Isabel Gephart: Brain Waves and Boats

Senior Isabel Gephart spends at least one hour nearly every day each week in a dark, closet-sized space in the basement of Olin Hall. While there, she engages in a well-practiced routine: she seats a student subject in a chair, places a delicate net of electrodes on their head, plays a colorful scene on a small screen and asks them pointed questions. 

Observing the brain waves and minute body movements of the volunteers she leads in and out of Colgate’s EEG Laboratory each day, Gephart seeks to better understand the human mind, or more specifically, the human “vision of the world.” Beside Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Bruce Hansen, who is also the chair of psychological and brain sciences, she researches how the human brain compresses information and narrows in on the task before them, despite the chaos that may surround them.

Gephart, a neuroscience and applied mathematics double concentrator, is something of a pioneer in her study of the brain’s ability to focus on certain information and block out others. Her work for this study has proved surreal at times, provoking existential and reflective thoughts. 

“I read these papers and there was one about processing letters when reading, and it was just like ‘wow.’ I’m reading about a process while also engaging in it. I’m wondering about the problem, but also solving the problem at the same time.”

This computational neuroscience research, which Gephart has been a part of since last summer, has allowed the senior to blend her love for connecting with others with logical problem-solving. 

“I like the math and problem-solving aspect of [the research]. It allows me to use math to study humans while talking to new people, while meeting new people.”

This love for connection and logic notably empowers Gephart in her position as both a captain and a coxswain of the Colgate varsity Women’s Rowing team. In the EEG lab, Gephart must practice great precision, from measuring every possible dimension of a student’s head to fit them with an electrode net to analyzing any abnormalities in their brain patterns. This precision, too, carries over into rowing. 

“I like studying and connecting with people, and here I am, surrounding myself with a group of people that I like. With the math stuff, you can take being a coxswain very scientifically. You get this thing called a ‘cox box’ and it gives you so much information. You can see what numbers we are going, what speed, what stroke rate. I think that works with the math part of my brain — a part that never seems to turn off.”

It is also vital that Gephart remains calm in order to be the best coxswain she can. 

“As a coxswain, you have to be responsible all the time. If you freak out, everyone freaks out. I care way too much about my rowers and I feel like I have the power to keep them safe and make the team better.”

With a great love and commitment to the team, Gephart quickly emerged as a leader on the rowing team. However, this was unexpected for her.

“Four years ago, I never would have thought I would be a captain. I never went into anything thinking, ‘hey, I’m better than you.’ At the same time, if anyone needs anything, I step forward. I have a hard time stepping back and saying, ‘no, someone else can do it.’” 

Gephart’s unfailing drive and passion for hard work carries from rowing into her academic life. She sometimes spends her entire day in the lab, meeting with professors and conducting research.

“Olin Hall, McGregory Hall and Ho Science Center are all connected by tunnels — if it’s raining or I’m in a really big rush, I sometimes literally won’t even come up that day. I’m very busy. I’m usually on the move, in a rush, so a fleeting, ‘oh my god, hi,’ as I pass someone I know, running to my meeting, might be something you can expect from me.” 

The hustle and bustle of college life has long been a part of Gephart’s everyday. Whether working out in Huntington Gym, rushing through the tunnels that creep under Colgate’s campus or strolling down Utica Street, she is oft-reminded of her hometown and childhood. 

Gephart grew up just over an hour from Colgate, in Ithaca, N.Y., the college town of Cornell University. Ithaca, much like Hamilton, is lined with nature and rows of homely restaurants and shops.

“I loved Cornell, but I needed to leave. However, in some ways Colgate is like a mini-Cornell. I’m reminded of it a lot as I move throughout campus.”

Gephart observed her parents’ drive and commitment to hard work as they worked as researchers at Cornell. A path akin to her parents, one of research and personal study, is currently of great interest to Gephart; however, she is unsure whether to commit to this career path yet. 

“I grew up in the academic vein, I’ll probably stay there — I mean, actually, who knows. I’m blocking myself in, now it’s on paper!” 

Returning to the university sphere, a place so familiar to Gephart, also appeals to the Colgate senior. As a professor, Gephart explained, she would be able to blend her love for research with her even greater, broader passion: connecting with others.