Yale Bulletin and Calendar

October 20, 2006|Volume 35, Number 7















Maya Shankar was named one of Glamour's "Top 10 College Women."

Former musician has found new
passion in scientific research

For most of her childhood, Maya Shankar's identity was so entwined with music -- specifically playing the violin -- that she couldn't picture living without it.

However, her recent selection as one of Glamour's "Top 10 College Women," announced in the magazine's October issue, is proof to Shankar that there's a lot of truth to the old adage "When one door closes, another one opens."

In its piece "Brilliant, brave and under 25!," Shankar and Glamour's other top college women were each identified according to a particular passion: For example, a violist at the Juilliard School was dubbed "The Musician"; a Muslim student at Emory University who began a college "Fast-a-Thon" program to raise funds for victims of social injustice was named "The Activist"; and a senior at the University of Texas at Austin who began a non-profit organization to benefit sex-trafficking survivors was called "The Politician."

Shankar -- who had studied at the Juilliard School herself since she was nine and spent her high school years perfecting her violin playing in private lessons with master violinist Itzhak Perlman -- was identified as "The Scientist."

Just four years ago, that characterization would have struck the Yale senior as incredulous. Until then, Shankar devoted nearly all of her time to music, achieving such honors as being the youngest musician ever invited to represent the United States at the Sangat International Music Festival in Bombay, India (on the recommendation of conductor Zubin Mehta), earning selection as one of only 40 students from around the world to attend the Perlman Summer Music Festival, and receiving several invitations to perform on the National Public Radio broadcast "From the Top, Public Radio International."

Those are just some of the distinctions Shankar had amassed before arriving in 2003 as a freshman at Yale, where her father, Ramamurti Shankar, is a physics professor and her mother, Uma Shankar, is a policy manager in finance administration.

In fact, it was the summer before her arrival to the campus that the young musician's expectations of a career in music were shattered forever.

She was packing for a trip to China for further study with Perlman when her doctor informed her that the hand pain she was experiencing was the result of inflamed tendons. The chronic condition meant that her days of violin playing were over.

The news was difficult to hear, and for a little while Shankar didn't quite believe it.

"I felt it was kind of a tease," recalls the Yale student, a graduate of Cheshire High School. "I thought I'd play again."

By the time she finally acknowledged that her dream was impossible, Shankar had immersed herself in life at Yale and quickly discovered a new passion: cognitive science.

"As it turned out, the end of my music career happened at an optimal time," Shankar says. "I was really fortunate. Since I had been on such a narrow-focused path [as a musician], I didn't ever consider other things. But when I got to Yale, just seeing my peers and everything they were interested in and passionate about helped me to get over the loss."

A book she discovered in her basement just before coming to Yale also had an influence, says Shankar. In the book, "The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language," Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker describes his theory that human language is both innate and learned.

"I was surprised to find that seemingly simple abilities, like our ability to understand language or recognize objects, actually result from a wealth of complex underlying processing. Our minds constantly face challenges as we translate the impoverished and confusing input we receive from the world into the cognitively meaningful perceptions we have all the time. I became curious to discover how exactly we take this incoming information and use it to construct a functional and coherent representation of the world."

She has since immersed herself into trying to discover more about those processes, working in the Yale Perception and Cognition Laboratory under the direction of Brian Scholl, associate professor of psychology, and in the Comparative Cognition Laboratory directed by Laurie Santos, an assistant professor of psychology. In these, Shankar is exploring topics related to visual object perception, such as how non-human primates categorize the objects in their world, and the fundamental processes involved in humans' ability to perceive dynamic objects.

Shankar says cognitive science is attractive to her because of its interdisciplinary nature and because it is a relatively new field.

"It hasn't been around that long as a major," she says. "Yet, it is a field in which there are so many questions to be asked and so many to be answered. I'm among the first generation of undergraduates who are being trained to approach these questions from different perspectives and using a variety of methods."

Already, the Yale student has written three publications about her research that are now in preparation or have been submitted to scientific journals. She has conducted fieldwork in Puerto Rico and Australia and in 2004 was selected from an international applicant pool to conduct research on language acquisition at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

While the former musician now hopes for a future career as a professor of cognitive science, she says that her non-musical life also expanded her activities to include community service, which she intends to remain committed to in the years to come. She is the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Five Magazine, a non-profit publication aimed both at uniting Yale's social justice, human rights and service groups by creating more critical conversation about the methods and techniques used in their causes and at inspiring others to service. She also is the founder and director of the Downtown Development Volunteer Program, a partnership between Yale and the City of New Haven with the mission of engaging Yale students in city development via the Town Green Special Services District. Shankar started the new program last year after working for a summer as a President's Public Service Fellow with the Town Green Special Services District, a non-profit business improvement organization located downtown.

In addition to these pursuits, Shankar is also a co-campus coordinator for United Students Against Sweatshops and is co-president of the Yale College Council for CARE. She has tutored in New Haven schools and danced with a South Asian Society Bhangra dance group.

Shankar and Glamour's other top college women were treated to a weekend in New York City, where they saw a Broadway show, attended talks by women nationally recognized in their fields and took part in photo shoots, among other activities. A highlight for the Yale senior was meeting the other recipients of the national honor.

"The Yale fellowships office informed me of the Glamour competition, and I applied just looking at it as a fun opportunity," says Shankar, who this fall was awarded the Hart Lyman Prize, given to the senior, who as of junior year, has the best record of accomplishment intellectually and socially. "It was great to meet the other girls, who are all amazing. I think we formed long-lasting friendships."

While Shankar remains an avid music lover who often attends campus performances, she is grateful for the ways in which her life has expanded since she was forced to abandon her musical ambitions. She is taking her new reputation among friends and family members as a "glamour girl" in stride.

"I just feel really lucky to have come here [to Yale] and to have discovered new interests to be passionate about," she says. "Yale has humbled me."

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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Youngsters to tackle scientific challenges at Yale Physics Olympics

Campus Notes

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