An Artful Decision
Shawn Gessay ’13 pursues dual passions in art and neuroscience
by Sasha Shapiro ’15
November 16, 2012
Shawn Gessay '13 spent her entire first year at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia before transferring to Dickinson, even though she realized her first week at SCAD that the "art students weren't like anybody I had ever met," she says.
Gessay laughs and confesses that applying to art school was a rather impulsive decision. Like many high-school seniors, she was at a loss about what to pursue in college and decided to follow her dream of becoming an artist. At SCAD, however, Gessay was disillusioned by the environment, which she found too specialized, and realized that she wanted to be at a college with a wider diversity of majors and people.
But her fellow students' ability to communicate artistically led her to ponder the inner workings of the mind. What neurological processes were behind the creativity and social dynamics she saw at SCAD? Gessay found herself drawn to the microscopic world that facilitates every human action and emotion.
Transferring to Dickinson gave Gessay the opportunity to pursue her questions, she says. Although neuroscience—or science in general—had never been one of her strong points in high school, at Dickinson she immediately registered for neuroscience classes, which challenged her in new and unexpected ways. "If I got an A in any other class, it was fine," Gessay says, "but if I got an A in a science class or neuroscience class I would immediately call my mom about it."
But giving up art was not an option for Gessay, either. Painting and drawing had been a lifetime passion, and luckily, she was able to transfer many of her credits from SCAD, allowing her to double major in art & art history and neuroscience.
In the fall of her junior year, Gessay fell in love with her genetics class. "I realized that I had never been so passionate about anything in my entire life," she says. In addition to conducting genetics research with Tiffany Frey, visiting professor of biology, Gessay plans to pursue graduate school for genetic counseling. She is especially interested in Huntington's disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that shows up late in life and affects both motor and cognitive skills.
Meanwhile, Gessay also has been studying Russian (another longtime interest) and will be teaching English in Russia for a year. After that, she plans to return to the U.S. to acquire more research experience before she begins graduate school. Art, however, remains a personal calling. "At SCAD, there were times when I had to change things about my art that I didn't really want to change, so I don't want my future career to be one where I'm required to do only what my boss or client wants."