Award honors engineering students who pursue humanities

wells collage

Joyce Zhu, at left, and Wendy Snyder, shown during a rehearsal, performed with the University of Rochester Symphony Orchestra, directed by David Harman, in a concert of “fantastic finales” by Beethoven, Berlioz, and Brahms.(Photos by Bob Marcotte/University of Rochester.)

Two University of Rochester seniors who pursued their passions for music alongside their studies in mechanical engineering and computer science are recipients of this year’s Robert L. Wells Award. The award recognizes students in the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences for “demonstrated competence in both engineering and the humanities.”

Wendy Snyder of mechanical engineering, a violinist, and Joyce Zhu of computer science, a clarinetist, both said the University’s open curriculum (read more here) gave them the flexibility to compile the credits they needed to complete a minor and a double major in music.

“Music is a big part of my life,” says Snyder. “I liked the flexibility of the curriculum because it allowed me to do the engineering and still take the music classes that I wanted.”

“Without having to complete the sort of general educational courses that most colleges require,” Zhu adds, “it was a lot easier for me to fit a double major into four years of undergraduate study and pursue some other extracurricular interests as well.”

The Wells award is given annually to the two engineering students with minors or majors in humanities who had the best overall GPAs at the end of their junior year. Snyder’s GPA was 4.0; Zhu’s was 3.97.

The award reflects the value that the Hajim School places on giving its students a “full spectrum” of educational experiences in addition to engineering.

“Although engineers are problem solvers, as problems become larger and more complex, it’s important that our students are skilled at communicating with each other, their customers, and with other stakeholders in order to effectively solve these problems,” says Lisa Norwood, the school’s assistant dean for undergraduate studies.

“Studying the humanities provides our students with the skills to clearly communicate their ideas with diverse audiences, facilitating multidisciplinary collaborations and generating creative ideas. This helps make our graduates well-rounded and socially conscious individuals.”

Zhu concurs. “As well-rounded as the engineering curriculum is here, participating in the humanities teaches you things that can help you not only in the workplace, but in being a good human being.”

Snyder first became interested in playing musical instruments at age 5, Zhu in fifth grade.

Zhu chose to attend the University of Rochester specifically because she could audition to take classes and free music lessons at the Eastman School in addition to pursuing a major in computer science at the River Campus. “You can’t really find that kind of opportunity anywhere else,” she says.

Initially she thought about music primarily as an extracurricular activity, perhaps a minor at most. However, after immersing herself in music theory classes, she followed an instructor’s advice to pursue a major in music as a way to “delve into it in a way you can’t once you graduate and start working,” Zhu said.

Zhu has also been a member of the wind symphony, the Music Interest Floor at the Wilder Towers residence hall, and the Computer Science Undergraduate Council.

Snyder arrived on campus already determined to minor in music. “It was a nice break to have a music class or two mixed in with all the engineering,” she says. And the acoustics classes she has taken as part of her music minor dovetail nicely with her career interest in designing acoustics systems for underwater applications – something she experienced firsthand during two memorable summers aboard Robert Ballard's seagoing exploration vessel Nautilus. (Read more here.)

She has also been active with the Baja SAE team, which designs and builds an all-terrain vehicle each year to race against other collegiate teams. She’s the chief mechanic this year, and “loving it. The team is really like a family. We’re all really close. We’re using everything that we’ve learned in the classroom to apply to the real world, and learning from our mistakes. Hopefully now I won’t make those same mistakes when I actually get a job.”

Zhu would like to work as a software engineer in the Bay area. She doesn’t know if her career path will include work where her musical skills and knowledge could be applied. Wherever that path leads, she’s hoping it will include music-minded communities. “I would definitely love to find community ensembles I can play with.”