Ilana Walder-Biesanz on studying literature after a degree in engineering.
The Gates Cambridge interview panel did not question my interest in different fields. They took for granted that people can have multiple interests.Ilana Walder-Biesanz
Ilana Walder-Biesanz  has been torn between her early aptitude for maths and a love of literature and performance. Although she did her undergraduate degree in engineering, she took a dramatic departure for her masters to study European Literature and Culture.
She was apprehensive about whether she would get funding to support such a change, having been advised that it would be almost impossible, but says Gates Cambridge didn’t bat an eyelid. “They did not question my interest in different fields. They took for granted that people can have multiple interests,” she says.
In a world where interdisciplinarity is of increasing importance, those dual skills in science and the arts have served her well in her current job as a product manager at Yahoo, working on their new mobile mail app.
Ilana’s artistic interests were honed at an early age. Born in Portland, Oregon, her parents had both been actors when they were younger and she was taken to the theatre as a toddler. Ilana was also highly advanced in her learning from a very young age and was encouraged to read early by her parents, though not past her bedtime. However, she says: “I would always read past my bedtime with one hand on the light switch.”
Her parents wanted something more challenging for her than the local kindergarten and allowed her to choose between a Spanish and Japanese school.
She chose the Japanese school because it seemed quieter and more orderly than the Spanish class she visited. She learnt to read in Japanese before English and Spanish in the school where most of the other students were Japanese or half Japanese. Although she was only there for three years, she has kept up her Japanese.
The next school she went to was also unconventional. It was not age-segregated so students could move up and down the grades and progress at their own pace. This suited Ilana who was often the youngest person in her class. She says this was not so noticeable at the school because every level was mixed ages.
At the age of seven her family, which included two older half sisters, expanded with the adoption of two Guatemalan children close to her age. Ilana was fully involved in the decision-making process.
Soon after her parents adopted her siblings, Ilana moved with them all to a local public school where she continued to be several years ahead of her classmates, particularly in maths and languages. “The teachers weren’t sure what to do with me and I wasn’t sure what to do with them,” says Ilana. They let her study independently and put her in classes with older children, but she was still not challenged enough so she studied online and moved early to high school.
There from the age of 13 she did maths and Spanish at her local university, Lewis & Clark College, combining her studies with her school work. She also started her school’s competitive robotics team and also did drama and football.
By the end of high school, Ilana was fairly sure that she wanted to major in engineering, but when she started her degree at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering she also took a lot of courses in literature and philosophy. She did some research on narrative psychology looking at how people tell their stories, the words they use, how they structure their stories and the links between how they depict themselves in terms of their control of situations and their mental health.
She also became very involved with the university theatre group and started doing historical dance. She acted in most of the theatre group shows and ran the group in her final year. In addition, she began a group for those who wanted to attend and discuss operas. “My parents took me to the theatre from the age of two. It was inevitable I would end up on the stage,” she says.
She spent some summer vacations as an acting intern at a theatre company. Others were spent as a research assistant in the university’s psychology department and designing software for Microsoft as well as travelling around Europe.
Having done some work on literature as part of her degree in systems engineering, Ilana was keen to devote more time to literature and philosophy. As she hadn’t been able to study abroad as part of her four-year degree she decided she wanted to continue her studies outside the US.
After being accepted at the University of Cambridge, she says that she was very excited to be able to put engineering to one side and immerse herself in literature for her masters. She felt she had some catch-up work to do, though, since the other students had done their undergraduate studies in literature.
A common theme throughout her MPhil papers was gender and sexuality. She published both of her module papers. One was on the honour concept in Spanish Don Juan plays and explored the different standards of honour for men and women and how those changed (and how that change was reflected in theatre) with the influence of Christian moralist writers. She also wrote a paper focused on Isabella Andreini, the most successful actress-playwright in Italy in the age of commedia dell'arte when professional actresses were still a relatively new phenomenon. At the end of her course, Ilana did her dissertation about the gender-bending and ambiguous sexuality inherent in the opera seria genre, particularly in modern performance. She says: "It was especially fun because part of my research was simply watching every staging of Mozart's La clemenza di Tito I could track down!"
The German and Austrian stagings tended to be more experimental and foregrounded interesting questions of gender and sexual identity and were part of the reason that she chose to go to Germany on a fellowship after her masters in 2014. There she spent her time working as an opera and theatre critic, having previously written for opera-related magazines, and on writing up her research for publication. She ended up reviewing a revival of the production of La clemenza di Tito that she had written most about in her thesis.
When she had finished the fellowship, she was torn between continuing in academia or finding a job. She applied to both academia and industry and was accepted by industry first. She then had a difficult decision to make, but eventually opted to withdraw her PhD applications and take the post as a product manager at Yahoo’s offices in San Francisco earlier this year.
Her work on a mobile mail application involves liaising with a range of colleagues from engineers to marketing and legal experts. “My job is to glue everyone else together, to keep them up to date and drive decisions based on user research and other data,” says Ilana who is continuing her opera reviews in her spare time and is involved in a historical dance group. “It’s working with people, words and technology. It’s exciting to be involved in a new line of products and to be able to draw on my engineering and also my communication skills.”