The summer before she enrolled at Vassar, Ellen DeGennaro ’12 read the college catalog cover to cover in hopes of deciding on a course of study. The exercise was largely unsuccessful. “By the time I finished the catalog, I’d only crossed off four majors,” DeGennaro recalls. She eventually decided on a double major, music and cognitive science, and she played the violin with the college orchestra and performed with the Madrigal Singers.
Four years out of Vassar, DeGennaro is still juggling several of her passions at once. After serving as a research assistant and later as lab manager at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, she enrolled last fall in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology (HST) PhD program. And in what little spare time she has, DeGennaro plays violin for the Brookline Symphony Orchestra and sings with the Boston Choral Ensemble. It’s a crowded schedule, but she’s thoroughly enjoying the challenge.
“Music is not something I want to pursue professionally, but it’s always been an important part of my life,” says DeGennaro, who started playing the violin when she was nine. “With my schedule as full as it is, it’s always tempting not to go to rehearsals, but every time I do, I’m glad I did. And I love the performances, the experience of being live on stage and totally focused on the music.”
One of her most memorable performances came in 2013 when she was a guest violinist with the MIT Orchestra at a memorial service for slain MIT security guard Sean Collier. Collier, 27, was killed April 18, 2013 in a gun battle with Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the two men responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings three days earlier.
The MIT orchestra performed several songs with famed singer-songwriter and Massachusetts native James Taylor. Several thousand onlookers, including Vice President Joe Biden, attended the event. “It was a warm, sunny day, and there was a huge turnout on the football field; it was an emotional experience for everyone at MIT,” DeGennaro says. “Sean was killed near the spot where I park my bicycle every day. What happened in the aftermath of the bombing galvanized all of us.”
DeGennaro says the foundation for her graduate study was forged at Vassar when she took her first cognitive science course during her sophomore year. “What I loved most about it was how interdisciplinary it was,” she says, “and Vassar’s curricular requirements allowed me to study philosophy in depth too.”
DeGennaro had completed summer internships in neural anatomy at New York University and in biology with Vassar alum Howard Ochman ’75 at Yale before she graduated from Vassar. But she decided her next step should be learning more about the field by working in the McGovern Laboratory before embarking on graduate study.
She hadn’t originally planned to stay in Boston for her graduate work but landed in the Harvard-MIT program somewhat fortuitously. “There was an HST student in my lab, so I knew about the program, and the director’s office was just down the hall from my lab, so I stopped in to talk to him about it,” she says. “He asked me what I was interested in doing, and as our conversation was ending, he told me, ‘This is exactly the program for you.’” Those enrolled may pursue at Ph.D, M.D. or M.D.-Ph.D degree from either Harvard or MIT.DeGennaro expects to earn her Ph.D in brain and cognitive sciences from Harvard in 2020.
One highlight of DeGennaro’s graduate study has been working with MIT prof. Feng Zhang, who is credited with a recent breakthrough in genome editing. Zhang was instrumental in the development of what has been called a pair of “gene scissors” that have the capacity to snip harmful segments from a DNA strand and replace them with healthy ones. Scientists worldwide are employing the technique as they search for ways to combat cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and autism. “I first met Feng while I was a lab manager before my graduate studies began,” she says. “My group has been in rotation in his lab over the past six months, and we meet with him weekly,” she says.
DeGennaro says she’s learned her twin passions of science and music aren’t all that uncommon. “About 70 percent of the people in my choir are scientists of some kind, and a lot of people in the orchestra are either scientists or health professionals,” she says.
DeGennaro says she loves both disciplines because the opportunities for learning are endless. “With music, there’s always more to learn, and there’s so much we still don’t understand about the brain. Neuroscience is still an emerging field. It’s humbling and terrifying sometimes, but it’s also motivating and inspiring.”