Laura Babcock, PGSS 1999

1. What do you currently do?

I’m a post-doctoral researcher at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, where I’m examining the cognitive and neural bases of expertise. This involves a number of different techniques to understand how the brain changes when becoming expert in a field. Some approaches include fMRI neuro-imaging and cognitive control tests such as memory and the abilities to switch between rule sets and ignore extraneous information.

2. What was your PGSS experience like?
PGSS was the first time I felt like I was surrounded by a group of similarly-minded peers who were interested in science. I went to Germantown Academy, and while I certainly had friends who shared my interests, PGSS provided a more collaborative atmosphere where almost everyone had the same passion and enthusiasm for science that I did. I really enjoyed my time working on our physics group project testing a chaotic motion pendulum model, tackling problem sets together, and hanging out after (and sometimes during) problem set time. I looked for this kind of community as I was applying to colleges, and I found it at MIT, where I had submitted a VHS tape (yes, VHS!!!) of my PGSS team project presentation as part of my application.

3. How did you choose your current field of study and decide to go abroad for your PhD?
It’s a complicated story. I was a physics major at MIT, and I joined AmeriCorps in California after graduating. During this time, I became fascinated by linguistics, and I later completed a masters in linguistics and developed an interested in neuroscience. I always felt like I missed out on studying abroad in college, and since I was interested in bilingualism, studying in Europe seemed perfect. I found a professor whose work interested me, and I learned that he completed his post-doc in Italy. This was great because I spoke Italian already, so I flew to Italy, took an essay-based written exam, finished an oral exam the next day, and that began my seven years outside the US.

4. What did you study for your dissertation?
I finished my PhD in Neuroscience at the Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati (SISSA) in Trieste, Italy, where my dissertation research looked at the neurocognition of simultaneous interpreters. These are people who work in settings like the United Nations, where they simultaneously listen to a speaker and interpret the speech into another language in near real time. I found that people working in this field have unique differences in white matter brain structure and memory ability.

5. How do you think PhD programs in Europe compare to those in the US?

European programs are generally shorter and require less class time because applicants are expected to have masters degrees beforehand. I took six months of part time courses at the beginning of my PhD. I also didn’t have a requirement to teach or do research for a professor to receive my stipend. So I really was able to spend the bulk of my time conducting my own research.

6. How do you think life in Europe differs from in the US?
There is better work/life balance in Europe, where what you do outside of work is truly valued as important. People also seem more able to be content and happy with their lives in Italy and Sweden, rather than getting stuck in a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality where they are always looking to one up the next person.

7. What advice to you have for more recent PGSS alums?
Find something you are truly passionate about. Science can be very rewarding, but it is also hard. It’s passion for what I research that gets me through the hard days. Finding that passion took me three degrees in as many fields. So my second piece of advice is don’t be afraid to take a non-linear path; it will make you uniquely suited for wherever you end up.