Julia Takano MacKinnon (C’20) uses liberal arts to find passion for STEM

Julia MacKinnon (C’20). Photo by Sambhav Bansal (C’23).

By Sambhav Bansal
Executive Staff

Julia Takano MacKinnon (C’20) came to Sewanee with her major undeclared and with a general interest in International and global studies (IGS) — to learn more about the globalizing world we live in now — and to potentially have a career in international hospitality. She did not expect to become a math and psychology major, minoring in Asian Studies. As an Asian American who was raised in Singapore and travelled often with her family, she initially wanted to pursue a career in aviation management. Instead of going into a highly specific field of study, MacKinnon thought Sewanee would be a good fit to learn more about international and global studies, and develop her aspirations from there. 

Her freshman year completely changed her view about international studies, and instead took her on a path she didn’t think she would ever go on. In true liberal arts fashion, in her first semester, she was placed in PSYC 101, CALC 102, a geopolitics IGS class, and an Asian Studies class about Japanese folklore and mythology, which she described as “really funky, but fun.” She ended up realizing that she didn’t like IGS, but loved all her other classes. 

MacKinnon became interested in mathematics when she found a key difference between the way it was taught in high school versus at Sewanee. She realized that she could be much more inquisitive and get definitive answers to her questions about math at Sewanee. There was more to gain and learn about, and instead of just knowing how to solve an equation, she identified the need and reasoning behind it.

She considered psychology interesting enough to take more courses in, but not something in which she planned to major. Her placements led her to be a math and psychology major and an Asian Studies minor.

MacKinnon believes her math major shaped her identity, and feels proud of herself to be a woman in a STEM field, when the field is majority men. The women are looked down upon in her culture to study something as rigorous as math.

“Women in STEM are considered a rare species,” said MacKinnon, “and I’m proud to be one.”

She originally intended to learn Italian as her foreign language at Sewanee, because of a trip to Italy two years before college, but after taking her first Asian studies course, she instead felt motivated to learn more about her Asian culture and realized how much it  shaped her own identity. She decided to take Chinese courses at Sewanee to learn the language and more Asian studies classes. She didn’t intend on minoring in the subject, but soon noticed that she already met the required amount of courses and then declared it.

When asked about how she plans to apply the skills she learned at Sewanee, MacKinnon talked about the social environment at Sewanee, which has been a huge part of her personal growth. She explained that the community and the culture pushed her to develop soft skills in a way that other colleges fail to do; here, the development also continues outside of classes, and she’s grateful for that. She states that when she came to Sewanee, she was shy and introverted, but because Sewanee is so small, and everyone actually wants you to talk and wants to listen to you, MacKinnon developed the comfort and the skills to be out there and talk to people easily, which is an important skill employers seek in STEM fields. 

MacKinnon also developed her leadership skills by getting involved with campus organizations such as the Sewanee Asian Organization, and helping to create a new theme house on campus, the Asian Language and Culture house. 

She felt the need for such a house on campus, considering the existence of so many language houses on campus, but the entire continent of Asia and its languages unrepresented. She feels proud of everything she’s done at Sewanee and her personal development.

Until her junior year, she didn’t plan on a career in psychology and just considered her major as a hobby rather than having a career in it, but now she sees herself combining her majors, to get into the field of quantitative psychology, where she can handle research data. She also wants to make an impact in the field of environmentalism and conservation; she would like to explore the possibilities of data handling and applying her mathematical statistician skills in environmental research. Right now, she said she’s just focusing on gaining experience so that she can navigate towards making a change.