P&N Person of the Week: Julie Uchitel

Monday, February 25, 2019
Yuexuan Chen
Julie Uchitel

Duke neuroscience major Julie Uchitel was one of 48 winners of the 2019 Marshall Scholarship. With a pool of over a thousand applicants, the Marshall is one of the most selective graduate scholarship programs for Americans.

As a Marshall Scholar, she will be conducting research in pediatric neurology at Cambridge University and pursuing a master’s in international child studies at King’s College London. For her Marshall application, a researcher at Cambridge--now her academic advisor--had written her a letter of support because she has done research in pediatric neurology since her summer before coming to Duke.

With plans for a gap year before going to medical school, Uchitel was originally vying for a Fulbright in France and the Churchill Scholarship. She met with the Office of Undergraduate Scholars and Fellows (OUSF) where they encouraged her to apply, putting together an application five days before the Marshall deadline.

As president of the Neuroscience Majors’ Union, Uchitel said that she feels a “strong emotional attachment and sense of community” to the neuroscience community. A double major in French and neuroscience, her senior thesis is on epilepsy, French literature and consciousness and her thesis advisor is Deborah Jenson--a professor with appointments in P&N, global health, and romance studies.

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As a high school student, Uchitel knew what she was looking for: a college with strong French and neuroscience programs. One of her teachers went to Duke and after touring, she was set on Duke. She always had an interest in science and when she took a class on the philosophy of the mind in sophomore year of high school, her interest in behavioral psychology was piqued. Then, she took AP psychology in junior year. When her class got to the unit on neuroscience, she was “head over heels in love.”

The summer before coming to Duke, Uchitel was a research assistant in a pediatric neurocritical care lab at the University of Pennsylvania. In her gap year before going to medical school, she will be doing research in the same field as a Marshall scholar.

While Uchitel has spent more time in research community, she “also needs that human connection.”

“I want to see how my research is benefiting children,” she said, “I want to know their faces.”

Freshman year at Duke, Uchitel was in a FOCUS cluster cognitive neuroscience and law. She didn’t fully understand what interdisciplinary meant until doing FOCUS where she learned how to combine neuroscience with other things.

Since freshman year, she has been a research assistant in a pediatric neurology lab at Duke Children’s Hospital. Her PI is an advisor to the World Health Organization and researches child rights and is developing nurture and care framework for the WHO. Along with her neuroscience, literature, French and global health interests, her PI has also gotten her involved in science policy.

“I’ve always had strong feelings towards ensuring children’s health,” Uchitel said.

The then president of the Neuroscience Majors’ Union (NMU) was a crucial resource in helping with bookbagging and laying out her four years ahead at Duke. Through NMU, she had the opportunity to meet faculty like Dr. Leonard White, an associate professor in P&N who she considers her “Duke dad,” describing him as a strong mentor and powerful force.

“I was lucky that I met so many interdisciplinary faculty who create unique products [in their interdisciplinary work],” Uchitel said.

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In balancing her passions across very diverse fields, she tries to fit pairing of things together. When she was abroad with Duke in France, she was studying French and volunteering at the local children’s hospital. She has an interest in studying the intersection of literature and neuroscience. She combines her interests in global health and language.

“Studying humanities at Duke reignited my passion for being with other people,” she said.

Her advice for exploring across different disciplines?

“Don’t just scratch the surface,” Uchitel said. “Deep dive, plunge in and crystallize that knowledge.”

In her free time, Uchitel likes to run, go to Wilson gym and binge watch Gossip Girl on Netflix. She has no idea what she’s doing this summer.

“I get bored easy,” she said. “I’m hoping to find something different from anything I’ve done before.”

About her love for French and neuroscience that stems from high school, she said, “I got lucky I figured it out early.”