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Meet the MIT bilinguals: Dual materials science and music major Talia Khan

Fulbright Fellowship recipient encourages more musicologists and scientists to do interdisciplinary work with one another.
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“When I was looking for a university," says MIT senior Talia Khan, "I wanted one with access to top-quality music teachers and top-quality science. Here, we have the same quality of music education as conservatories, and you also have the rest of the MIT education.”
“When I was looking for a university," says MIT senior Talia Khan, "I wanted one with access to top-quality music teachers and top-quality science. Here, we have the same quality of music education as conservatories, and you also have the rest of the MIT education.”
Photo courtesy of Talia Khan.

In high school, Talia Khan was passionate about musical theater. So, she was thrilled when she got to go to New York and see one of her idols, Audra McDonald, perform on Broadway in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill." She waited at the stage door to meet her after the show, and she told McDonald how much she hoped to be a successful singer, too.

As Khan recounts the conversation, McDonald said, “I won’t tell you not to do that, but get a degree first. You need to follow your passions, but you have to be sure you’re able to support yourself.”

Khan took that to mean she should go on to study science, another subject she enjoyed. “So, when I was looking for a university, I wanted one with access to top-quality music teachers and top-quality science,” she says. “MIT really fit the bill.”

Discovering materials science — and jazz

Khan arrived at the Institute without a firm idea of which science she would study, but she attended a First-Year Pre-Orientation Program that led her to major in materials science and engineering. Dedicated to the study of matter and how it is made, Department of Materials Science and Engineering students and researchers work to understand the creation, properties, and performance of materials — and to derive new, effective, and sustainable alternatives.

Khan also quickly joined the MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble — an experience that expanded her musical repertoire. “I had never done jazz before college,” says Khan, who ultimately pursued dual majors, in both music and materials science. “Now jazz is my thing. If you had told me that five years ago, I would have laughed. I literally knew nothing about jazz.”

Since then, Khan’s musical achievement has earned her an Emerson Fellowship every year of her time at MIT. This Emerson program, a conservatory-level track in MIT Music, has provided her with private vocal lessons and enabled her to take a weekly performance and music composition class with John H. Harbison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and Institute Professor of Music. “You can’t get any better than that,” she says.

Awards, honors, and fellowships

The Emerson Fellowship is just one of many awards Khan has garnered at MIT. Last year, she was named a 2019 Burchard Scholar, an honor bestowed by the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) for demonstrated excellence in one or more of MIT’s humanistic disciplines. This year she won the Suzanne Berger Award for Future Global Leaders, a prize given out by the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), the renowned SHASS-based program in applied international studies.

This spring Khan also earned a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship, which she will use to conduct materials science research in Brazil next year. The highly competitive scholarship is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and was established to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries.

Combining material science, sustainability, and music

This year Khan got the chance to combine her passion for both material science and music during 21M.500 (Advanced Seminar in Music), which centers on helping students develop analytic and research skills in music.

“I wanted to combine knowledge from both material sustainability and music,” says Khan, who wrote her final paper on the guitar manufacturing industry. She learned about the destruction of old-growth forests and the wood waste generated by the guitar-making industry practices, and she looked at guitars from a materials lifecycle analysis perspective, drawing on lessons from her materials science classes.

“You have this amazing irony," she notes, “when you have someone playing a beautiful old-growth Brazilian rosewood guitar, and saying, ‘save the planet' — since the over-harvesting of this tonewood is contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon.”

Khan says the 21M.500 course highlighted the benefits of exploring a topic using different disciplinary lenses, an approach that is also integral to MIT's materials science program. Based on those experiences, she encourages more musicologists and scientists to "take it upon themselves to do interdisciplinary work with one another."

National and international internships

Khan has also been busy outside of class during her time at MIT. She worked at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, thanks to the MIT in Washington Summer Internship Program. Through the MISTI program, she traveled to Brazil and Israel. In Brazil, she researched a resin used locally to caulk boats — work that cemented her interest in ethnobotany, the study of indigenous people and how they use plants for medicine, building materials, and more.

“I’m interested in learning from indigenous people,” says Khan, who plans to use her Fulbright scholarship to conduct additional research into how local people use the Amazon’s plants. “They have hundreds of years of history and testing of countless plants, but the knowledge is sustained by an oral tradition that’s now being lost.” (For more on Khan’s work in the Amazon, watch her TEDxMIT talk.)

Another extracurricular highlight for Khan was her role as interviewer on “Tea with Teachers,” a popular YouTube show which features chats with MIT faculty members and guests — including Audra McDonald. “It was one of the most amazing things I’ve done in my life,” she says.

Reflecting on her MIT education, Khan emphasizes how grateful she is for the time she had to work with MIT’s music and materials science faculties and for the full range of disciplines in an MIT education.

“At MIT,” she observes, “we have the same quality of music education as conservatories, and you also have the rest of the MIT education. You can’t get more perfect than that.”

Profile prepared by SHASS Communications
Editorial and design director: Emily Hiestand
Senior writer: Kathryn O'Neill

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