Interview with Frances H. Rauscher, Ph.D.

In this column, I ask neuroscience professors from around the world the same five questions. Read on to learn more about their research, careers and goals for neuroscience in the future.

Interview with Frances H. Rauscher, Ph.D.

Frances H. Rauscher, Ph.D., is Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. She received her Bachelor of Music degree in cello performance at The Juilliard School, and continued her education at Columbia University, where she received her BA, MA, MPhil, and Ph.D. in the Department of Psychology. This was followed by a postdoctoral position at the University of California at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory under Dr. Gordon Shaw, where she began investigating the effects of music on the brain. As a W.T. Grant Foundation Faculty Scholar, she worked extensively with underserved populations, studying the effects of musical enrichment on cognition. Dr. Rauscher has also studied the effects of an enriched environment on maze learning in rats, and is co-editor, with Professor Dr. Wilfried Gruhn, of “Neurosciences in Music Pedagogy.” While at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, she received the John McNaughton Rosebush award for excellence in teaching, scholarship and research, as well as several Distinguished Teaching awards, and an Endowment for Excellence from AxleTech International.

1. What inspired you to pursue neuroscience as a career?  
I already had a Ph.D. in social psychology, and moved to California afterwards (I am from New York and got my Ph.D. at Columbia) to work as a postdoctoral research on questions relating to the effects of music on spatial abilities. My post-doc advisor was at the Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California in Irvine, so I moved 3,000 miles (from NY to Cali) to work with him in order to pursue the neurophysiological implications–specifically to find out why we were seeing enhanced spatial reasoning following music exposure–especially music instruction at an early age. Our hypothesis was that music instruction helps develop the neural networks responsible for both musical and spatial understanding–but only if the instruction begins during the most rapid formation of these networks. We found that age 3 is optimal for this type of enhancement. I have continued this research during my tenure at the University of Wisconsin, where I moved in 1995. 

2. What do you think is the most important goal of neuroscience research?  
The neural system works not only to produce thought, emotions, and behavior, but it also controls important body functions, like breathing. Thus, it can help research find ways to prevent or treat problems that affect the brain, nervous system, and body.

3. What are the main topics and goals of your research?  
My major goal was to determine the neural processes responsible for enhancement of spatial-temporal reasoning through music instruction.

4. What accomplishment do you think is the most important out of your own research? 
I believe my most important accomplishment was the discovery that music instruction, and certain forms of exposure, can affect brain mechnisms responsible for both music and spatial-temporal reasoning. This finding supported the notion that enriched early childhood development is critical for optimal brain function throughout the lifespan. 

5. What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years in the field of neuroscience? 

I am currently emerita (i.e., retired) and am no longer doing neuroscience research. Now I work as a wildlife care specialist at a wildlife hospital here in Wisconsin. I do not expect to accomplish much in the field of neuroscience while there.

Bonus question: What is your advice to a teenager who wants to learn more about neuroscience?

To me, this brings up an additional question: What would be my advice to a teenage woman or minority who wants to learn more about neuroscience? I will address these questions separately below.

First, my advice for a teenager in general: If your goal is make neuroscience a career, you will need to get a Ph.D. Start off by getting a bachelor’s degree. You’ll want to choose a program that offers courses in biology, physiology, psychology, and human anatomy. I took the long way around the block, first getting a bachelor’s degree from Juilliard in cello performance and then, after I realized I wanted a career in science but that I didn’t have the courses needed to apply for an appropriate graduate program, I went back to school and got a second bachelor’s degree, from Columbia University, in research psychology, and went on to graduate study in psychology from there. To avoid taking this long path, bachelor’s degrees that prepare students for medical schools would be appropriate. Once you earn your undergraduate degree, you would move onto a master’s degree with advanced courses in neuroscience or the biological sciences. At the graduate level, you will want to choose a program that provides clinical lab experience and options to study neuroscience at depth. Next, you’ll choose a Ph.D. program that allows you to focus specifically on neurological research.

As you can see, it’s a long journey, so you’ll have to be certain that this is a path you want to undertake. My best advice to all students seeking career guidance is to love what you do. If you love it and work hard at it, no matter what it is, you will be sure to succeed.

Now to what I perceive as the second issue, regarding womanhood–which also applies to being a minority. I will be honest. Being a woman in science can at times be challenging, and lonely. You’ll have to work hard to fit in with professional networks, to get heard and recognized, to identify role models who can show you the way forward, and perhaps even to identify with the scientific community. On the flip side, by just being there and doing your work, your can act as both a pioneer and a role model for others. Having to blaze your own trail is hard, but it also allows you a lot of freedom and creativity in your work. Knowing that all your efforts to open the door will one day also benefit others makes your personal achievement all the more satisfying. I believe that my experience has made me more supportive, conscious of potential biases (including my own), and open to different expressions of scientific work and excellence. Believe in yourself and believe that what you do matters for science and for society. Be open and outspoken about the challenges that you face. Ultimately, this is your life and you have to decide what things are worth fighting for and what others are not worth the time or energy.