“I liked science classes because they were applicable, and I’ve always been logical. But music adds some structure.”
Nothing navigates the left brain-right brain divide more effectively than guilt and loyalty.
For proof, just pick the brains of Washington State University plant pathologist/cellist Jane Jung-Hae Choi. She switches with ease between running through experiment protocols and symphony movements, thanks to the bicameral prick of expectation.
It worked that way in her science. Offered the choice in summer 1996 between two fellowships through the State University of New York, one at Syracuse Medical Center and one at Geneseo in plant research, Choi chose the plant research route to help the faculty member who would be out of town and who needed someone to keep her experiments going.
It worked that way in her music, too. A cellist from the time she heard the instrument’s tenor voice at 12, Choi arrived at WSU in 1997 intending to put aside playing to focus solely on her plant pathology graduate studies. She wasn’t then acquainted with the mild persistence of WSU Symphony Orchestra conductor Keating Johnson. A year of Johnson’s repeated queries, “Are you sure?”, and Choi caved.
“Guilt and loyalty drive me,” she said. “I liked science classes because they were applicable, and I’ve always been logical. But music adds some structure. You can’t be studying 24 hours. Keating always tells me, ‘You’ll miss it,’ and he’s right.”
So long as they follow Choi’s loyalties, her brain’s left and right sides share her headspace amicably. Throughout her time as a biology undergraduate, she always studied with earphones on, listening to Tchaikovsky or Natalie Merchant for hours. The Johnson Hall lab she works in has a radio with strategically placed speakers pumping out the classical music of NPR one day, the soundtracks to Sound of Music or Phantom of the Opera the next.
The music helps focus the part of Choi’s mind working on the characterization of pea defense gene DRR206 promoter and its utilization in the development of disease-resistant plants, the subject of her dissertation and doctorate in plant pathology, to be completed by graduation May 11.
Choi’s ability to live in both her brain’s worlds comes largely from the flexibility of Johnson and her advisor, professor/music aficionado Lee Hadwiger.
“I call him my biggest fan because he’s come to all of my concerts,” Choi said.
Hadwiger also is the closest thing to a grandfather she’s ever had. Born in Korea, Choi came to the United States with her family when she was six, settling in New York City. Choi’s father, Soo-Chul, and her mother, Jung-Ok, lost parents in the Korean War. Choi’s father, the eldest child in his family, sacrificed attending college to help support his three younger sisters. That lost education spurred high hopes—and expectations—for Choi and her older brother, Christopher.
“[My father’s] perception was they never had the chance,” Choi said. “He wanted us to succeed. So my dad is really tickled I’m doing a doctorate. He’s just so proud.”