Alumni Profile: Anna Wexler

Infinite Careers is a new collaboration between Career Services (GECD) and the MIT Alumni Association to explore career paths and the non-linearity of career decision making. Read profiles of alumni with unique career paths, hear their stories and network at a series of talks.

Anna Wexler

Education

MIT, BS Brain and Cognitive Science & BS Humanities and Science (2007)
MIT, PhD History, Anthropology, Science & Technology (HASTS) (2017)

Biography

headshot of Anna in front of green trees

Anna Wexler is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies ethical, legal, and social issues surrounding emerging technology. In particular, she is interested in do-it-yourself medicine, citizen science, and direct-to-consumer neurotechnology. She received her Ph.D. in 2017 from the HASTS (History, Anthropology, Science, Technology & Society) Program at MIT, where her dissertation centered on the DIY brain stimulation movement. She was a 2015-2016 visiting scholar at the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2007, Anna graduated from MIT with two Bachelors’ of Science degrees, one in Brain and Cognitive Science and the other in Humanities and Science with a focus in Writing.

Prior to her move to academia, Anna worked for several years as a science and travel writer (and editor) based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Anna also co-directed, co-produced, co-edited, and co-wrote the feature documentary film UNORTHODOX (2013), which is available on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play. The film, which took Anna and her co-director, Nadja Oertelt, nine years to complete, follows three rebellious Orthodox Jewish high school teenagers through a transformative post-high school year in Israel. Anna was selected as a 2007-2008 filmmaker-in-residence at WGBH in Boston to work on the project, and in 2012, the filmmakers completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise finishing funds. For more information, visit the Unorthodox website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Interview

  1. What influenced your decision to select your majors in Brain & Cognitive Science and HASTS?
    I knew exactly what I wanted to study before I got to MIT, so it wasn’t a choice I struggled with. Part of the reason I became interested in BCS was that I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family and as a teenager my beliefs differed pretty dramatically from those of my family and community. So, in high school, I read many philosophy, religion, neuroscience and psychology books, because I wanted to understand why and how people can hold such varying views about the world.
     
    One of the most exciting aspects about coming to MIT as an undergraduate was the UROP program and the possibility of actually doing the kind of research that I had read about in books. I participated in the program throughout my entire undergraduate experience, and it was such a privilege to work on cutting-edge neuroscience research with top professors.  
     
  2. What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career?
    I have worked as a writer and documentary filmmaker, and I am currently primarily a researcher. In each of these career paths, there has been an aspect of public output: popular articles, film, or research journal articles. It’s rewarding when I hear from people who have read or seen my work and appreciate it in some way—either they learned something new, or a particular piece impacted them personally.
     
  3. What motivates you to do the work that you do?
    I genuinely love what I do. In my current position – as a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania—I have a tremendous amount of freedom to pursue the research questions that I am personally interested in. I love wrapping my mind around a research problem and figuring out how to solve it, or at least figuring out how to collect data that can help shed light on the problem itself. The one downside is that like most academics, I’m always thinking about my work. My husband, on the other hand, is a physician, and when he comes home, he puts his work behind him. 
     
  4. What advice would you give to current students that are interested in pursuing Brain & Cognitive Science and HASTS or a career in research, consulting, writing, or film-making?
    1. Don’t be afraid to take a break and travel for an extended period of time. I learned a tremendous amount from MIT, but international travel in my late teens and early twenties provided me with education about the world. Once you get older and start working your way up the career ladder (and maybe starting a family), you won’t have the opportunity to travel again. Take it now! If you have a job lined up, it’s worth inquiring about the possibility of temporary deferral.
     
    2. Try to find a career that balances doing what you love with earning a reliable income. I spent several years working as a documentary filmmaker before realizing that it was not a sustainable career path for me, income-wise. Similarly, freelance writing is a tough business to break into, as it’s becoming harder for writers to make a decent living. For me, academia ended up being the right mix of a career that I loved that also provided livable wages, though it took me several years to realize that.
     
    3. Don’t pay for graduate-level education (master’s degrees, law school, etc) unless you are reasonably certain that you want to embark on that specific career path. If you’re lucky enough to come from a wealthy family that can easily pay for your graduate education, all the power to you. But many friends of mine have gotten caught up in huge amounts of debt after dropping out of law/medical school, or after doing a master’s degree that they didn’t put to use. Before deciding to take out loans for graduate education, try to gain as much experience in your field as possible and make sure the degree is a) something you want to do, and (b) that the program you want to attend will give you an advantage in your field.
     
    One common misconception is that a master’s degree is needed to get into a Ph.D. program; this is true in some (but not all) fields. Keep in mind, too, that in most schools you get paid a yearly stipend to do a Ph.D., but tuition for a one-year master’s can easily cost $60,000 before living expenses. A consideration of these costs were a large reason why I did a Ph.D. instead of a master’s degree.
     
  5. Looking back on your experience at MIT, what advice would you give yourself if you knew then what you know now?
    It has now been ten years since I finished my undergraduate degree, and one thing I didn’t realize as an undergraduate was that your peers will be potential future job contacts. That means that your roommate, dorm-mate, fraternity brother, sorority sister, classmate, even the guy who drinks too much at parties—all these folks will grow up and mature, and some may end up working at a company where you want to work. Social media makes it easy to keep in touch and reach out in the future.
     
    I recommend reaching out to professors and mentors at MIT whose work interests you. At MIT there are many “big name” professors, and emailing them might seem intimidating at first. But remember: professors are regular people, and when they receive emails from bright, motivated, intelligent young students—especially ones who offer to work in their laboratory or otherwise help with research—they are often more than happy to reply. Some tips for that initial email: become familiar with the professor’s work and make sure your email is relevant, don’t make the email too long, and try to end off with a simple, actionable request rather than asking for overarching “advice.” If the professor doesn’t respond within a few days, don’t take it personally—they get mountains of email each day—just follow up with a friendly reminder email.
     
    Building real relationships with professors is not only useful for recommendation letters but also for future job contacts: MIT professors tend to be incredibly well-connected, and if you’ve made a good impression, the professor will often be willing to help you, even many years after you graduate. Think of your time at MIT as not just attending classes, but four years of access to some of the brightest minds of the planet. Again, I strongly recommend doing the UROP program—it’s a superb way to build relationships with professors and gain research experience, plus you get class credit or money!
     
  6. Do you have any tips for networking or job searching for current students and recent graduates?
    I always felt out-of-place at traditional networking or career events; they often felt “forced” and I never made any lasting connections. Plus, there aren’t many MIT events geared toward those of us who are not pursuing a career in engineering, business, finance, or hi-tech.
     
    What worked better for me was following my passions and being proactive about reaching out to people (both within MIT and outside it) whose interests overlapped with mine, or who were doing things I was interested in. In addition to the UROP program, one great way to gain experience is to do internships, where you can get class credit for doing something that you love. For example, I interned at the PBS science television show NOVA, and I’m still in touch with my contacts there. Even if interning doesn’t lead to an immediate job opportunity, it’s a way to slowly build your network—you never know what job opportunities may arise in the future, or who you’ll need a recommendation letter from. I never thought of these activities as “networking,” but in hindsight, they helped me form the networks that I have today. And if you can write a casual email to an old colleague or acquaintance asking about job opportunities (or requesting that they put in a good word on your behalf), your chances of landing a job are much higher than if you’d just sent your resume to a generic job application.
     
  7. What is something that you did not do at MIT that you wish you had done while you were here?
    I wish I’d taken pottery classes through the Student Art Association (SAA) as an undergraduate; MIT has a truly wonderful ceramics studio with 24/7 access. Lucky for me, I came back to MIT as a graduate student and was able to take advantage of the classes then. I also wish I’d gotten into one of the glass blowing classes. You need to enter a lottery and only a few people get selected each year.
     
  8. What do you like to do outside of work (e.g., to relax, for fun, as a hobby, on your free time, etc.)?
    Outside of work, my husband and I enjoy traveling and hiking, especially in off-the-beaten path locations. I also spend a lot of time doing ceramics. As a graduate student at MIT, I took pottery classes through the Student Art Association (SAA), and I’ve been hooked ever since. Doing ceramics is a great way to decompress, because it forces you to focus on the task at-hand—such as centering a large piece of clay on a wheel—and it takes your mind off of work and academics.