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There's A Virtuoso At The White House And The Work She's Doing Is Fascinating

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A decade ago, Glamour magazine declared Maya Shankar one of the country's 10 most impressive women in college. Asked at the time to name her dream job, Shankar said, "Science advisor to the President."

You can guess how this story ends. How it begins is more unexpected.

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Shankar was a gifted young violinist, accepted by the Juilliard School of Music at age 9 and later selected for private instruction by violin master Itzhak Perlman. In her early teens, she was performing internationally and playing concertos on NPR; a promising musical career stretched ahead.

Stunningly, by age 15, it was over. While practicing a challenging piece, "I heard something pop, and it was painful," she recalled. "And that was it." She continued training for over a year despite a severe hand injury. Eventually she needed a cast, and "finally [doctors] told me that I basically had to stop playing completely."

Shankar describes the sullen summer after her musical dreams were smashed. While cleaning her parents' basement, she came across a book on language development that sparked a new passion: cognitive science, the study of the mind. It became the focus of her undergraduate studies at Yale, then her Ph.D. at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and finally a post-doctoral program at Stanford.

Today, Shankar is Senior Advisor at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She and her colleagues have formed a new team that leverages the latest social and behavioral science to make federal programs simpler and more effective. How does that work in practice? Here's one example from a New York Times report earlier this year:

The federal government found a clever way to make a little extra money last summer.

 

Some vendors who provide federal agencies with goods and services as varied as paper clips and translators were given a slightly different version of the form used to report rebates they owe the government.

 

The only difference: The signature box was at the beginning of the form rather than the end. The result: a rash of honesty. Companies using the new form acknowledged they owed an extra $1.59 million in rebates during the three-month experiment, apparently because promising to be truthful at the outset actually caused them to answer more truthfully.

In a conversation with HuffPost, Shankar discussed the latest developments in her work at the White House as well as the her musical career, her exemplary education, and the lessons she's learned along the way. 

President Obama speaks with Maya Shankar and other members of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team in January 2015.
President Obama speaks with Maya Shankar and other members of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team in January 2015.

What are some recent notable examples of behavioral science improving policy?

Two examples come to mind. The first is the Pension Protection Act of 2006, which President Bush signed into law and which codified the practice of automatically enrolling workers into retirement savings plans.

That insight of automatic enrollment was based on behavioral economic research showing that switching from an opt-in to an opt-out enrollment system can dramatically increase participation rates.

Since the implementation of this policy, automatic enrollment coupled with automatic escalation of savings have led to billions of dollars in additional savings by Americans. It's really had a profound impact.

Another example: research showed that a complex application form for federal student aid posed far more than just a hassle for students. In some cases, it led students to not fill out the form, or to delay or forgo going to college altogether.

This is really remarkable, right? A complex form can make the difference between a kid going to college or not. But that same study demonstrated that streamlining the process of applying by pre-populating the form with families' existing tax return data, and providing families with application assistance, significantly boosted college enrollment rates.

Obviously, those sorts of insights had great application for policy, and President Obama in September articulated steps that the administration is taking to simplify the form, which benefits millions of students.

The overall message here is that it's really important that we're designing these programs and policies with Americans in mind. They're going to be best served when government programs are easy to access, and when program information and choices are presented clearly.

What behavioral science teaches us is that when programs aren't designed in this way, there are disproportionate consequences. It can mean a kid going to college or not, it could mean someone saving or not—and the federal government is now working to make sure that when we're designing these policies, we're taking that perspective in to account.

Above: Another example of behavioral science in action. Sending low-income, college-accepted high school graduates text message reminders like the one above to complete required forms led 8.6 percent more students to successfully enroll in college, the SBST found.

The Social and Behavioral Sciences Team has been in place for a little over a year now. What do you know today that you didn't know as this was getting started?

I was a post-doc at Stanford studying cognitive neuroscience and psychology. I joined the White House in 2013; my boss Tom Kalil recruited me to join the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

He's incredible and really entrepreneurial, has all these really innovative ideas. He asked me what I wanted to accomplish while I was at the White House and I pitched the idea of creating a dedicated team of behavioral science experts that could help federal agencies improve their programs using the research that we have about behavior.

When I started on this mission, I didn't have a budget, I didn't have a mandate to build a team of this kind. In some ways, that's the most exciting endeavor that you can embark upon, because you know at the end of the day that the enterprise is only going to succeed if people are seeing the inherent value in what you're proposing, and if you've successfully inspired your colleagues to adopt these different approaches.

So I looked for support and collaborators and resources, whoever I could find within the government. I remember when I first joined, going from federal agency to federal agency, extolling the virtues of behavioral science, pointing to success stories in agencies, and building out projects with agencies that could serve as proof points—quick wins that demonstrated the value of adopting this approach.

With time, the agencies began to see firsthand the benefits of using behavioral insights. These wins ultimately gave us the leverage we needed to formally establish a cross-agency team and recruit some amazing behavioral scientists in the government.

It's just been a totally thrilling experience, because now, a year-plus later, thanks to the hard work of my teammates and colleagues, we now have a team of over 15 behavioral science experts in government. We have over a dozen completed projects with agencies. And most importantly, we have an executive order that institutionalizes the team and issues a directive to agencies to integrate behavioral science in to their programs.

So it's an extremely exciting, dynamic environment to work in. I hope that more young people will take the opportunity to join the federal government and become public servants, because ideas can really flourish right from the ground up in our environment.

In your team's first annual report, you mention that a priority for the year ahead is empowering students through "learning and belonging mindsets." Can you explain?

Research shows that when you teach kids that their brains and their abilities are like muscles that can grow with hard work and perseverance, as compared more fixed traits like eye color, you see much better outcomes in school. Perhaps even more importantly, you see greater resilience; if they don't do well at something, they ascribe it not to an inability to actually do that thing in the first place, but maybe not working hard enough or trying enough.

So very brief interventions that teach students this lesson can have a really profound impact on how students engage with their education system, and on their achievement. Over the past few years we've organized a series of meetings with academic researchers, the philanthropic community, school districts, practitioners and the like to figure out what a research roadmap looks like. We want to understand what pressing questions in this field exist and invest in research to answer them, and also figure out how to scale what we do know so it can reach more students across the country.

Earlier this year at the White House Science Fair, researchers announced the largest study ever of learning mindsets that's going to take place at over 100 high schools nationwide. So we're continuing to build an evidence-based pool for the efficacy of approaches. At this point, we just want to keep refining the interventions and making sure that they reach every student who could benefit from them.

Above: Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck's foundational book on learning mindsets. Research published this year by Dweck and others found that "brief web-based interventions with high school students can produce big results in their schoolwork."

Another priority area mentioned in the report is promoting the use of evidence in federal policymaking. 

From day one, President Obama has been fully committed to using the best evidence that we have to inform how we design policies and programs. And this effort, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, is part of a much broader administration wide effort to leverage evidence-based approaches.

In our case, we're working on ensuring that what we know from scientific research about decision-making, and how people follow through on decisions, and how they engage with programs, and respond to them, are integrated into how we are designing policies and programs.

That translation doesn't happen automatically or overnight. It requires a dedicated effort to ensure that we're leveraging the best research. We definitely see ourselves as part of a much broader overall push for using evidence-based approaches and making the government more people-friendly and user-centered.

President Obama speaks with Maya Shankar and other members of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team in January 2015.
President Obama speaks with Maya Shankar and other members of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team in January 2015.

I want to ask a bit about your own background. Is there anything your parents did for you that many parents don't do that had a substantial impact on your life?

From a very young age, my mom instilled in me the importance of being proactive, and seeking out opportunities and resources to achieve your goals, because very few opportunities in life just land in your lap.

She moved to the U.S. when she was 21, from south India, and she didn't know a single soul in this country, including her newlywed husband, who she had just met 21 days prior. And yet, in spite of all that, she made an incredible life for her family, my three siblings and me, and it was because she was so bold. She's just a total go-getter in all respects.

I think this trait manifested in a lot of ways. She works at Yale University in their international office, and has been an incredible advocate for international research scholars and students in the Yale community.

Then, on a personal level, I've witnessed the skill of hers firsthand in my own violin career. My mom had no experience with Western classical music when she came to this country. Interestingly, she was actually a very talented Indian classical music singer.

But once she discovered that I had an affinity for playing the violin, she instantly became like a sponge, soaking up every bit of information she could from our community, about the violin teachers in the area, concerts that I could perform at, groups that I could join and the like. 

I've fought to cultivate this proactive spirit over the years. And those traits have been very valuable for me in my job at the White House.

My dad's a physics professor at Yale, and he always gave me so much perspective growing up. He was constantly reminding me of what really mattered, and the importance of not sweating the small stuff.

He also emphasized the importance of not taking yourself too seriously. He's by a mile the funniest person that I've ever met in my life. And he has successfully made me laugh during even the most difficult times, and I think it's just been powerful for me to see just how much humor can help you get through a lot of stuff in life.

You mentioned your violin practice. I'm curious, looking back, how you've come to think about your hand injury. It's hard to imagine that you consider it in positive terms, but of course it's allowed other aspects of your life to blossom. 

I wouldn't change anything. If anything, it led me to my current job at the White House, which has been the most gratifying, rewarding experience of my entire life. It's an honor to serve our president, and to impact people in positive ways at such scale, so if it only led me here, it would be reason to not want to change the past.

If there's one thing that I could have done differently during my musical life, it would have been to not take it for granted. It's really easy to take something for granted until you lose your ability to do that thing. 

I wish that I had taken a step back from the intensity of the very competitive violin world at the time. I think I could have cultivated a stronger emotional relationship with my instrument, and just relished the joy of producing music on such a beautiful instrument.

Seven years after the injury, things had healed and I had this fluke experience—I was invited to perform with [celebrated violinist and conductor] Joshua Bell in South Africa. Because I hadn't played in those seven years, I had lost a considerable amount of the technique that I had worked to develop as a youngster. And yet, that performance was more emotionally satisfying that any concert I had given when I was younger.

I actually needed that time to grow and mature in order to fully appreciate the violin, and be able to express myself through my music.

You've had some excellent teacher-mentors and I wonder what lessons have stuck with you. What was it like being a a private student of Itzhak Perlman? 

It's interesting, you would think that the most meaningful parts of studying with Mr. Perlman would be the actual violin lessons. In fact, it came from the conversations that we had in passing, or at dinners at his home in New York. He's incredibly wise.

We were a really small group, there were about five of us that he taught during that time who were pre-college. The violin world is a very competitive one and it really values young talent. I started to play the violin at the age of six, and remarkably that was actually quite late relative to my peers, many of whom had begun their studies at the age of two or three and were practicing hours and hours every day. 

So I started a little bit later, and also I just didn't feel like practicing all the time when I was a kid. I loved so many other activities, I played soccer, I loved hanging out with my friends, doing art projects. I was always afraid I was a little bit behind.

But I remember Mr. Perlman telling us one night that when he was younger, he also felt a little bit behind at times. He said, everyone has their own internal clock, there is no rush in development, and every person will blossom musically at different times.

Hearing that sentiment from him, the best violinist of our time, made all the difference to me, and felt really, deeply empowering. My goal now was to focus on becoming a good musician. The timing didn't matter anymore.

The other teacher that's had an enormous influence on me is my undergraduate advisor Laurie Santos, who's a psychology professor at Yale. She took me under her wing from the time that I was a freshman. I really wanted to work in this lab that she ran where you ran experiments on monkeys, and she took a chance on me and let me in to the class.

Over the years she has shown me by example just how valuable it can be to have a role model whose life you admire and whose good choices you hope to emulate. She's been an invaluable friend to me over the past decade, and is also just a really cool person. I'd be happy if I could be even half the mentor that she's been to me.

What are some books that have had a profound impact on your intellectual development?

The summer before I left for college, I was feeling a bit despondent, as you can imagine, because I had just found out that I could no longer play the violin. I was supposed to be in China, performing with my peers at a festival.

I was at home in Connecticut, I was helping my parents clean their basement, and I stumbled upon a book called "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker. I was just immediately gripped. It was just fascinating to learn about our brain and its language machinery, its ability to parse and make sense of an incoming flurry of confusing, disorganized linguistic inputs that we receive in childhood, sometimes in multiple languages.

Imagine yourself as a three year old: You were never formally taught language, you just hear lots of stuff—and your brain makes sense of it. I became fascinated by the mind, and ended up having a huge appreciation for pop-science books, because they can be incredibly effective at introducing a topic at a high level and creating an appetite for learning more and really diving in.

Also, Pinker's book showed me I could be really passionate and excited about things other than music, other than playing the violin. It's probably the single biggest reason that I ended up becoming a cognitive science major.

There are some more recent books that have really informed my work. For example, "The 160 Character Solution" by Ben Castleman talks about innovative approaches that we can use in behavioral science to help promote better educational outcomes. Dick Thaler's memoir "Misbehaving" is about the history of behavioral economics and how it developed in to the rich field that it is today.

 

What would you recommend to a classical music novice who wants to develop a better appreciation for it? 

That pop hit on the radio can get into your head almost instantly, sometimes against your will, and it just stays there. But classical music requires a much greater initial investment; you have to familiarize yourself with it, to listen many times before you truly develop that deep appreciation for any given piece.

My recommendation would be to start with one of the classics, whether it's Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, or Beethoven's Violin Concerto, or Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto. Sit down with one of those pieces and just will your way through it, if that's what it takes at first, and on the fifth or sixth listen, you'll really start to appreciate—first of all, there's a familiarity, but also, you just really start to appreciate just how beautiful it is.

Obviously we're seeing the phasing out of classical music from culture in many ways, definitely in the teenage generation. There's an NPR show called From the Top which features young musicians. I performed on it a few times when I was younger, and you not only hear young people perform, but you also hear from them directly, about their lives and their hobbies and what makes them interested in classical music.

It's a very relatable show, at least if you're a young person, because you're hearing from your peers about why it is that they started to play their instrument and what tactics it took to get there.

Have you had any recent realizations about living a more fulfilling life, a more satisfying life?

Definitely, especially in the last few years: gratitude is key. I make it a point to recognize, in my daily life, all that I have to be grateful for. Of course, the obvious things, my health, my family, the friendships that I've built over the years, but also, as I mentioned earlier, the incredible mentors that I've had throughout the course of my life, without whom I would not have gotten to explore my passions and realize some of my goals.

Taking that moment in the day, or taking that moment once a week, just to take a step back and reflect on the things that you feel grateful for, the people that you feel grateful for, has led to a much more fulfilling existence for me.

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