August 20, 2021

By Lida Tunesi

Kathleen Rowe (Photo courtesy of Rowe)

As a Tony-nominated actor, Kathleen Rowe spent years pretending to be other people, such as Fantine in the London production of Les Misérables and Cinderella in first national tour of Into The Woods. That experience, she says, prepared her for her next act: getting an M.S. in Cognitive Neuroscience at the Graduate Center, following an associate degree from LaGuardia Community College and a bachelor’s in Biology from Hunter College. 

“It’s completely fascinating to me that we walk around in self-created, highly subjective mental constructs that we spend our lives mistaking for actual reality,” Rowe said. “Perhaps I was primed by years of acting, where treating illusion as if it were real is an actor's stock and trade.”

Rowe is one of about 26 students who will start the Cognitive Neuroscience master’s program this fall, and she is the only one supported by a Dean’s Merit Scholarship. 

This year’s class includes students from the U.S. and abroad who majored in disparate fields such as finance, computer science, and psychology; one student is a Fulbright scholar. Presidential Professor Tony Ro (Psychology and Biology), who directs the Cognitive Neuroscience program, said that Rowe stood out in a competitive pool of applicants as an obvious choice for the Dean’s Merit Scholarship because of her near-perfect undergraduate GPA, “her well-articulated interests and motivation for studying the neural basis of cognition and perception, and her prior successful achievements as an artist and actor.”

The Graduate Center spoke with Rowe about her career and decision to go back to school.

The Graduate Center: Can you tell us about your career as an actor?

Rowe: I was nominated for a Tony in the category of the Best Supporting Actress in a musical, for playing Giulietta Trapani in Aspects of Love, for which I also won a Theater World Award. I first originated the role on London's West End, where I had previously played Fantine in Les Misérables. Another stage highlight was playing Cinderella in the first national tour of Into The Woods — I wish every woman could experience the unrestrained joy of doing pratfalls in a ballgown. I was also a contract player on As the World Turns, Loving, as well as All My Children, and did a horror film, Fear No Evil, where I played a high school student/reincarnated archangel who saves the world from eternal damnation.

Kathleen-johnson-469 on stage

Kathleen Rowe on stage. (Photo courtesy of Rowe)

GC: We hear you’re artistic in other ways, too

Rowe: I'm no longer making them, but I used to sculpt fairies, goblins, etc. My work has been shown at CFM Gallery, at the old Soho address, and sold in boutique stores. My fairies have been purchased by A-list movie stars, two of whom subsequently turned up in mugshots — the celebrities, not the fairies.


Fairy in snow. (Photo courtesy of Rowe)

GC: After a successful acting career, what made you decide to come back to school?

Rowe: I was still alive and curious about things, so I started taking classes on Coursera and EdX, which led me back to school. I know it's a great privilege to have the available time to attempt sneaking two lifetimes into one, and I'm grateful. With people living longer, it does seem a shame to waste their potential. Although brain volume is thought to decrease with age, dendritic growth may actually increase, perhaps an advantage for integrating information? The age range of the CUNY student body is diverse. Though I'm admittedly biased, I think that's a good thing.

GC: Having completed your undergraduate degree within CUNY, what about the university made you want to stay for your master’s?

Rowe: I have experienced fabulous professors at both Hunter and before that at LaGuardia Community College. I would never have gotten this far if it weren't for them. Dr. Kevin Mark was the kindest and most supportive mentor, whose light approach gave me the courage to tackle more than I would otherwise have dared. Dr. Pratikkumar Rathod and Dr. Laurel Eckhardt were also inspirational. I could easily name 10 or more great CUNY professors.

After attending a virtual information session about the M.S. in Cognitive Neuroscience hosted by its director, Dr. Tony Ro, I knew the Graduate Center, and Dr. Ro's lab in particular, was where I wanted to go if I were lucky enough to get in. The Ro lab studies many aspects of how we perceive or fail to perceive the world around us, at least with our conscious attention, together with the cognitive and neural mechanisms behind these perceptions. I want to learn all that I can in the Ro lab and let that guide my career goals.

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing.