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Jillian Shaw

I fell in love with the brain as an undergraduate reading the reflections of the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks in his book The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. His words humanized people suffering from neurological disorders and his descriptions allowed me a glimmer of insight into what the daily experience was like for someone experiencing hallucinations or delusional misidentification syndrome.

Oliver Sacks once wrote the following: “music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears. It is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life.” Literature, neuroscience, music, and theatre ruled my life as a college student at Vassar. Performance, specifically on the stage, enabled me to get inside the heads of complex characters and behave in a manner that was true to their experience of the world. Directing and performing in the Vagina Monologues allowed me to internalize the perspective of another woman and portray her story for a wider audience.


To me the study of medicine is rooted in the ability to understand another person’s perspective and empathize with the life experiences that shape their health and humanity. This aspect of medicine is what has motivated me to keep learning after years as a basic scientist. I finished a PhD in molecular neuroscience before attending Columbia’s Post-Bac Pre-Medical program. In large part, I pursued research because I was fascinated by the question of why individuals with Down’s syndrome inevitably get the pathological hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. I used Drosophila as a genetic model to explore protein interactions and the complexities of axonal transport, mitochondria dysfunction, synaptic defects, and neurodegeneration. As much as I enjoyed puzzling over cell signaling pathways, I love getting to know the stories of other people and hope to do so as a clinician-scientist.