Science Alumni Spotlight: Jet Vonk

April 11, 2022

Vonk, a specialist in dementia and aging, is taking on a faculty position at the University of California San Francisco and realizing her career ambitions.

Headshot: Jet Vonk

In the short time since she received her Ph.D. in Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences from the Graduate Center in 2017, Jet Vonk has become a leading figure in the study of dementia and language in the aging brain. She has published 28 peer-reviewed papers, 15 of them as the lead author, and is working on a second Ph.D. in epidemiology. Plus, in May, she starts a new role as an assistant professor of neurology at the University of California San Francisco Memory and Aging Center. 

In an interview with the University of Groningen, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Vonk said, “My ambition is to become a professor myself, so I can do research on language and cognition in Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia and teach the future generation of students about it.”

Her new role puts her on a track to become a full professor and to fulfill her aspiration.

“Jet uniquely combines linguistic, neuroimaging, and epidemiological methods in her research,” said Professor Valerie Shafer, executive officer of the Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences Ph.D. program. “We are thrilled about her latest appointment and look forward to watching her career soar as she delves into language issues that are highly relevant to our aging population.”

News about actor Bruce Willis taking a step back from his career because of dementia (called primary progressive aphasia) has drawn heightened attention to issues of aging and brain health — topics that Vonk is well versed in and has long studied.

Vonk came to the Graduate Center from the Netherlands to study with Distinguished Professor Loraine Obler (Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences, Linguistics, Cognitive Neuroscience), a neurolinguist known for her seminal books and publications on topics related to language and the aging brain.

Following her Ph.D., Vonk started as a postdoc at the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain in the Department of Neurology at Columbia University Medical Center. Simultaneously, she completed a master’s degree in epidemiology at Utrecht University and is working toward her second Ph.D. there.

With support from the National Institutes of Health, Vonk started her own line of study at Columbia on “Preclinical Markers of Alzheimer’s Disease Using Psycholinguistic Semantic Measures.” One finding from her research is that linguistic metrics from cognitive tests can detect subtle cognitive impairment and increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

Vonk will bring her current research to her new lab at the University of California San Francisco.

“Growing up as a small-town Dutch girl, who would have thought?” Vonk said about her journey from the Netherlands to New York, which she calls one of the world’s great metropolises, and, now, to California.

She offered these tips to current and aspiring Ph.D. students in her field.

"First, try to publish at least two first-authored papers before you graduate. This step will serve you well in finding your next position. Second, consider collaborating with a different lab at a different university. This outreach may broaden your data possibilities and will enlarge your network. Third, create your own opportunities; don’t wait for them to show up out of nowhere. Define your wishes, ambition, and goals, think about the paths leading towards them, and start pursuing your journey."