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Stories of Stanford: Marilyn Zhang, Alzheimer’s researcher

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Some nominations submitted for this column have been for people who, were this a series on how to become the human manifestation of a perfect resume, would have been exact fits. Stanford is a school of ambition, of big names and bigger reputations, of students who treat getting into one of the nation’s most elite universities as nothing but the first step on their path to becoming future world shakers.

But Marilyn Zhang was nominated by someone who said nothing about her extensive research on Alzheimer’s and neuroscience. They didn’t mention the work she did this summer analyzing and modeling the language of schizophrenic patients or her background as a competitive pianist.

Instead, they wrote a few sentences about how she’s the “nicest, most caring person ever.” They talked about the small notes she leaves wishing people a good day or thanking them for little stuff they’ve done recently. They called her “an inspiration to those wanting to bestow happiness upon others.”

Marilyn carries herself with the maturity and self-assurance of a graduate student, though she’s only a sophomore. She’s slender with straight, black, shoulder-length hair, and she tends to tack on conjunctions everywhere I expect a pause for breath, veering and backtracking from thought to thought in the course of a single sentence.

“I’m not very good at talking about myself for extended periods of time,” she apologizes at one point. “Usually I ask people a ton of questions, and when they go, ‘You should say something about yourself,’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know what to say!’”

It’s true; her answers do inevitably focus on others — be it her little brother, her high school best friend, her mother, her former roommates, her grandfather or her mentors. But that’s because Marilyn defines herself in large part by how she relates to other people. (See her LinkedIn profile bio: “Believes strongly in living a life of compassion towards others.”)

I ask about the notes she leaves people, which she considers simple, unconscious acts of basic human decency. When somebody needs a small pick me up, why shouldn’t she be the one to provide it?

“It just makes a lot of sense to try and make people feel better,” she says. “There are a lot of things wrong in this world right now, and it’s important to look for things that are right and that still exist. These small acts exist to make other people happy, to make the world slightly happier. And in general, compassion can take you a long way, especially if you look out for it and pass it forward to the people around you.”

This appreciation and consideration for others wasn’t always second nature. One day when she was around 10, she walked to her grandparent’s house as usual. She knocked on the door, and when her grandfather opened it, he looked down and asked, “Who are you?”

“That image has penetrated a lot in my memory,” she says. “It was a very unsettling experience. Seeing Alzheimer’s disease in its rawest form really broke my heart.”

After their grandfather was diagnosed, Marilyn and her younger brother started going over to his home every week to play a memory card game with him. He always lost, his gnarly fingers overturning the incorrect cards.

Marilyn’s grandfather passed away when she was a sophomore in high school. “He taught me a lot about appreciating the people in my life, starting when he forgot me, forgot the bathroom, his closest relatives,” she says. “People are important. Appreciate them when you still can.”

Unsurprisingly, her grandfather’s condition spurred Marilyn to learn more about microbiology and neuroscience. More recently she shifted from approaching the problem from a solely biological perspective to a social perspective.

“We need to understand people’s backgrounds when we treat mental diseases because everyone is coming from a different place,” she says. “Communicating with the patients themselves and going directly to the root of the context of how the patient experiences a certain symptom or disease … adds an element of compassion to medicine.”

It wasn’t only her grandfather that shaped Marilyn’s outlook on life and science. She admiringly notes how in high school, her best friend could always tell when somebody was down and always had something positive to say. “She was a literal bubble of joy to be around,” Marilyn says.

And the guy who finally drew a timid, unsure Marilyn into the science community at her high school, who invited her to study with him even though they were often competing against each other? She describes him as a compassionate, humble person who never told anybody about his achievements, but who was genuinely interested in others. She credits him as part of the reason she went further down the biology road.

“He made me feel respected, and when somebody feels respected, their full potential comes out,” she says. “Knowing that there exist people who believe in you is really important, and that’s why it’s so important for us not to mince our words when we show our appreciation or respect for others: because that feeling is so good!”

It seems that, unbeknownst to her, Marilyn has absorbed all the traits she so admires in others. It’s ironic that Marilyn is now so attuned to the feelings of others because when she was growing up and playing piano, teachers often commented that despite her technical skill, she had no emotional connection to the music she was playing.

“I wasn’t feeling the music at all,” she says. “I was just like, ‘Let’s see how fast my fingers can zoom down the keyboard.’” But by the time Marilyn quit, she was beginning to move along with her pieces, to close her eyes and really enjoy it.

Now she prints out and plays expressive music whenever she’s feeling down. The recitals, performances and competitions — those were for others. Now playing piano is really, truly for herself. “It’s like living in another world for the hour or two that I play,” she says.

Then it’s back to reality and school, smiles and people. At the end of our conversation we somehow get onto the topic of poetry, especially spoken word. She struggles to piece together why “If I Should Have a Daughter” by Sarah Kay is her favorite poem. Is it the realistic optimism permeating each sentence? The content or the delivery?

“There’s this line about how the world is made out of blocks of sugar that someday might crumble, but don’t be afraid to reach out your finger to lick some,” she says slowly, like she’s afraid paraphrasing will ruin poetry for me forever.

“And there’s another line about how you’re trying to be Superman, and you have a cape, and the people whom you’re trying to save are the same ones that step on your cape.” She waves her hands in the air and gives up. “Ahhh, I don’t want to explain it because I won’t do it justice!”

At her insistence, a few days later, I watch the video of Sarah Kay performing the piece. Marilyn is right; it is lovely. There’s one part in particular that seems appropriate to life on campus.

“Life will hit you,

hard,

in the face,

wait for you to get back up, just so it can kick you in the stomach

but getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs

how much they like the taste of air.”

The way Marilyn treats those around her reminds them that they too should take time to appreciate the taste of air. Pass that forward.

To nominate someone for this column, please fill out the survey here.

 

Contact Katiana Uyemura at kuyemura ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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