Jennifer Lai '07Balancing Act
The truth is, there was a time when Jennifer Lai '07 wanted to quit the piano. But she practiced nonetheless, and today the Rhodes Scholar cites the self-discipline she developed as a young child as essential to her rising success in music and medicine.
Lai graduates in June from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she majors in biological engineering and music and theater arts. Her yearlong Rhodes fellowship begins in October 2011 at the University of Oxford, where she'll pursue a master's degree in integrated immunology. After that, she intends to enroll in medical school, perhaps combined with a doctoral program, to continue the cancer research she's begun as an undergraduate.
In selecting her as one of 32 U.S. scholars from an initial pool of 1,500 students, the Rhodes Trust described Lai as "a pianist of the same professional performance level as students at the finest conservatories" who had maintained a "perfect record" in advanced mathematics, physics and engineering courses at MIT. Granted research opportunities as an undergraduate, she has studied the molecular basis of the aggressive brain cancer glioblastoma and how proteins provoke an immune response. Her musical talent, meanwhile, earned her first place in MIT's Concerto Competition as a freshman, which led to her performing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with the Boston Pops the following year. In 2010, she was named a Burchard Scholar, one of 34 MIT sophomores and juniors honored that year for excellence in humanities, arts and social sciences.
The 21-year-old Honolulu native describes her MIT balancing act as a natural extension of life at Punahou, where she was encouraged to pursue diverse, demanding interests. Immersed in Advanced Placement math and science courses, Lai played violin in the symphony, was a science teaching assistant, worked on the yearbook and trained as a pianist after school and on the weekends. A competitive swimmer in earlier years (she entered Punahou as a first-grader), music superseded sports in the Academy.
"The quality of teaching at Punahou is superb," said Lai, a member of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. "The teachers I had at Punahou served as mentors, and also really made it fun to learn."
There also was plenty of motivation at home, supplied by her parents and by older sisters Tiffany and Carol, twins who graduated from Punahou in 2003 and now attend medical school. Lai started piano lessons at age 4 and violin at age 6; at times she disliked practicing, but is grateful now that quitting wasn't allowed.
"There's a lot of controversy over whether or not parents should tell their kids to do certain activities whether or not they want to do it," said Lai. "For a long time I actually didn't want to play the piano, but I stuck it out, and by the middle of my high school years I had figured out that I actually really loved playing the piano!"
"Developing that sort of discipline –to practice no matter what –has helped me in all aspects of my life, and it's definitely applicable to everything I've been doing and hope to do in the future."
By Christine Donnelly
Photo by Jesse Weiner