2024 Student Essay Contest: Grand Prize Winner

“Nancy Kopell: The Story of Many Beginnings”

by: Alma Miller (Pressman Academy)

Interviewee: Nancy Kopell (Boston University)

We often assume that to be successful, you must have your entire career planned out. You must know exactly what you want to do early on so you can get a head start and focus on it. Nancy Kopell has proven that this is not always true. A self-described “constant beginner”, she has married her training in mathematics with new interests. She has never been afraid to chase after new passions and chart her own path through life.

Nancy Kopell was born in the Bronx in 1942. When she was young, her family thought that she was developmentally delayed. All this changed when she received her first pair of glasses at age five. Nancy participated in a program that allowed her to skip a grade in middle school. She was accepted into a competitive high school but her parents didn’t allow her to attend because they thought it wasn’t the right environment for her. When Nancy Kopell graduated high school, her parents assumed she would attend a city university and live at home, as her sister had done. She eventually convinced them to let her go away for college and attended Cornell, majoring in mathematics.

Nancy had not entered college with the idea that she would go on to graduate school. Both her mother and her sister had received undergraduate degrees in mathematics but had never pursued any higher education or a career. This is why, when Nancy decided to get a Ph.D. at Berkeley, it came as a surprise to her family. Nancy Kopell’s time at Berkeley was her first real experience of sexism in the sciences. She said her male peers viewed her like a dancing bear. If she could do it, meaning mathematics, she would not do it well but the attempt would be amusing. When she was 24, she received her Ph.D. with a dissertation in dynamical systems. She expressed gratitude for her thesis year in which she got to study math with an unparalleled intensity. Yet, when she moved on to a prestigious position at MIT, she could not bring herself to continue working on the subject of her dissertation. The thought of pursuing the same topic made her feel what she described as “claustrophobic”. She noticed that many mathematicians would take their work deeper and deeper, getting more specialized. Nancy wanted to take her work wider and wider and cover new ground. That is when she decided that it was time to make a change.

Nancy Kopell switched from MIT to a tenure track position at Northeastern University. She developed an interest in catastrophe theory and became an expert in the subject. After an encounter with the famous chemical reaction known as the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, a new fascination with self-organization emerged. What interested her was how, when the fluid was stirred, it would oscillate between red and blue but when it was left alone, it would create mesmerizing patterns. This was in a time when you could not simply Google a topic you wanted to learn more about. Nancy went in search of someone who had expertise in the field. She walked across the river to MIT to find a professor who was absent that day. Instead she found Lou Howard. Their shared interest turned into an eight-year collaboration. It was during this time that she redefined herself from a pure mathematician to an applied mathematician.

The journey that started in patterns of chemical reactions ended somewhere different, neuroscience. The rhythms in chemical reactions that she had studied were actually similar to those in neuroscience. Rhythmic functions, like walking and chewing, are controlled by a central pattern generator, networks of neurons in the brain. Nancy then became more interested in what rhythms have to do with things that are less obviously rhythmic, like thinking, attention, and memory.

In 1986, Nancy Kopell moved to Boston University’s mathematics department where she is still a professor today. She noted that the collaborative environment at Boston University allowed her to partner with people from different departments supporting her approach to mathematics. In 1990, she was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, more commonly known as the MacArthur “Genius Award”. Every year, the MacArthur Fellowship is given to between twenty and thirty people from all fields who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self direction.” These words seem to apply perfectly to Nancy Kopell. Nancy’s interest in brain rhythms has led her to research brain diseases. Understanding brain rhythms gives you a handle on how you might go about intervening in diseases. Changing brain rhythms can impact disease progression. For example, deep brain stimulation treatment for Parkinson’s disease, in which an electrode is placed in the brain, can regulate brain rhythms and reduce symptoms. Currently, she is working on the role of brain rhythms in early development. It turns out that these brain rhythms are crucial for the kind of changes that occur when a baby grows. The ability to understand which brain rhythms are normal and which are abnormal allows for early detection and intervention for many conditions. Figuring out how to make the abnormal brain rhythms go back to normal could lead to life-changing treatments.

After a lifetime of following her passions, the advice Nancy Kopell would give young people is to always work hard and keep your eyes open for new opportunities. You don’t have to feel that, since you have dedicated time to one specific thing, you’re locked into that pursuit for life. What one studies is not who they are. As humans, we are always growing and evolving and so are our interests. Nancy Kopell never remained in one place, she was always reaching out for new possibilities.