An uncommon education: pursuing music and science

Elizabeth (Zab) Johnson (MHC '94)

Elizabeth (Zab) Johnson ’94, Executive Director and Senior Fellow

Major: psychobiology with a music minor

Advanced degrees: Ph.D. in Neural Science, New York University

Employer: The Wharton Neuroscience Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania

When I was in high school and looking at colleges, a Mount Holyoke admissions officer told me that it was absolutely possible to study both music and science at the College — though I might find it difficult to make my schedule work with all of the required laboratory classes. As it turned out, Mount Holyoke was the only college I visited to tell me this. While most admissions interviewers told me I'd ultimately have to choose, Mount Holyoke's interviewer told me, yes, it would be difficult to make my course schedule work, but that it would be possible.

As a result, I came to Mount Holyoke, and chose an interdepartmental major (psychobiology), and, as a music minor, completed most of the course work toward a music major. In spite of my very demanding schedule of science classes and lab sections, I was able to complete a senior honors thesis in music theory analyzing John Cage's "Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard," with support of both my violin professor, Linda Laderach, and an amazing music theory professor, Tim Johnson, who willingly taught me advanced music theory as an independent study.

Through my music theory classes at Mount Holyoke I realized how I could best learn chemistry and biology: learn the rules, then learn how you can break the rules and make it all work anyway. This turned out to be incredibly beneficial knowledge that I still put into practice every day.

My dedication to serious violin practice throughout my four years at Mount Holyoke taught me to commit and apply myself, and to be resilient under pressure when facing stressful deadlines, technical challenges and public performances. My dedication and resilience not only got me through a Ph.D. program in neuroscience, they also gave me the confidence and ability to talk about my work in the classroom, to my colleagues and peers, and to the public.

To prepare for my interview with the director of the Center for Neural Science at New York University, my top pick for graduate school, I read every one of his recent papers. The first thing the director said to me was, "So, your senior thesis is an analysis of a piece by John Cage? Tell me what that was about and why his compositions qualify as music." For 30 minutes, I held my own on the subject of John Cage and his music, despite an intense grilling on the matter. Not once did we discuss anything related to neuroscience. I got an email from him the next day that said how much he had enjoyed our discussion and that they were offering me admission to the program. Again, I credit Mount Holyoke and the Music Department for my "uncommon education."

I am currently the Executive Director and a Senior Fellow of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, which connects brain science with business, through research, education, and programs. Before that, I was the Associate Director of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences and an Assistant Research Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University, where I designed and co-taught an undergraduate course with an art historian entitled "Art, Vision, and the Brain."

My formative experiences at Mount Holyoke combining my love of music and science certainly set me on my interdisciplinary path. I also still play the violin as much as I can, both in amateur chamber groups and in a community orchestra.