Stereotypes abound here: the ace pre-med, the social wizard, the musical prodigy. Usually they do not really fit the person they describe.
According to senior Madison Sample Jr., breaking down people according to human characteristics and turning those characteristics into stereotypes is a classic human social response. "The brain organizes objects with headings. For people it organizes according to characteristics." Sample ought to know. He has taken neurobiology, psychobiology, and psychopharmacology. He also explains that the fact that the brain creates stereotypes does not mean they are accurate.
But in his own case, the pre-med stereotype really does fit. So do the labels social wizard and musical prodigy. But no psychologist, neurologist, or any other "ist" can explain how to combine all these stereotypes into one generalization that describes the life of Madison Sample.
"I am almost positive I want to be a neurosurgeon," Sample says, and he has the grades to get into a top-flight medical school. But he will be spending next year playing piano in a Gospel music studio in Detroit, not studying for the MCAT. And while most seniors leave behind a few close friends when they take on a career, Sample parts from "probably 40 or 50" friends just among the sophomores in Quincy House.
The problem graduation presents is putting all of his lives together. When asked how he can be a neurosurgeon and piano player and still maintain relationships with all his friends, Sample says, "That's a good question." He does not know.
In the past, though, he has managed. According to Professor of Psychology Stephen M. Kosslyn, who taught Sample "Brain Damage and the Mind," "If all the students were like him, I would love teaching more than anything. He was one of the rare students who would come up afterward and he asked good questions." Pre-meds normally have trouble in psychology courses which require a background in artificial intelligence and computer models of the brain, but Kosslyn said, "You could see him coming up to speed."
He has also managed to master the piano, landing a job playing piano for the Aviday label of Light Records in Detroit. In the summer after sophomore year he obtained an interview with the famous Light studio through a producer cousin. "They just left me by myself in this room for 20 minutes to come up with a song. I had never done that before." The people at the studio liked what they heard, enough to offer him a job. Since then he has done an independent study on jazz composition, and he says it has made him even better.
According to Marcy E. Shapiro, who taught him jazz composition, "He's extremely gifted. One of his gifts is that he feels a whole lot about music, and that feeling comes through." According to Shapiro, Sample can hear a piece and once or twice and pick it up. He seems to have perfect pitch, she says, but she credits him more for trying to improve his technique, which she says is usually very difficult for a natural musician. "He could always do it," Shapiro says, "but now he knows what he's doing, so he can do it even better." Sample agrees that Shapiro's course "gave me the tools" to create music that would better relect his feelings.
Creating a social life, however, took more than 20 minutes. "I love to socialize, and people don't realize that. That doesn't seem to go along with biochem majors." Freshman year he said he made a point of trying to meet a lot of people, but a lot of freshmen were not ready for someone to just walk up to them out of the blue and say "Hi." In Quincy House courtyard he does exactly that, and people say "Hi" back and talk. Madison likes to talk with people.
Currently, Sample says he plans to balance his interests by playing the piano, planning for medical school, and meeting everybody interesting in Detroit. When it comes time to pick up the medical books, he may end up studying at the piano while talking on the phone.
Resume items on seniors are easy to come by. Home: Southwest Chicago, Illinois. Academics: Biochemistry, pre-med. Social Life: Active. Activity: Jazz and Gospel piano player. Job: Manager at Harvard Student Agencies (HSA). None of these things says much about a person.
Job: HSA. Sample's job this year entailed taking charge of the department of HSA that allocates time in rooms in the Freshman Union. The job required juggling demands from students and administrators for use of the Union's meeting and practice rooms.
Activity: Madison plays the piano, jazz and Gospel, beautifully. "Music was like talking to myself," he says. When he was 10 he had lessons in classical music for 10 months and made progress so fast that in less than a year he found himself playing in a competition for people with four or five years of experience. He said he entered the competition because he wanted to compete with his friend Carl who had been playing for several years. "Madison Sample was cocky at that stage," he admits.
He made the finals along with his friend. In the finals he thought his friend played better than he he did and he believed another girl performed still better. A second girl played halfway through the test music badly, regained her composure, and then went back through. Sample thought he had earned third place. The recomposed second girl got it.
"You can imagine me as a little kid, thinking that life was so simple and that life was fair." He quit taking lessons. For a while he played very little. When he did play, it was on his own, with a cousin who had never taken formal lessons. But he liked the piano, especially because it allowed him to play rather than sitting still in church, and he kept at it. He says he now loves to play in front of audiences because he uses the piano keys to transmit his mood and the listeners echo his mood so that he can refine what he is doing and build on it as he plays it. The tools he learned from Shapiro, he says, taught him to understand what he was doing and a repertory of techniques to speak to his audience even better.
Social Life: Freshman year was rocky. "I asked out a lot of women, and I got rejected a lot." He heard that Roxbury and Dorchester were hostile, but he went there to make friends anyway because he thought the people in those neighborhoods could not be as bad as their reputation. "Since I've been here, I've talked to a lot of people. They don't get together. The people I talk to think the other people I talk to are weird."
Once he went out with a woman who had dyed her hair purple. Some of his friends could not understand why he would jeapordize his reputation. He says he likes talking to people and that he does not care what color their hair is.
Academics: "I never took physical biochemistry. A lot of people couldn't understand why I took Jazz History instead." Coming to Harvard from Lindblom Technical School, Sample found that his mathematics and chemistry were up to par, but "my English skills and my history were impaired greatly. In English I had a really hard time. I met with my teacher twice a week and worked on every paper I turned in. I floundered in some areas." Sample dropped Spanish A and stubbornly refused to take his father's advice to study Latin, which he had studied in high school. Some top-notch medical school will find that he may not remember Latin terms, but that he has a remarkable knack for neurons.
Home: Sample went to four grade schools. One he left after a fight with a friend, which he now calls "stupid." One he left because the school had problems with fights, guns, knives, and gangs. One he left because of a feud with his math teacher. In sixth grade he transfered to a Roman Catholic school where on the first day the teacher gave the class a test on Roman numerals. Never having seen Roman numerals before, he scored a 57. Sample says with a grin that the teacher thought he was stupid and that she graded tests incorrectly. "I took them back to her. That's the kind of person I am. She felt defensive and gave me a spanking." He questioned his teacher almost daily, and she punished him equally. His classmates took the teacher's side. "That helped me a lot to not accept things as they come."
Madison's mother sings Gospel in church and looks after his father, himself, and his little sister and brother. His father is a bus operator for the Chicago Transit Authority. According to his son, Madison Sample Sr. "went to college for three years. Then I came along. After that he was going from job to job trying to make ends meet... He was interested in sciences also. I used to feel bad about [my father dropping out because I was born], but now I don't."