English Minor Interview / STEM Major Isabelle Tully

Submitted by Henry J Laufenberg on
Isabelle Tully - President's Medal awardee, STEM major, enthusiastic English minor

Isabelle Tully walks into a classroom with confidence.  From the first day that Tully, just 17 years old and already a sophomore in fall of 2016, showed up to TA the English class I teach for the Robinson Center’s Academy for young scholars, she exuded poise.  She strode to the front of the room -- head high, shoulders back, cool as the proverbial cucumber -- and seated herself at the other end of the table from me.  This class, our class it very quickly became clear, was going to be a collaboration.

I couldn’t have hoped for a better person to collaborate with teaching the neuroscience-centered writing course that the UW Academy’s incoming class must take their first quarter.  These Academy students are an ambitious lot: nearly all of them 15 and 16-year-olds who’ve left high school early to enter the university.  I thank my lucky stars that a TA of Isabelle’s quality somehow appeared to assist me in wrangling this bright pack of extra-fresh first years.  Smart as these kids were, they were not yet college students,  and Isabelle, who herself is an alumna of the Academy for Young Scholars, taught me how to connect with these younger teens and lead them to develop college-level habits of mind.  Her presence in fall of 2016 was one of those gifts life tends to give the fortunate when they need it, and now, as Isabelle moves on to other pursuits after working with me for three years, I hardly know what I’ll do without her cool presence and superb TAing at the other end of the teacher’s table.

Tully’s academic passion is science.  She seeks out the most technical and hard-science related classes in psychology and neuroscience and has taken on increasingly responsible roles in campus laboratories doing research in these areas.  In 2018 she received the most prestigious university-wide award available, the President’s Medal (check out this nice write up of that accomplishment). No doubt Isabelle’s inevitable graduate school training is going to require a lot of time in a white coat.

Interestingly though, she’s enrolled in the English minor alongside her Psychology major.  In working through the English minor requirement, Isabelle has taken several upper-division courses focused on writing instruction, some of them well-attended by English department graduate students.  Isabelle is, as is evident in the following interview, excited to have added an English minor to her STEM-focused major, and sees synergies between these tracks, each integrating into the other, making both deeper and more valuable.

You’re such a natural in the classroom Isabelle.  Do you have any notion where your teacherly countenance might have come from?

Prior to joining the Robinson Center team in 2016, I had been working as a math, English, and science tutor to elementary and middle school-aged children for around two years. I think learning how to break down concepts which came to my mind automatically and as complete pictures for these young students who needed to be presented with pieces of a puzzle to put together was quintessential to my progression as a teacher. I am confident in the classroom because I am secure in the knowledge I have, but also not afraid of responding to questions with “I don’t know.” Allowing myself to learn openly with students when I don’t have an answer creates an environment in which they are more willing to voice confusion, and I can be authentic, as well as transparent in my strengths and limitations as a teacher.

Since working as a teaching assistant for the Robinson Center, I have always aimed to convey to students that I am here to work with them, not to enforce upon them some “correct” way of thinking or writing. I find that demonstrating a respect for the stories they want to tell and the voices they want to cultivate through writing creates a receptivity towards feedback, as students trust that my aim is to guide them to craft the messages they are intending to share through their work.

Why did you decide to add the English minor to an already busy and rewarding course of study in STEM?

I decided to add a minor in English to my degree in Psychology because I realized that writing is not a secondary skill in this line of work, but is essential to being able to think critically, document findings clearly, and communicate effectively with both fellow scientists and the general public.

In middle and high school, I didn’t become interested in psychology by reading (i.e., slowly decoding the complex vocabulary of) academic publications; I was drawn in by exploring books and listening to podcasts by researchers skilled in conveying their work to non-psychologists. My goal as a future researcher is to disseminate findings which I am a part of generating in language and a writing style that is accessible and of interest to audiences beyond the scientific community. I have found that the analytical mindset and widely applicable writing tools taught within English courses at UW have provided me with a solid foundation upon which to pursue this goal.

What benefits of your time with us in the English department do you see in relation to your career path in science?

The rhetorical tools I have gained through the English department have been highly transferable to my work in STEM. Becoming proficient in writing and editing skills has meant that when working on psychology research papers and posters, I receive feedback centered on theory and content, as opposed to surface-level grammatical and organizational issues. Further, English courses have taught me about the ways in which well-founded claims are built and supported. As a result, when reading scientific publications, gaps in logic stemming, for instance, from the design of an experiment or the communication of said design tend to jump out at me; I believe this has made me more conscientious and analytical in my scientific pursuits.

Are there English Faculty member you’ve found particularly helpful whom you might like to give a shout out?

I found the guidance of Dr. Stevi Costa in an expository writing class to be particularly helpful. Dr. Costa exposed us to challenging publications on topics related to the medical humanities while demonstrating ways in which to break down the rhetorical strategies being employed by authors. I left this course feeling confident in my ability to structure and substantiate complete arguments and lines of inquiry. I have also enjoyed the instruction of English department graduate student Alexander McCauley, who opened my eyes to the nuances of college-level writing and thinking in the fall quarter of my freshman year. Finally, Lauren Schlesinger guided me to attain a new level of flexibility with the English language in a course centered on writing verse.

Tell us about your future.  Where do you see Isabelle Tully at 26, ten years after starting college at the University of Washington?  And in the longer term?

As I head out of college and into a research assistant job at a clinical psychology lab, I frequently find myself looking into the future. By the time I am twenty-six years old, I hope to be in the midst of completing a PhD in clinical psychology and a minor in quantitative methods. Every day I step into the labs I volunteer in, I am inspired by female mentors who have shown me that women can make waves in academia, and in the long term, I aspire to earn my place as a faculty member at a university engaged in both research and teaching.