Wickedly Complex

Emerging diseases, cyberterrorism, and food insecurity are tough nuts to crack. That’s why we need to put scientists and engineers together to solve them.

Wickedly Complex
Take what is good and make it better: Start with an ethical grounding in doing science, then bring together a range of disciplines to problems from different angles. / Illustration by Owen Smith

As a biology major at SCU in the late 1980s, I spent hundreds of hours in the lab and field, doing science and not just reading about it. Beyond the classroom, I did research in a professor’s lab—two projects actually, one of which led to a paper in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. At SCU, I gained amazing hands-on experience, and I was well prepared for graduate school.

But during my time studying science at SCU, I was not once exposed to engineering. Oh, I had friends in engineering, and I heard stories about their senior design projects. But I never entered their buildings. I never saw how they worked or what they did. And I was not exposed to design thinking, the engineering sister to the scientific method.

Now I’ve been a professor at SCU for 18 years, and for the first 15 of those, nothing had changed. Working in biology and later a new department of environmental studies and sciences, I never once stepped into the engineering buildings, only a few hundred yards from my lab. And students from the sciences and engineering had little contact with each other, outside of a few required introductory courses.

SCU’s new Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation will forever change that. When this new campus opens, every SCU undergraduate student—STEM majors and non-majors alike—will learn how scientists and engineers approach problems, and our majors will experience firsthand our ability to arrive at better solutions when we work together.


Today’s problems, ranging from cyberterrorism to emerging diseases, food insecurity, and climate change, are wickedly complex. As we at SCU look to Silicon Valley, we see that the most innovative breakthroughs do not come from individuals working in isolation, and no single approach or methodology can save the day. The old model of siloed disciplines is gone, and we are transforming the way we train students to reflect this new reality. Our new STEM initiative is bringing faculty together across departments to rethink our courses, our research programs, and how our students work and play together.

And our new Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation is key to this revolution. Soon we will leave our isolated science and engineering spaces, currently scattered across nearly a dozen buildings, and we will build a cohesive home for all STEM. Students entering this campus will find inviting spaces for conversation, study, and putting their ideas into action. Work that is currently shuttered behind doors will be visible to all who walk our halls. Makerspaces, innovation lounges, and classrooms designed for active learning will allow students and faculty to work together in new ways. Thanks to the generosity of the Sobrato family, and now the Leavey Foundation, SCU will be at the leading edge, training our next generation of STEM innovators and leaders.

MICHELLE MARVIER is a professor of environmental studies and sciences and the coauthor of Conservation Science: Balancing the Needs of People and Nature.

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