The Arts Advantage: Empathetic Engineers Thanks to Theater

Alexa Bolin Santiago headshot

Traditionally, the arts and sciences have been viewed as two distant fields of study. But it isn’t uncommon for Duke’s arts departments to see students with defined career dreams in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) also enrolled in performing and visual arts courses — adding the arts to their education and transforming STEM to STEAM.

STEAM student Alexa Bolin Santiago (B.S. Biomedical Engineering; minor musical theater ’23) is a biomedical engineering junior who is intrigued with automation, an interest that developed during her co-op work with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

With firm plans to focus on circuits, robotics and the medical application of programming, she’s also chosen to minor in musical theater and made room in her heavy course load to explore the world of theater design.

Below, Alexa discusses why she’s making a conscious effort to include theater courses in her studies.

What brought you to Theater Studies and the musical theater minor?

In high school, I was heavily involved in community theater, and those experiences were amazing. They gave me the chance to perform in ensemble and lead roles, to help the costume team and to build sets.

Coming to Duke, I knew I wanted to stay involved in the arts and grow as an artist. But with my career dreams in engineering, I also knew that I didn’t want to pursue theater as a major. The musical theater minor seemed like the perfect way to really hone my theatrical skills while pursing my major. 

At Duke, I’ve been meaning to get more involved with the theater groups, but my schedule really hasn’t been flexible enough. So, I’ve started to make a conscious effort to take classes that fulfill my musical theater minor.

I took a scenic design course this fall and really enjoyed it. This semester, I’m taking a class focused on stage design and will try my hand at a costume design course in fall 2022. I’d say theatrical design is definitely the area I’d like to focus on with my minor.

Have your theater courses played a role in your STEM studies?

Taking theater courses has definitely benefitted my personal growth, and I know it will help to make me a better engineer.

In class, we learn how to envision a character’s emotions and actions by analyzing text or images. These exercises are crucial for developing a strong sense of empathy — which is extremely important for students like me who are following a STEM career path, because teamwork is a fundamental skill in the professions we’ll one day enter. And I think biomedical engineers need to be especially empathetic because their work ultimately revolves around the patient.

Although I’m not sure where my career will lead me just yet, I do know that I want to continue pursuing biomedical engineering while taking as many theater classes as possible.