement them. So, it’s particularly meaningful to me that our very last French majors also exemplify the values of interdisciplinarity and a liberal arts education.”
When asked how their new French degrees will complement their work in chemistry, Tepper said it will be an asset in her further research.
“Speaking French will also be helpful in accessing chemical research articles that I otherwise could not access or understand,” she said.
Tepper’s future plans include starting a master’s program in biochemistry at the Indiana University School of Medicine, pursuing a Ph.D. and working in medical research.
Stevenson also has plans to use his French degree after he retires.
“My bucket list item is to write children’s books in other languages,” he said. “As long as I have internet access, maybe I could work in my retirement as a translator on some obscure island, be on an HGTV episode of House Hunters International, buy a house on a white sandy beach, with translation stuff to the left and a beverage on the right … Oh la la. C’est la vie.
“Any foreign language, if understood, unlocks the key to communicating with other cultures. Learning a language allows people from different countries to finally communicate. Without speaking their language, how could you share thoughts, beliefs, culture or ideas?”