Our first interview published under our experts section is with Jennifer Zuk. Jennifer is also creator of the anatomically (almost) correct brain model displayed in our cooking corner.
PhD Candidate, Harvard University (30 years)
o How did you get here?
I have dedicated my time to exploring my interests at the intersection between developmental cognitive neuroscience, clinical speech-language pathology, and music. My path has taken many unexpected turns and led me to experiences I could not have even imagined would have been possible. After completing my undergraduate training in music education and cognitive science, I found myself fascinated by research on how music affects the brain. I followed this interest by working in research, and then discovered more about the clinical implications of this work. I had the opportunity to work with children and adults with communication disorders, which led me to be further fascinated by the potential clinical translation of this line of inquiry. Yet, I also felt the need to better understand traditional clinical approaches to speech and language development in order to then consider the role of music in contributing to this field. Following these interests led me to the Harvard PhD program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology, which has allowed me to pursue clinical training in speech-language pathology in addition to a research-based doctoral degree.
o What is your focus?
I aim to further our understanding of speech, language and reading development to improve effective methods that may facilitate optimal quality of life for those who experience limitations in these domains. My current research focuses on studying brain and behavioral development of young children from infancy to school age utilizing neuroimaging methods. In particular, I have been examining how musical abilities relate to speech, language, and literacy development. This work seeks to determine whether musical experience may a protective or compensatory role in shaping development.
o What is it that fascinates you about research and science?
I am fascinated by the powerful potential for research to impact change. It is remarkable to see the ways in which research can provide evidence to inform best practices and guide policy. I am motivated by the potential of research to inform clinical practice and guide our decisions about how we can best serve ourselves, our well-being, and our communities.
o What are the biggest challenges?
To me, some of the biggest challenges come from the reality that research is a long, careful, tedious, and slow process. It is essential to maintain a strong source of intrinsic motivation, and trust that this long process is leading us somewhere. As scientists, we contribute small pieces of evidence that collectively have the potential to make a significant impact but this is a process that takes time, patience, and perseverance.
o What is your approximate success/rejection rate for (papers/grants/job applications)?
To me, an important question here is how many times has one tried for certain opportunities. On the first try, my success rate is probably less than 10%. However, the key to my success has been perseverance. I did not get into PhD programs the first time I applied, but I learned about what is critical to prepare and consider through the rejection process and when I applied the next time, ended up in my topic choice program. I have since obtained multiple fellowships to support my graduate training, but it took rounds of resubmissions to obtain these achievements. When it comes to papers, grants, and career opportunities, I’ve found it essential to recognize that it is impossible to think you’ll get everything you try for but the key is to see what you can learn from every experience and let that inform how you proceed.
o We are all great in handling success, but what is your mantra to handle rejections?
Perseverance. Sometimes you just have to pick yourself up and keep going.
o Which music do you listen to:
….when your hypothesis crumbles
Shake it out by Florence and the Machine
….when your experiment succeeds
Anything can happen by Ellie Goulding
….to represent your research topic
My topic focuses on music itself!
o Are you a cat or dog person?