Career Story Blog Post By Elizabeth Perry, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology
Human beings share with some other really cool higher mammals, an intense and extended period of post-natal nervous system development. We have this amazing ability to learn across the lifespan. Almost my entire life has been a deep and highly meaningful immersion in teaching and learning. That probably helps to explain why I love Literature, Art, Music, and Sports as much as Science; these are all areas where we grow through exposure and challenge, watching and listening, trial and error. They are all also situations where something new and exciting and unexpected can rise to the surface.
I am a neuroscientist by training (University of Rochester, SMD, 2001) and that was layered on top of a strong background in Liberal Arts. I've spent a lot of my life bouncing back and forth between Science and "non-Science" and also between elite intellectualism and a desire to live "off the grid." I love being a University Professor — I'd also love to be a farmer or an artist — or a fourth grade science teacher, or an English teacher — or an architect or a builder.
I fell in love with books before age 3, and for a long while (and even now) thought that being a writer would be the most amazing job in the world. At age 8 or 9, I was the only child member of a pretty serious "rock club" and my poor mother would have to chaperone me to monthly meetings with such agenda items as " Lapidary Supplies and Equipment for Rockhounds" and to club field trips at fresh rock cuts where new roads were being put through. I grew up in the country and worked on a farm, and because of that also absorbed and observed a lot of the fundamentals of biology.
I knew how to grow things, wandered in the woods and caught snakes and salamanders, attempted to nurse injured birds, rabbits and baby squirrels back to life, kept notebooks on the numbers and compositions of the wild turkey flocks that came through the yard every morning, and watched deer carcasses rot away to bones in the woods. At age ten, my mother let me keep several aquariums on the back deck for the summer, filled with things I had hauled back from local ponds and ditches. I got to go for enrichment programs at Talcott Mountain Science Center in Avon, Connecticut, and at age thirteen, I saw a calf born, feet first. Then in high school, I fell back in love with Literature — and had several other up and down waves of trying to figure out what I loved and also what to do in my life. This was complicated by the fact that my brain works very differently than a lot of other people's and that I was in many ways precociously mature and yet, in other ways, developmentally behind my peers. It took me many decades to get a handle on my own strengths and weaknesses, and even longer to begin to seriously ask myself what I wanted.
It all finally began to come together for me when a job working with individuals with developmental disabilities caused me to both question and fall in love with the human nervous system. The beautiful human brain is the site of our memory, intelligence and analytical abilities, but also the integrator and interpreter of the broad array of sensory information coming in through the peripheral system. It is how we appreciate and understand photos of the Universe and the source of cognitive suffering and emotional pain. I worked in bench research for awhile, then moved on to teaching and administration, and I have come to think of Education as Applied Neuroscience. I am interested in neuropedagogy, neurointegration, positive psychology, healing and human development.
At 51, I realize that I do not have to choose one thing, or fit in anybody else's "box." I am a 100% geek, who is also a rock and roller, and a competitive athlete. I take school and the process of formalized education very seriously, and yet I also fully embrace and identify with the Bruce Springsteen quote "We learned more from a three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school." Whether formal or informal, academic or experiential, first hand or transmitted — I believe in learning and growth. I use art and videos in a very integrative approach to teaching biomedical science classes, and I encourage my students to figure out and embrace who they really are — and to build a life around that knowledge, instead of trying to fit into somebody else's template. All of the most interesting people I know (both famous and non-famous — or even fictional!) have lived their lives that way.
At Rochester Institute of Technology, I go to a lot of meetings, do some administrative work, teach courses like Endocrinology, Human Development, Biomedical Sciences Freshmen Seminar — but what I really am is a Teacher and a Mentor — and I absolutely love what I do. It gives my Life meaning, and the excellence, beauty, and integrity of my students gives me hope.