From STEM to STEAM: Meet UCSD’s new Dean of Humanities and Arts Cristina Della Coletta

If you add the letter “A” for Arts to the educational acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) you get STEAM. Moving from STEM to STEAM by strengthening the role of the arts is the new buzz in education where an interdisciplinary focus is growing and the traditional dichotomy between the arts and the sciences is fading fast.

A native of Venice, Italy, Cristina Della Coletta hopes to contribute to the “renaissance” of STEAM learning as the new Dean of Arts & Humanities at UCSD.

From her large-windowed office on the fourth floor of the Literature Building, Della Coletta has an expansive view of Warren Mall — all the way to the Stuart Art Collection’s “Snake Path,” which winds up the hill to the Geisel Library.

She can also see the “Fallen Star,“ the little blue house perched on the corner of the top of the Engineering Building, as well as hundreds of students scurrying to their classes below, to whom she hopes to teach “durable skills in the arts and humanities … skills that can last a lifetime ... or longer.”

“This is a phenomenal university,” she said glancing back from the window during a recent interview for La Jolla Light. “It is a powerhouse which is growing at an extraordinary pace. If you look at the more traditional colleges, they just don’t have the interdisciplinary thrust that UCSD has become famous for.

“Here there is a marriage of the theoretical and the practical; science meets up with the humanities. You see music theorists alongside music performers, art historians mingling with studio artists, engineers talking to literature professors. This great interdisciplinary focus is why I wanted to work here!”

Before coming to UCSD, Della Coletta taught Italian at the University of Virginia and was also its Associate Dean of Arts & Sciences.

“What impresses me about UCSD is that it has more of a sense of the imminence of the future than anywhere else I have seen,” she said.

“Here, the present is related to the past, but not subservient to it, and the focus is on becoming something new,” Della Coletta said. “People are willing to take risks and are full of curiosity about what is behind the next corner. What powers it all is diversity. Diversity of race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation and interest.”

She said there are three things she hopes to accomplish as Dean of Arts & Humanities.

“The first is to expand the humanities to have a more global perspective,” she said. “Second, I want to encourage more collaboration between the arts and sciences — especially in the study of larger cultural areas or global issues, such as global warming or migration and immigration. Third, I want to bring more focus to practical ethics or how we should approach topics like genetics, big data and biomedicine.”

Della Coletta also hopes to bring more residents from the surrounding communities to the campus for lectures and events, and send out more teachers to the local schools to instruct about special topics.

Her Italian upbringing in picturesque Venice has left an indelible impression on her and how she views things. She is the only child of an electrical engineer and an accountant-turned-homemaker.

“We lived in an apartment, like everyone else,” she said. “My father worked for a corporation in the Marghera industrial area. Everyone knew everyone else. It was a safe place. I loved to roam the island. I remember it as a very happy world.”

After high school, Della Coletta went to college at the University of Venice.

“My second year, I got a scholarship to go to any UC school I wanted to as an exchange student. I choose UCLA, so I could to study with Professor Martha Banta, who was a specialist in the study of Henry James, an author I admired.”

At UCLA, she lived off campus with other foreign exchange students and struggled to learn English. She also met Mike Thrift (now an environmental lawyer), whom she would eventually marry after a long-term, long-distance relationship.

The couple has two children, a son at University of Virginia and a daughter at La Jolla High School.

After a year at UCLA, Della Coletta went back to Venice to finish college, and then chose the University of Virginia because it was one of the few places that would accept graduate students in the middle of the year.

As it tuned out, U of V was a very comfortable place for Della Coletta because of the extensive use of the Italian-influenced architectural style known as “palazzo.” There were tall, white columns everywhere that made her feel at home. There, Della Coletta switched her focus to Italian literature and taught Italian for the language department.

Della Coletta and her husband-to-be decided they would both go to the same college for graduate study. That turned out to be UCLA, which accepted her to study Italian and him to study law.

At UCLA, Della Coletta turned her doctoral research into a book about how historical fiction can offer a unique perspective for examining history. She has also written about Italian world fairs, and the transition of books into movies, such as the transformation of the American novel, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” into the Italian film, “Ossessione.”