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Penn's Hebert stars in the classroom, and on the river

There's a side benefit to being a Rhodes Scholar that has Penn senior Jenna Hebert excited - she gets to keep rowing.

Rhodes Scholar Jenna Hebert
Rhodes Scholar Jenna HebertRead more

There's a side benefit to being a Rhodes Scholar that has Penn senior Jenna Hebert excited - she gets to keep rowing.

She'll study at Oxford University next year, a place where even the various houses of the college put together boats to compete with each other. The big sporting competition of the year is a boat race with Cambridge University, simply called The Boat Race. Hebert would love to be a part of it. She'd be eligible as a graduate student if she can make a boat.

"It seems like everyone at Oxford rows," Hebert said.

Most of the year, her own day starts at 6 a.m. with a jog from campus to Penn's boathouse on the Schuylkill. By 9 a.m., after her time on the river, she's jogging back to either class or to work at an addictions' lab in the department of pharmacology.

"Usually, I don't have time to buy lunch somewhere - I usually take my life with me," describing a backpack that includes maybe a sandwich and protein bars, an apple, banana, carrots.

Only the third Penn varsity athlete to win a Rhodes Scholar in the last half century, Hebert, from Pittsburgh, informed of the honor over the weekend, will graduate in the spring with a degree in the biological basis of behavior. Her honors thesis focuses on the effects of nicotine and stress on neural circuitry.

She is working closely on a fascinating topic, the effects of parental stress on the susceptibility to addictions - "the science of stress and how it affects offspring and grand offspring," Hebert said.

Rowing might qualify as another addiction. Hebert isn't doing this just for kicks. She's one of the stronger rowers in Penn's top varsity boat. After her freshman year, rowing out of Vesper, her lightweight boat won a national qualifier for the Under-23 World Championships, so she represented her country, reaching the finals in Austria.

Still, Hebert has her sport in perspective. She feels like after a long workout or a race, she can handle anything else her day throws at it. In a broader sense, she sees the endurance required in her sport as giving her the endurance to handle life's challenges.

At the same time, she said, rowing often acts as a stress reliever, that her time on the river is very cathartic.

The selection process for the Rhodes could be a study in stress. A personal statement is to be handed in without outside editing, without an adviser even looking at it. Her statement focused on how she got interested in neuroscience, on wondering why people develop certain thoughts and desires and emotions.

After competing to get an endorsement from Penn, she went through a district endorsement that included interviews one day for all the local candidates at Haverford College. She remembers getting there at 8:30 a.m., leaving at 8:30 p.m. Even the time waiting for her interviews was fascinating, she said, talking to the other candidates.

"We were all together in the waiting room, there was lots of bonding," Hebert said. 'It was easily the smartest group of people I've ever been around."

She ended up taking an Uber back into the city with a Harvard student, Rivka Hyland, from Center City. That Uber, she now realizes, drove two eventual Rhodes Scholars.

Rowing should still fit into her schedule because the Rhodes advisers were very pointed in saying that all of the 32 Scholars led extremely busy undergraduate lives, with a kind of tunnel vision.

"Don't spend all your time in the lab," someone told Hebert.

She sees her life afterward likely to be spent in academia, in research. And she hopes to cling to that advice.

"I'm planning on rowing until my back gives out," Hebert said. "Or something gives out.''