Energy raised to the nth degree

Academic: A Columbia woman raises a family, writes and piles up letters such as M.A. and Ph.D. at impressive speed.

May 29, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

She doesn't look it, but neither did Clark Kent.

Jean Silver-Isenstadt, an unassuming Columbia wife and mother, has an alter ego that can hold its own against the fictional likes of Spider-Man and Wonder Woman. But her super-human strength isn't brawn; it's brains.

Silver-Isenstadt, 34, is a superstudent (but don't call her that to her face; she gets annoyed), dedicated to lifelong learning and garnering degrees the way some people collect stamps.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Wednesday's editions of The Sun about the achievements of Jean Silver-Isenstadt incorrectly identified the school from which she received her bachelor's degree. She graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. The Sun regrets the error.

On Friday, decked out in her ignorance-obliterating outfit (a black graduation cap and gown), Silver-Isenstadt took on even more letters behind her name when she earned her medical degree - degree No. 4 - from the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

It came a month after publishing her first book (a revision of an earlier dissertation), four months after having her third child, five years after getting her Ph.D., 11 years after her master's degree and 12 years after her bachelor's.

"I don't think I'm an overachiever," she says, with the vocal equivalent of an exasperated eye roll. "I mean, I know it's unusual. When I look at my resume, I have more letters after my name than most people. But when I look at my day-to-day life, what it comes down to is I just stayed in school. I'm impressed with people who have jobs at this point."

Modest denial was Clark Kent's rap, too. But there's really no way to deny that Silver-Isenstadt's life list of things to do differs from most people's.

After majoring in psychology at Wesleyan College and marrying her middle-school sweetheart in 1990, she went on to earn her master's in nonfiction writing from the Johns Hopkins University and then a doctorate in history and sociology science at the University of Pennsylvania, where her husband was going to med school.

While there, she developed her thesis and later turned it into the biography Shameless: The Visionary Life of Mary Gove Nichols, which chronicles the days of the oft-overlooked 19th-century feminist pioneer.

"During the third year of med school in the months that I was off, I was able to work on revising it," Silver-Isenstadt says. While, of course, she and her pediatrician husband, Ari Silver-Isenstadt, also took care of their two daughters Sophie, 6, and Maya, 4. Their son, Ezra, was born in January during Jean's last year of med school.

She's had help along the way. Her husband always made sure his own hectic schedule allowed time for sharing equally in household duties, and the pair have a life-saving part-time nanny who helps out with the kids, as well as lots of family in the area.

But for the most part, it's sheer will and boundless curiosity that drive Silver-Isenstadt to keep going after others would have taken to resting on their laurels - that and an apparent inability to do nothing.

The education obsession goes back a long way.

Jean Silver-Isenstadt's parents, Stuart and Ann-Louise Silver, both 60-year-old psychiatrists living in Columbia, think it might have had something to do with them.

"Stu and I were also a little excessive," her mother says. "She grew up with education and books all around her and watching us work. When she was a child, she even wrote a poem about falling asleep to the click-clack of the typewriter."

Jean Silver-Isenstadt says her mother, in fact, is a "super-achiever to put [her daughter] to shame."

"She's an eternal optimist, driven and ambitious," she says. "And whatever we showed interest in growing up was supported whole-hog."

There were no boundaries for Silver-Isenstadt or her two brothers, Ted Silver, who has a master's of business administration degree from Yale, and Dan Silver, a successful architect. If they could dream it, their parents said they could do it.

"And Jean's so shiny and gleamy and her hair's always washed and she has perfect teeth," says Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard, who became one of Silver-Isenstadt's mentors while teaching at Wesleyan.

"She's a juggernaut - she just mows down obstacles. She's always doing things, any two of which would break a normal woman, and she's doing about eight of them just as a matter of course."

There's actually method to the madness, too. She's not just grabbing at goals blindly.

"There is a coherence ,if you look at it," Silver-Isenstadt says. "My strongest skills are as a writer, and my biggest interest is in how people tick, which brings in psychiatry and history. It all fits together."

What she'll do with it, though, is still up in the air.

She is putting off her medical residency, during which she plans to specialize in psychiatry, until she can create a schedule that allows her to spend time with her family.

And she says she has about "a million different ideas" for things she wants to write. Among them are children's books, psychiatry books and maybe a screenplay based on Shameless.

Her husband says he's just waiting for her to take on law school. But regardless of what she chooses, everybody knows something's on the way.

"This is the first time in my whole life when I haven't had a next step laid out, which is kind of scary," she says.

"Right now there's no commitment or obligation or schedule. But I'll have to impose something on myself soon, or I'll go crazy."

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