Maya Shankar, Aspiring Concert Violinist Turned Cognitive Scientist at the White House, UN & Google
Since 2017, Maya Shankar has served as the Global Director of Behavioral Science at Google. Previously, she worked for the White House under the Obama administration, where she was tasked with forming a team of behavioral scientists to compose the new Behavioral Science Subcommittee. Shankar attended Yale University, Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, and Stanford University. However, before all of these incredible feats, she was well on her way to becoming a concert violinist. She studied at the famous Juilliard School of Music in New York and was privately tutored by Itzhak Perlman, a renowned and highly respected violinist. So what changed?
When Maya was 6-years-old, she stumbled upon her grandmother’s violin in the attic of her home in Connecticut. Her grandmother was a classical violinist in India, and when Maya held the violin, she was “immediately taken… by the tactile sensation of the instrument” (NPR). Maya’s mother quickly recognized interest in the instrument and signed her up for violin lessons. Young Maya continued to develop her technical skills, and her love for music prospered. Three years later, Maya and her mother found themselves in New York, where Maya’s mom nonchalantly proposed, “Why don’t we just go to Juilliard? I mean, why not, right?” The Juilliard School of Music in New York is an incredibly prestigious and selective institution. But Maya and her proactive mother simply walked into the renowned Juilliard School of Music together, where they met an amiable group of music students who offered to let Maya play for ten minutes in front of their music instructor. This brief performance led to Maya’s acceptance into the Juilliard School of Music’s youth program at age 9.
Maya continued to learn and grow at Juilliard, and one day she was offered an incredible opportunity: playing in front of Itzhak Perlman, the acclaimed violinist. She later remarked, “I nearly fell over in my seat because no reasonable musician thinks they’re going to get the opportunity to meet Itzhak Perlman, let alone play for Itzhak Perlman.” Maya capitalized on this opportunity and decided to play Barber’s “Violin Concerto.” It is evident that she impressed Perlman because he decided to take her on as a private student, a reward that only a handful of prodigious musicians can experience.
Doors continued to be open for Maya’s musical career, and her future seemed to grow brighter and brighter. Reflecting on the fruits of her hard work, she stated that “In addition to Saturdays, I was also going to New York multiple times during the week”in order to take studio classes at Perlman’s home, as well as private lessons and chamber music lessons. She was also invited to play on NPR’s classical music program From the Top at the age of 12, then again at 15. “And at that point,” she reminisces, “it was very clear to me that I wanted to become a concert violinist.”
But Maya’s fortune took a turn for the worse: when she was playing “Paganini Caprice” at the Perlman Music Program at the age of 15, she overextended her finger and heard a popping noise. When her pain did not abate, she went to her doctor, who told her that she could not play the violin anymore. “It was definitely very difficult because music came to sort of define me,” says Maya as she looks back on her tragedy. “I had to reinvent myself,” she recollects, “I guess I didn’t even realize how much it defined me until I lost it.” Maya felt that the identity she had worked so hard to establish for herself was destroyed in one fell swoop and began to worry that she would never love something else as much as she had loved playing the violin.
However, Maya serendipitously stumbled upon her new calling when she found a book in the basement of her home: The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. She quickly became fascinated with the content of the neuroscience book, and it sparked her interest in the mind. Maya soon became enthralled with cognitive and behavioral neuroscience. When she graduated from high school, Maya focused her undergraduate studies at Yale University on cognitive science before attending Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, one of the most prestigious international scholarships, then a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford. After her misfortune left her bereft of her passion in life, she discovered a newfound love of neuroscience. Rather than continue to lament the life that she had lost, she cultivated a new one for herself.
During Thanksgiving break when Maya was a postdoc, she met with her undergraduate advisor, Laurie Santos, from Yale. She mentioned in their conversation that a new program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was using pre-existing information about students and their families to automatically enroll children for reduced-price lunches. As a result, 12.4 million students were automatically enrolled in the lunch program as of 2015 and were consequently spared the rigor of a Kafkaesque bureaucratic enrollment process. Maya was amazed at how such a simple and sensible policy could result in dramatic, possibly life-changing, benefits. Consequently, Maya visualized the mergence of two fields, behavioral science and policy-making, and decided to make a career out of it.
Although she originally had no government connections, she had her mom’s fiery go-getter spirit, which she used to track down Tom Kalil’s contact information — Tom Kalil was a science policy aid to the Obama administration. In 2013, Maya pitched her idea to integrate behavioral science into policy-making. Kalil invited her to join the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and she began to make a career for herself in the executive branch. Her job was to intertwine what she had studied in behavioral and social science and apply it to policy implementation. When these two fields were combined, the result was often a common-sense, uncontentious reform that improved the lives of communities, families, and individuals. For instance, Maya found that by changing one word in a federal government marketing message to veterans about free job-assistance and education counseling programs, there was a nine percent increase in participation in the program. So what was the one word? Instead of telling veterans that they were “eligible” for the free programs, the message said that they had “earned” them. A nine percent increase may sound like a small change, but that is still nearly two million additional veterans signing up for these services. The fact that this increase came from substituting a single word is clearly extraordinary, and it showed her great skill and promise.
During her tenure at the White House, Maya was tasked with forming a behavioral science team to assist in finding new ways to combine social sciences and government policy objectives. She became the chair of the new team, called the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST), a “group of applied behavioral scientists that [translates] findings from behavioral science to improvements in Federal programs and policies.” President Obama quickly formalized the establishment of the team and their goals by signing a new executive order in 2015: Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People. This executive order encourages agencies and executive departments to apply insights from behavioral policies when possible, in order to improve people’s lives.
In 2016, Maya was recruited to become the first-ever Behavioral Science Advisor of the United Nations. She took on this role in addition to her job as a Senior Advisor at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and chair of the SBST. Maya is now Google’s Senior Director of Behavioral Economics, where she collaborates with her colleagues to apply behavioral science to Google’s product designs and marketing to augment and improve the experience of Google’s users.
When interviewed by the Huffington Post, Maya was asked how she views her tragic injury that terminated any chance to become a concert violinist. She responded, “I wouldn’t change anything. If anything, [the injury] led me to my… job at the White House, which [was] the most gratifying, rewarding experience of my entire life. It [was] an honor to serve our president and to impact people in positive ways at such scale, so if it only led me here, it would be [a] reason to not want to change the past.”
by Margaret Jones
“Executive Order — Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People.” National Archives and Records Administration, White House, obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/15/executive-order-using-behavioral-science-insights-better-serve-american.
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“Maya Shankar.” From the Top, NPR, 18 Nov. 2020, fromthetop.org/musician/maya-shankar/.
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Pitney, Nico. “There’s A Virtuoso At The White House And The Work She’s Doing Is Fascinating.” HuffPost, Huffington Post, 10 Nov. 2015, www.huffpost.com/entry/maya-shankar-white-house_n_563a843be4b0411d306f8bc7.
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Vedantam, Shankar, and Maggie Penman. “Loss and Renewal: Moving Forward After A Door Closes.” Hidden Brain, NPR, 31 Dec. 2018, www.npr.org/2018/12/28/680679054/loss-and-renewal-moving-forward-after-a-door-closes.
“10th Anniversary Alum, Maya Shankar.” YouTube, classicalkids, 10 Nov. 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVbcX6YC1yU.