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My Taste of W&L Emily Perszyk ’18 reflects on what W&L has to offer in the classroom and on the court — and how it led to her interest in the study of taste, smell and flavor.

Emily Perszyk ’18 won a National Science Foundation post-graduate fellowship to continue her studies at Yale University.

“It was not always pretty balancing a varsity sport with the large demands required to maintain a high GPA. However, I wouldn’t have traded my experience playing basketball at W&L for the world.”

~ Emily Perszyk ’18

In between events during first-year orientation week, I sprinted over to the first women’s basketball pre-season pick-up of the year, ready to play in the athletic clothes I wore that day and the street shoes on my feet. I hadn’t yet committed to the program, telling Coach Clancy that I desired to see what college life would be like before adding a time-consuming and physically demanding NCAA Division III sport. Though I earned myself a few strange looks playing basketball without basketball shoes, I quickly realized that this team and program were where I belonged for the next four years. We would become wacky best friends, spending countless hours together, even on our off days.

Fast-forward one year. At the beginning of my basketball sophomore season, our team gathered in the locker room with the coaches, each prepared to share our one unique word to carry us through the challenges and triumphs we would later face. My teammates offered up perseverance, heart, believe and creativity. When it came to my turn, I couldn’t share just my word alone. Being the meticulous and overly prepared student I am, I had typed out a description in advance to ensure that I would deliver exactly what I meant by my choice of “discipline.”

“Discipline is waking up every morning and deciding what you want. Not at that exact moment, but what you want for the future, what you are striving to become. Discipline is waking up every morning and deciding how you are going to get there. In basketball, discipline and effort are two of the few things that can be controlled 100 percent of the time. Even when your shooting is off or the referee’s calls just aren’t in your favor, there is always the potential to stay disciplined — mentally focused and physically ready to push yourself to the extreme. Discipline is what it takes to lock in on the bigger goal at hand, and discipline is what it takes to makes dreams reality.”

Little did I know at the time, these statements would become my personal motto, saved to my computer and revisited on multiple occasions throughout my W&L career. These lines motivated me to add several 6 a.m. shooting workouts before work-study, a full day of classes, research and practice later in the evening. They helped me to focus on coursework — prioritizing studies to stay on top of a rigorous academic schedule that included pre-med classes to augment my understanding of the molecular, physiological and anatomical underpinnings of human action that I sought in my neuroscience degree.

Moreover, it was discipline that helped me to excel in research settings. I typically promised myself the chance to play basketball after a long day in the lab as a reward and much-needed stress relief. Across two summers with Dr. Robert Stewart in the Psychology Department studying sensory neurobiology and the mechanisms of neuron development in a taste relay center of the brain, as well as in a summer program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison under Dr. Ari Rosenberg exploring contextual learning in autism spectrum disorders, I often reminded myself that these difficult adventures would be well-worth it in the end. Indeed, they helped to cement my interest in sensory and perceptual topics of neuroscience, specifically in taste and smell domains.

In the end, it was not always pretty balancing a varsity sport with the large demands required to maintain a high GPA. However, I wouldn’t have traded my experience playing basketball at W&L for the world. It was the support of incredible teammates, coaches, W&L faculty and the greater Lexington community that encouraged my efforts, for which I was recognized as the first women’s basketball player in program history selected to the Academic All-America team. But more important, my fondest memories from this place came from special moments on and off the court with the best teammates I could have asked for: apple-picking in the fall, ice cream movie nights, scavenger hunts, long bus trips spent telling jokes and singing (or screaming) a capella at the tops of our lungs.

Though this overview of my “tastes” of basketball, coursework and research at W&L is quite simplified, it does provide a snapshot of how these pieces point to my future endeavors. The ability to analyze a scenario and think critically about appropriate questions to ask, which I will need for future research in graduate school, can be attributed to the amazing professors on this campus that prompted students to understand the scientific process above memorizing details. Leadership skills gained from serving as senior co-captain of the basketball team will aid in lab settings and a potential career in either academia or industry.

Next year, I will begin a Ph.D. in the neuroscience track of the biological and biomedical sciences graduate program at Yale, and will be grateful to participate jointly in service and research through the National Science Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship program. In particular, I am interested in studying the neural correlates of taste, smell and flavor. Ironically, if you ask my previous teammates, I may have had the biggest appetite on the team — or at least the most pronounced habit for snacking at half-time and indulging in good desserts.

To throw in another taste-related pun, the end of my time at W&L has truly been bittersweet. While I am sad to see my basketball and academic careers here come to an end, I’m excited for what lies ahead. And as I learned from reading “The Hard Hat” by Jon Gordon with my basketball team last summer, being a good teammate and actively working towards one’s goals can be summarized in 21 ways. My favorite? — staying “humble and hungry.”

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A Little More About Emily

Extracurricular involvement:
Women’s basketball
Work-study in the Office of Financial Aid
Research
QuestBridge scholar

What professor has inspired you?
That would be a three-way tie: Dr. Robert Stewart and Dr. Tyler Lorig in psychology, as well as Dr. Erich Uffelman in chemistry, have all helped me to grow not only as a student, but also as a person. Their dedication to helping others and genuine curiosity beyond science have been inspiring.

Best place to eat in Lexington? What do you order?
Either chicken pad Thai from Napa Thai or the buffet at Hong Kong Kitchen – at least one of these gets consumed about once a week.

What one book do you recommend to everyone?
“Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom. One of my favorite quotes from the book — “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live” — makes you wonder if you’re really living the life you want while examining what’s most important to you.

What do you wish you’d known before you came to campus?
That failures don’t exist. Every mistake is an opportunity to grow — and everyone at W&L wants to help you do that.

Favorite W&L memory:
Beating previously top-ranked Mary Washington as the underdogs in our first basketball game of the 2017-18 season my senior year.

Favorite class:
First-year psychology seminar Brain and Behavior, taught by Dr. Tyler Lorig.

What’s something people wouldn’t guess about you?
I think soggy foods are the best, so I often dunk desserts in milk or coffee and love to let my cereal sit for awhile before eating it!