Sarah Izen, 25
Lives in: Boston
Nominated by Eva Jaeger
If you had told 15-year-old Sarah Izen that she’d one day become a neuroscientist she would have laughed at you. She hated science. And now she’s on her way to landing a PhD on the subject.
Out of the lab, you can find Sarah in the string section of the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra or playing the violin for a soon-to-be-recorded album with a small band in Boston. She is a planner at heart, trying not to let it get the better of her, wondering what our brains are really up to and proving to herself that she’s capable of doing really challenging things.
If you’re anything like us, and kind of feel like neuroscientist sounds a lot like astronaut – a life you can’t see any direct path into – then Sarah’s story is for you.
Right now you feel like you’ve hit the right path and you’re on your way to a PhD in neuroscience. What decisions led you to the right track?
I feel like everything kind of happened very incrementally. Everything I’ve done up to this point have been things that I thought I wanted to do, so in that way I don’t think I’ve made any wrong decisions, but when I look back on things that’s when I think, Hey, I could have started this thing that I’d actually liked sooner!
I had this feeling that neuroscience was this really hard thing and I wanted to conquer it. I wanted to get it.
What kinds of things are we talking about?
Well, in high school I actually really hated science. I can’t really pinpoint why, but I think it had a lot to do with the kinds of courses we took in high school. You don’t get exposed to neuroscience in high school; it’s just basic chemistry and biology.
And lots of bunsen burners!
Yeah, and it just didn’t click with me really. It wasn’t til college that I heard more about neuroscience. I took the introductory course and I loved it. I ended up majoring in both neuroscience and psychology and the thing that really interests me is where they intersect. I also had this feeling that neuroscience was this really hard thing and I wanted to conquer it. I wanted to get it. But I had to first go out into the field and work out that the day-to-day of neurobiology wasn’t for me. It happened slowly.
We know so little about the brain. It seems like magic to me and I want to figure out what it is. Because it’s clearly not magic!
I have to say that to a non-science person like me neuroscientist sounds like becoming an astronaut in my head! What’s the most exciting thing about the brain?
Oh god, everything! It’s the kind of thing I think about multiple times a day. We went to the hockey the other day and I was just sitting there thinking about all these hockey players skating around the rink and doing it so smoothly and that’s their brain coordinating all these things. How does it know how to do that? How does it get better? And the overarching thing, that I think is the most fascinating, is that we know so little about the brain. It seems like magic to me, quite frankly, and I want to figure out what it is. Because it’s clearly not magic!
What’s your dream neuroscience project? What are you aiming for?
The thing that I’m trying to pursue the most right now is how music is processed is by the brain.
Of course, that sounds perfect!
I combined my two big things, really, in a great way. There’s not a ton going on yet in the field, but there are some people doing really cool things.
What does the day-to-day life of a neuroscientist look like?
Well, the work I’m doing at the moment is neuroimaging. The lab that I’m working in does functional MRI, so basically you stick someone in this huge scanner, they’re awake and you can have them do certain tasks and see what areas of the brain are activated. Neuroscientists essentially have lots of experiments going on, they do a lot of thinking about how they design an experiment, a lot of collaborating with other people, problem solving, data analysis and lots of looking at images of brains and thinking about what it means.
And making it all nice and simple for the rest of us to understand!
I made friends in kindergarten and that was kind of it, I’d made my friends! And when I had to do that again, I didn’t know how it worked.
Part of the journey to get to where you are now involved moving away from your hometown of Chicago. What were you most afraid of when you first moved away?
When I left for college I was just afraid of being on my own. I had never really had that experience of going somewhere to live and knowing nobody. It was terrifying. Also, another thing that was anxiety-provoking was that I went to a private school from kindergarten through high school. It was a school that my dad taught at – that’s why I went there – but I made friends in kindergarten and that was kind of it, I’d made my friends! And when I had to do that again, I didn’t know how it worked. I knew I was going to have a roommate and I didn’t know if I was going to like her. It turns out she’s my very best friend now. I was terrified to share my life with her.
It’s funny how we just forget how to make friends but it’s totally reasonable, right? It’s like not dating for a while and then thinking, Oh god, what are the first words that are meant to come out of my mouth? Whenever I go to a networking event I just feel like I’m in grade one again. That’d be a good neuroscience project, actually – you could track people’s brain activity in situations where they don’t know anyone.
Yeah! And that’s the really exciting thing because people react so differently. Depending on your personality some people don’t talk at all and others don’t even understand what the problem is. That’s always been an interesting thing for me because I was really shy as a kid and I’ve grown out of it to an extent, but I understand how those people feel.
How did shyness show up in your life when you were younger?
I was a quiet kid, I think. I would always rather listen to things going on. I didn’t want people looking at me. I never cried in public, it would have been too embarrassing!
I can’t believe you had that kind of conscious thought to not cry in public!
I know, I bet no other kid had that thought of, How can I not embarrass myself? And I was especially shy with my parents’ friends.
I get it. I did a similar thing where my sister and I would bolt and hide under one of our beds when our parents’ friends came over. I really didn’t realise that it wasn’t normal behaviour! But adults can be scary when you’re a kid.
Haha! Yeah they are. And I don’t know how I grew out of it.
I think it’s the little negotiations that are so crucial to having a successful relationship.
Coming back to your life right now, one of the big relationships in your life is with your boyfriend. What do you think is the trickiest thing about keeping a healthy relationship together?
You know, it was interesting what Eva was saying about her boyfriend because there’s just something about having to let someone into your life that forces you to shift some things around – so that you fit together. It’s different to how you would have separately lived and it’s often in small ways. I think it’s the little negotiations that are so crucial to having a successful relationship.
I think about this a lot, too, and ‘small negotiations’ is a really good way of putting it. It’s so strange when you stop to think about it, how we partner up with one another. There are bound to be tensions, and just because there are doesn’t mean that it can’t work. I think you just have to skill up. What do you think?
Yeah, it’s definitely something that develops, that you can get better at.
What is the best thing about being in this relationship you’re in?
That’s a big question! I’d say the best thing about our relationship is that we go on tons of adventures; Graham’s always up for anything and we love going on spontaneous hikes or on little day trips. We have a lot of fun!
I focus a lot on, I’ll be so happy if and when such and such happens… but that’s not here right now so you kind of have to do whatever you can to be the happiest today.
And on that note of you applying for a PhD and not knowing where you’ll be going next, what are you most afraid of?
I think I’m afraid of the thing that a lot of people are afraid of, you know, working really hard to get somewhere and that somewhere isn’t all you hoped it would be. I think that’s why I’ve tried so hard to figure out what it is I want to do so I don’t wake up one morning and think, Oh god what am I doing! I focus a lot on, I’ll be so happy if and when such and such happens…but that’s not here right now so you kind of have to do whatever you can to be the happiest today. And that will propel you to whatever it is you’re steering towards, I hope!
I think so, too. And it’s such a difficult thing to keep top of mind, isn’t it? Because it feels like we constantly have to plan. Like a PhD application, you have to convince them you’re great by projecting a future you, future hopes. It makes it harder to say, ‘Oh I have a great life right here!’
Ok, so what’s the best advice you have ever received?
Well, this kind of goes back to my nature to try and plan everything, but my dad once told me that I don’t have to pick out the career now and that I can have different careers. I was like, ‘Ugh, no! Why? I don’t want that. I want everything to be settled. I don’t want the potential for everything to be thrown around again.’ But I think he’s right and it was good to take the pressure off. But it’s easy for him to say; he’s been in the same career for his entire life!
Ha, my dad actually told me a similar thing when I was in high school and it made me so angry! I thought, I’m working so hard and I haven’t even landed my fist job yet! This is ridiculous! So it’s kind of a relief but a frustration at the same time, right?
Yeah, it’s hard to not know what’s coming. I want to prepare myself for what’s coming but if I don’t even know what the next thing is how could I possibly be prepared for it?
On paper it looks like everything is figured out but really I have all this fear and anxiety about my future that people don’t see.
With everything that’s happening in your life at the moment, what do you think is the biggest misconception people have about you?
I think probably from the outside it looks like I have everything much more together than I actually do. I have all these great things going on and am recording an album with a band and getting my Masters. On paper it looks like everything is figured out but really I have all this fear and anxiety about my future that people don’t see.
And it exists in everyone doesn’t it? There’s just not much opportunity to talk about it.
We couldn’t have this interview without talking about music. How has it come to be a part of your life and why do you play music?
It’s been a part of my life since I have any memories. I could read music before I could read English!
Are your parents musicians?
If you ask my mum she would say yes, but no, not really! [laughs]
My mum did play the piano growing up (and loves to sing!) and her father played the violin so I guess it probably does come from her side.
When I was four years old I was with my mum and saw this mother and daughter duo playing the violin. I turned to my mum and was like, ‘I want to play the violin!’
She said, ‘You’re way too young for that, so how about you start with piano, and when you’re seven, if you still want to play, you can play the violin.’
I threatened to quit many times because I got frustrated, and it was another way that my parents weren’t pushy. I attribute that to the reason I’m still playing.
I turned seven and was like, ‘Hey mum! I still want to play!’ I clearly had not forgotten about it. I began lessons and I couldn’t put words to it at that age but it was soothing in a way for me, to have something to focus on. As I got older, I threatened to quit many times because I got frustrated, and it was another way that my parents weren’t pushy. My mum was like ‘I’d be so sad if you quit, but you do whatever you want.’ I attribute that to the reason I’m still playing.
Playing music just makes me feel really good. I also have this love for classical music that I think a lot of people my age totally don’t understand, which is fine with me. I love all kinds of music; I listen to classical, rap and hip-hop.
So if you could get someone to listen to just one piece of music what would it be?
I’m going to instead choose a composer because I can’t possibly choose one piece. So my favourite composer of all time is this guy, Shostakovic, who writes this really strange stuff. It’s not classical music in the sense that you really think of it. It’s at times dissonant and angry and scary but he was kind of a pioneer in that way. I’ve always loved playing his stuff.
There’s not enough attention given to the monotonous stuff, the stuff that can be great in day-to-day life that isn’t focused on just attaining.
Going bigger picture now, what do you feel like we should talk more about in the world?
So I was talking about this a little bit earlier, but I think the focus of everyone’s lives is this success driven thing. It’s about, How can I be the most successful at the cost of everything else in my life? People become really unhappy in that scenario and I think we could focus more on what we currently have in our everyday lives. There’s not enough attention given to the monotonous stuff, the stuff that can be great in day-to-day life that isn’t focused on just attaining.
And if we’re talking about it in the context of your life right now, what are you most thankful for?
In a really broad sense, I’m thankful that I have so many choices. Generally I can say that there are so many things and relationships that make me happy. The two biggest things in my life are the relationships I have and music. They make me the happiest.
Things I Love
Music is a huge part of my life and I’m so grateful for all the groups I get to play with!
I’m so fascinated by this part of our bodies and love that I get to learn more about it every day.
I have a major sweet tooth and love any and all desserts (bonus points if it contains chocolate.)