You Should Know … Malka Svei


Malka Svei, 26, is passionate about science and research.

(Courtesy of Malka Svei)

Svei grew up in Lakewood, N.J., and received her undergraduate degree in psychology at Touro University’s Lander College for Women. She then worked as a research assistant at Cornell University’s Weill Cornell Medical College for a few years before moving to Baltimore. Now, Svei is a rising second-year neuroscience Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins University.

Svei lives in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood and belongs to B’nai Israel, among other synagogues in the area.

What do you do for work?
In addition to continuing my education, I am a research assistant in a lab. It is a big lab. There’s sort of like a diverse spread of interests and projects that people are working on. I haven’t finalized what my thesis project will be yet, but the focus of the lab is on synaptic plasticity and on memory and neural representations of learned information. Basically, everybody sort of does different things, but they all cohere around these ideas of plasticity, learning and memory. We have people working at these questions from all different angles.

We have people who are doing straight in vitro work like cell biology, and then we have people who are working on more of those systems like looking at animal behavior and looking at brain activity in animal behavior. That’s sort of the project that I’m focused on.

How did you get into this work?
I kind of was always really interested in people, even as a kid. I just thought it was cool to step outside your complex and then try to think about society and human beings, for example, human culture, sort of as a system with the rules and a topic of study, something that could be explored. Obviously not in such a thought-out way, but as a little kid I wanted to be a sociologist. Then, I started thinking seriously about careers and realized that you can’t make money being a sociologist. So I decided to be a neuroscientist, but you can’t make money doing that either.

What really happened is, like I said, I was always interested in the topics of behavior and cognition, and when I started undergrad, I knew that I was interested in cognitive sciences.

I started with a major in psychology, and I was thinking of focusing on behavioral economics. I thought I would do research in human subjects and maybe work on policy eventually, and when I was starting to think about graduate school applications, the big thing was that you need to get some research experience. Unfortunately, my school was not really a big research university, and most of my professors were not involved in research. So I really had to reach out to people and other institutions and see what I could find. I talked to someone very close to me about the whole process, and he mentioned that he knew someone at Columbia that might be looking for research assistants. I showed up at the lab for an interview and the person who would become my future mentor said it seemed like I was interested in behavioral and human studies. He told me that he doesn’t do that. I told him that all I needed was some research experience. After a couple months, I realized that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Do you volunteer for any organizations outside of your work?
I’ve been involved with science-focused volunteer opportunities like Science in Action. That is an organization that brings graduate students to local schools to give science lessons. We talk about the different aspects of the scientific method and do fun activities with the kids.

How would you describe your relationship with Judaism?
My relationship has definitely evolved and changed over time. I grew up in Lakewood, so my background was very ultra-Orthodox. In my adult life, I’ve spent more time in the centrist Orthodox world. I leined Megillah for the first time this year. Only the last perek, but you have to start somewhere.

That was a really meaningful experience that I would not have been able to have in most Orthodox shuls. When I spent Purim in New York, I made a point of going to a women’s reading, but that was a separate leining for women only. That’s why I love how welcoming and refreshingly open B’nai Israel is.

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