by Georgeann Sack
Hania Köver joined the Berkeley Neuroscience PhD Program in 2006 and completed her thesis work on “Plasticity and perception in primary auditory cortex” in Shaowen Bao’s lab (Bao is now at the University of Arizona). Following her PhD studies, she was a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Thinking Matters program at Stanford, and is currently Head of the Graduate School Office at the Institute of Science and Technology (IST) Austria.
Born in Belgium and raised in England, Holland, and Austria, Köver has never shied away from adventurous or challenging experiences. Following her undergraduate studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, she lived in Mikame, a small village in Japan, to teach English for a year. She only left once during those twelve months, to interview at UC Berkeley. After making the big move to the U.S., Köver took full advantage of her time at Berkeley. In addition to her research, she learned to code, was Editor-in-Chief of the Berkeley Science Review, and taught math at San Quentin State Prison. Her most recent move to Vienna was a return home, to a place she had lived as a child for ten years, and where her family and some school friends still live.
I spoke to Köver recently to learn more about her path, and how her diverse talents and experience have ideally prepared her for a satisfying career helping to develop the PhD Program at IST Austria.
Q: What sparked your interest in neuroscience?
A: My undergraduate degree was in biological sciences and in the last two years we had to specialize. At that point I had already realized that everything connected to the brain was what interested me most. I ended up doing research in the lab of Richard Morris—the inventor of the Morris water maze. I was really lucky to have him as my undergraduate advisor. His mentorship and the experience in his lab convinced me to go on and do a PhD in neuroscience.
Between undergraduate and graduate school I went to Japan for a year and taught English. When I came to Berkeley I ended up doing research in Shaowen Bao’s lab on early developmental auditory plasticity. Some of the work I did had strong links to linguistics. In some ways my experience living in Japan, trying to teach English to Japanese kids ended up funneling into my thesis research as well.
Q: What led you to choose UC Berkeley?
A: My initial motivation was mostly that it would be a great opportunity to work with really smart people on cutting edge research. Then what really convinced me to come was the supportive and familial atmosphere that I felt during the interview. The welcome we received from the faculty and the older students convinced me that I would feel at home there.
Looking back, what was also really special about the program was that there were so many opportunities to explore and grow here – through rotations, things like Cortex Club and Brain lunch, and also the great mentorship of many of the faculty.
Q: Once you got here, what was your experience like in the Berkeley Neuroscience PhD Program—did it match your expectations?
A: I think it is hard to envision what a PhD will be like before you do one. Unquestionably, the PhD challenged me more and I grew more during the PhD than in any other period of my life, including living in a village in Japan. The impression I got at interviews about it being a really supportive community held up though. I think that this balance between challenging experiences in a supportive environment are what really lead to growth.
Q: What did you study in Shaowen Bao’s lab, and what do you think are the most significant things you learned through your research?
A: I was studying developmental plasticity in auditory cortex and also trying to establish links to auditory perception. I would say the most significant research finding I had was that yes, it is possible to show that the statistics of early sensory inputs lead to measurable changes in both perception in rodents and also in neural coding.
For me personally, I think I was really lucky to be able to explore a range of different methodologies. I had one paper in computational modeling, I had a paper that combined electrophysiology and behavior. I was pleased to be able to explore and combine those different techniques.
Q: So you learned to code during your time here?
A: Yes. That was a really good experience. I took Bruno Olshausen’s Theoretical Neuroscience course in my first year. It was sort of a, you know, throw you in the deep end and learn how to code with a bunch of computer scientists as partners. It was extremely challenging and probably one of the most useful things I learned in courses at Berkeley. I think about this a lot in my current job, where we are trying to engineer a similar kind of experience for our students.
Q: Were you involved in any significant extracurricular activities during your time at UC Berkeley?
A: The Berkeley Science Review was the biggest one. I was Editor in Chief, and Editor, and an author. It was an extremely good experience for me. I really learned a lot through that side project, and it helped me a lot for my jobs after Berkeley. I also spent a lot of time climbing and was a tutor at San Quentin State Prison, which I think was a really good experience.
That was something I really appreciated at Berkeley — that there were so many opportunities to get involved in things.
Q: How did you decide what to do after your PhD studies?
A: At a certain point towards the end of my PhD I realized that I didn’t want to be a PI and continue with the classic academic track. I knew that I really enjoyed teaching, and I think also from my work with the Berkeley Science Review I realized that I liked actually being in the academy, interacting with scientists and communicating science while not necessarily being one. But I was quite unclear on how that could translate into a career.
I was extremely lucky to find out about the Thinking Matters program at Stanford where I then spent two and a half years. It was basically a postdoctoral fellowship where we were responsible for helping to design and teach new interdisciplinary courses for Stanford freshmen. What was really great was that we were only teaching one course at a time in these interdisciplinary faculty – postdoc teams and we had a lot of time to really think carefully about course design and best practices of teaching.
I also encountered people who had really interesting jobs at Stanford, not as professors, and not necessarily as administration either, and that made me hopeful that I would find something like that which could work for me.
Q: And how did you find your current position?
A: I found it by chance, on their website. It randomly came up, and I was lucky to see it when I did, as it optimally combines all my different types of experience.
I now work at a new research institute, IST Austria, that has only been around since 2009. It is an English speaking research institute and our faculty and students come from all over the world, including the US, so I feel very at home in this kind of environment. One of the big things we are trying to create here is a PhD Program that is modeled on the US style PhD, and I was an attractive candidate because I have first hand experience with that. The other thing that is unique about our program is that it is an interdisciplinary program in which mathematicians, physicists and computer scientists are in classes together with biologists and neuroscientists. One of the big focuses is to developing curriculum that makes sense in an interdisciplinary environment like that, and so my experience at Stanford was really useful.
It is an exciting time to be here, because we are still in the initial stages where there is still a lot to be done and we are still defining what the PhD program will be.
Q: What was it like to transition from your PhD research to your current job?
A: It was very positive. I don’t have any regrets. I feel like all the experiences I had during my PhD prepared me for what I am doing now and I also think what I am doing now is the right choice for me as opposed to continuing doing research. I have the feeling that my journey made sense–in retrospect all the dots connect.
Q: Do you get to design courses yourself or work with faculty to design courses?
A: A major part of my job is curriculum development, motivating faculty to teach and also helping to design courses. We are currently working on creating an interdisciplinary core course that brings together different types of scientists, so I am working together with faculty and students to make this happen. I would say that is one of the funnest parts of my job. I also teach an introductory course to PhD students on scientific presentation and ethical conduct, so I like that I still have a teaching part. The other big part of my job is the operation of the PhD Program. I am in charge of a unit with three employees that does everything from student recruiting and admissions to administration of courses. This has been the biggest “new” experience for me, and I’ve learned a lot.
Q: Out of all those things, what makes you most excited to go to work?
A: The part that I find most intellectually interesting is the question of how to train excellent scientists, and also how to foster collaboration between very different types of scientists. That is something we are doing here to a degree that is more than any other place I’ve seen.
In terms of what excites me about going to work, it is the people. I think we have great faculty, great students, and my colleagues in the administration are excellent as well.
Q: What advice do you have for current grad students?
A: I would really encourage students to make the most of all the different opportunities to grow at Berkeley.
Q: Are you open to having people reach out to you?
A: Sure, always happy to hear from people! They can reach me at haniakoever –at- gmail dot com.