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'Brilliant, brave and under 25!
A Rhodes Scholar speaks!

Maya Uma Shankar
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December 11, 2006
Wondering who the next Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Oprah Winfrey will be, asked Glamour Magazine in October as it revealed its selection of 10 top American college students including Maya Uma Shankar, chosen for their academic brilliance and leadership roles.

'The winners of our 49th annual Top 10 College Women Competition are fighting for AIDS relief in Africa, brokering peace between Jews and Muslims and rescuing sex-trafficking victims in Vietnam -- and they're just getting started,' the magazine continued. 'Brilliant, brave and under 25!'

For Shankar, 2006 has been bringing more kudos and opportunities.

A few weeks ago she was named one of the 32 American Rhodes Scholars who will study at Oxford University for two or three years.

Over 980 students from hundreds of American campuses competed for the Rhodes Scholarship.

Shankar, 20, a cognitive science major at Yale University, has done research in psychology, language, visual perception and cognition in Australia and Puerto Rico. Already, she has written three publications about her research that are now in preparation or have been submitted to scientific journals, according to the Yale Bulletin.

Two years ago she selected from an international applicant pool to conduct research on language acquisition at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. She has tutored in New Haven schools and danced with a Bhangra dance group.

When she applies for a scholarship or honour, she says, she does more to test herself.

'The Yale fellowships office informed me of the Glamour competition, and I applied just looking at it as a fun opportunity,' Shankar told a campus publication. 'It was great to meet the other girls, who are all amazing. I think we formed long-lasting friendships.'

She told Glamour that her most ambitious job would be to work as a science adviser to the American President. Of course, Glamour had to ask her about her favourite piece of clothing. 'The sari my mom got married in -- I wore it to prom,' she said.

Shankar, who could be a top scientist in a few years' time, did not dream of a science career till four years ago.

'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,' an article in the Yale Bulletin began.

She was one of 40 students from around the world to attend the prestigious Perlman Summer Music Festival when she was not even a teenager, and she had performed many times on the prestigious National Public Radio.

Shankar, who hails from Cheshire, Connecticut, performed at New York's famed Carnegie Hall with her mentor Itzhak Perlman, the violin maestro, when she was just 16.

The Yale Bulletin added: '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.'

Maya Uma Shankar talks to Managing Editor (Features) Arthur J Pais about what the scholarship means to her. Excerpts:

What door did close for you, and what door opened suddenly?

Music has been my passion since the age of two or three. My brothers and sister played musical instruments. I simply loved the violin and studied under Itzhak Perlman. I have also taken classes at Julliard (a famed school for the performing arts). I was getting ready to go to China to study with Perlman. Then I got a call from my doctor.

What was thought to be just an injury was going to be something very serious. The pain in my hand was the result of inflamed tendons. I was told I could never play the violin again.

When did this happen?

About four years ago. At the beginning I thought someone was teasing me but soon reality set in. I have not played the violin since.

How did you handle the news?

I got a lot of comfort from my parents, family and many teachers. I had not much time to worry about it since I had career decisions to make in a few months.

Cognitive science intrigued me quite a bit. And I also became involved in working for social justice. So instead of cognitive science and music, it became cognitive science and social activism.

In specific terms, what are some of these activities?

I serve as a national coordinator for the College Council for CARE, a poverty-fighting organisation, and as co-campus coordinator for Yale's United Students Against Sweatshops. I had thought for some time that I had lost my passion, I was soon realising how much the world was offering me.

Some people would have turned to religion too.

It didn't happen that way. But the help and encouragement of others told me that there were so many beautiful and productive things in life.

You have also said the atmosphere at Yale helped you, isn't it?

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.

You have also said in an interview that Yale humbled you.

I just feel really lucky to have come here and to have discovered new interests to be passionate about.

And I am lucky that I can connect to a large number of students who are socially active and academically brilliant.

How did you get involved in social activism?

I think it began when I visited Mumbai over a year ago for a concert. It was called the Sangat International Music Festival and I was recommended by conductor Zubin Mehta. I was staying with a very nice family who were hosting me. It was a very rich family but, like in many places in Mumbai, you could see the stark contrast when you stepped out of the building.

There was too much of destitution and injustice.

Who are the writers that have influenced you most?

Certainly Steven Pinker and his book, How the Mind Works. It inspired me to learn more about the human brain. Pinker writes so that lay people can appreciate science. He could have gone on doing research but he is more interested in connecting with people.

How about in your family?

My parents always told me right from the start that I could do whatever I wanted to but I must give a careful thought to it.

My father (Ramamurti Shankar, a physics professor at Yale) has been always been a wonderful role model and helped me decided on an academic career.

And my mother (Uma, who also works at Yale, as a financial adviser) has given me and my siblings trust, encouragement and the feeling that you can study anything and still excel and do well in the world.

And then there is sister Meera, who is older than me by three years. She also studies at Yale.

What did you learn most from her?

To put people above other things. She taught me, by her example, valuable things about integrity. I remember the occasion when her friend was in hospital. Meera had a load of schoolwork and deadlines. And yet she made sure she was there for her friend at any time.

Are you still interested in music?

Certainly. Music will always stay with me. I often listen to Beethoven's violin concerto. Right from my childhood did I learn that one must be passionate about what one does. Music has also instilled a strong work ethic.

What is your first reaction to getting selected as a Rhodes Scholar?

I was just so surprised and so honoured. I had never really included it in my life plan.

Why did you react that way?

Because every other person I met at the interview was so well prepared and deserving.

You have also been quoted as saying life is pretty unpredictable.

It always has been to me.

What are your plans at Oxford?

I want to work on a master's degree in experimental psychology and then perhaps stay another year to complete a doctoral degree or return to the US for further graduate studies. I will also be visiting a lot of museums and bookshops in London.

How do you describe yourself?

Some people may think I am an idealist but I would rather call myself a pragmatist.

A number of progressive students on American campuses become less and less active as years go by. Are you afraid of any such thing?

I am a pragmatist but I am sure I will have to be careful about such things happening to me. I like the work I do outside my classroom very much. I want it to remain a part of my life.

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