Late start to rowing just child’s play for Penn Rhodes Scholar Jenna Hebert


For hours, a dozen of the finest minds on the East Coast who were trapped in a strange room did what you’d expect a dozen of the finest minds on the East Coast to do when trapped in a strange room:

They played board games.

“We played mancala, some card games,” Jenna Hebert recalled. “It was really funny to see these graduating seniors, very smart people, playing children’s games. It was really fun. There were all these games lying around.”

Chutes and Ladders?

“I think we had that one, too,” she said.

Even better.

“You needed some way to ease the tension in a very stressful situation,” Herbert cracked.

This particular situation was last fall, where Haverford College hosted the last round of district interviews for the Rhodes scholarship program. A dozen finalists — including Hebert, a native of Pittsburgh and a senior rower at Penn — were herded into a waiting room. They would eventually be pulled out, one by one, to another room for interviews by a selection committee, then herded back into the waiting room to ponder. And talk. And play.

“The interviews themselves were only about 15 minutes and those happened early in the morning, between 8 and 10,” recalled Hebert, who would go on to win one of two Rhodes scholarships in her district, one of 32 awarded across the country. “Then (the candidates) spent three or four hours talking. A few people got invited back for second interviews.”

Hebert is the 22nd Rhodes Scholar in Penn history, becoming just the Quakers’ fifth student-athlete to ever receive the honor and the first since Stephanie Dangel (track & field) in 1984. The final 32 were culled from a pool of 869 applicants endorsed by 316 colleges; the postgraduate scholarships cover all expenses for two or three years at the University of Oxford.

“It’s kind of rapid-fire questions,” Hebert said of the final hurdle, “and they can be about pretty much anything. Because they really want really well-rounded people who can think through challenging questions that are outside their comfort zone.”

The well-rounded part, she’s got down. A two-time first-team all-region selection by the College Rowing Coaches Association (CRCA) and a national qualifier in the Under-23 World Championships, Hebert won a bronze medal at the 2011 World Piano Competition. When time allows, she volunteers at the Philadelphia Adaptive Rowing Club, helping cognitively and physically disabled rowers find their sea legs.

“I’ve also gone out (in a) ‘double’ — boats for two people — and helped teach them how to row,” said Hebert, whose Quakers head to Leonia, N.J., this weekend to compete in the Connell Cup. “Both in high school and college, I got emails about adaptive rowing (and) it seemed like the best way to do some volunteering.”


So add perspective to the mix. And balance: Hebert is a neurobiology student with a secondary concentration in French studies. In addition to being a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, Hebert’s father Martial is a native of France.

“I came to Penn primarily because I wanted to study neuroscience and they have one of the top neuroscience programs in the country and I have a lot of opportunities to do research,” Jenna said. “Neuroscience is a lot of science courses, and I wanted something that balanced that out and used the other side of my brain.”

Both sides can bring the heat. Hebert’s senior honors thesis deals with the effects of nicotine and stress on neural circuitry; at present, she’s researching the relationship between parental stress and one’s predilection toward addictive behaviors.

“I’m really interested in drug addiction and how drugs work in the brain,” Hebert said. “Because I’m working with mice, it’s hard to extrapolate from mice to humans in a straightforward way. But we have found that stress in the parents does seem to have an effect on how the offspring’s brain reacts to addictive drugs.”

In the lab, her head swims. On the water, her heart floats.

“The great thing about rowing — I wasn’t doing sports before high school — is that it’s a sport that most people pick up really late,” said Hebert, who’ll graduate in May with a bachelor’s in the biological basis of behavior. “It’s not like swimming, (where) it’s hard to get involved with when you’re (older) and compete at a high level. So that opportunity was really appealing to me. And also, it’s just so unique, being on the water and seeing the sun rise and the sun set. It’s a very picturesque sport. That feeling, when the boat is moving really well — there isn’t really anything like it. And it’s something you want to experience again and again.”

And in addition to pursuing a Master of Science in psychiatry at Oxford, Hebert plans to pursue the living heck out of something else: Beating the oars off the Cambridge University Boat Club.

“In the short-term, definitely, my dream would be to row in The Boat Race at Oxford,” Hebert said. “The historical race between Oxford and Cambridge that’s been going on forever. That’s definitely on my bucket list.”

Photos courtesy Penn Athletics

Sean Keeler

Follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @SeanKeeler