Quadruple crown

Mom takes home Ph.D. as triplets graduate with honors
By Pamela H. Sacks


Paula Feinberg-Zadek is not the least bit surprised that her triplets graduated with honors last month from Brandeis University. And Brittany, Alec and Tascha, in turn, find it perfectly normal that their mother will receive her doctorate in neuroscience on Sunday from the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester.

They have, after all, spent a lot of time studying together.

Dr. Feinberg-Zadek and her husband, Tom Zadek, have two other children, Ariana, 23, and Natanya, 17. Mother and children would gather around a long table in the kitchen and hit the books together. When they took a break, they’d make brownies or fudge.

The children were not allowed to post their grades on the refrigerator unless theirs were equal to or better than their mother’s. “And she always got straight A’s,” Brittany said, breaking into laughter.

“I wanted to graduate before them,” Dr. Feinberg-Zadek said. “Technically, I did, but the ceremony is after theirs.”

Dr. Feinberg-Zadek defended her dissertation late last fall and started a post-doctoral fellowship in February at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. She is an electrophysiologist. In Dr. Steven N. Treistman’s laboratory at UMass, she conducted research on alcohol tolerance, examining the effects of alcohol on an ion channel, which is part of the human body’s cellular structure.

“These studies that she did are extremely important for understanding the molecular mechanisms for alcoholism and its addiction in general,” Dr. Treistman, director of the UMass Medical School Brudnick Neuropsychiatric Research Institute, said. “It is the first time that tolerance has been studied in the way that she has done it. It has great implications for the genetic predisposition toward alcoholism, as well as the changes in the brain after drug exposure that may underlie relapse to drug use in individuals who would like to stop taking the drug.”
Dr. Treistman was floored, not only by his student’s academic work, but also by her ability to juggle both her personal and professional lives.
“What was interesting is how much time she devoted to family things, phone calls and issues, while at the same time managing to get her lab work done,” he said. “I was extraordinarily impressed with her perseverance and ability to balance so many diverse obligations.”
Dr. Feinberg-Zadek is small in physical stature and has curly blond shoulder-length hair. Soft-spoken and a bit shy, she stands in contrast to her dark-haired, vivacious triplets, who talk at a clip that would put an auctioneer to shame.
“They’re very nice,” Dr. Feinberg-Zadek observed of her threesome. “I like their company. They speak really fast and get excited.”
On a recent evening, chatter and uproarious laughter filled the Zadeks’ rambling hilltop home in Leominster. The Brandeis graduation had taken place the previous weekend. The triplets were relaxing with friends in the family room. Mr. Zadek, a financial services representative with MetLife Financial Services, was busy conducting business via telephone at the dining room table.
Dr. Feinberg-Zadek took a seat on the couch in the living room. The triplets have garnered considerable publicity over the years, and their mother appeared a bit perplexed as to why she would be of interest. But she was happy to talk about how she managed to earn a doctorate in a complex scientific field, while raising five children who seem to have absorbed the message that they owe it to themselves to aim high.
Two days later, Brittany would leave for England to study for her doctorate in physiology at Oxford University. In the fall, Tascha will enter dental school at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Alec will start law school at the University of Virginia. Ariana graduated from Brandeis in 2003. She now lives in Boston and places college graduates in jobs. Natanya will be a senior at Leominster High School.
Ariana was an infant when Dr. Feinberg-Zadek became pregnant again. At five months, she recalled, she was huge. She had an ultrasound. “It showed three,” she said. The triplets were born five weeks premature on Aug. 20, 1983.
“I was told to expect handicaps,” the mother said. “My mom told me, `Just read to them. They’ll be fine.’”
Not only did she read to them, she taught them to read and to count when they were very young. She often made a game of it. When she took them to the supermarket, she had them add up in their heads how much she was spending. “You got a dollar if you could come within five dollars of the price,” she said. “They already were smart in first grade.”
She also encouraged the triplets to work as a team; that way, they could accomplish more. If they were bowling, for instance, she would tell them that they could get ice cream if the three together got a certain score. It developed in them the attitude that if one is having a problem, the others say, “What can we do to help?”
Pausing for a moment, Dr. Feinberg-Zadek reflected: “I believe every child has potential. As long as you challenge them, it’s amazing what they can accomplish. It helps to have someone supporting you and telling you that being smart is a good thing. It’s OK if you make a mistake or you fail. It’s far worse if you never try. I told them, `You can do anything you can dream about.’”
Mr. Zadek acknowledged that natural ability helps. But the fact is, he said, his wife has been a role model for their children.
“She has always been driven and heavy on education,” the father said. “If they want to buy a book, we’ll buy it for them. If they want candy, they’ve got to pay for it themselves. It’s a question of principle. If they want luxury, they’ve got to do it themselves.”
When Dr. Feinberg-Zadek was young, her parents, Harry and Marilyn Feinberg, set ambitious goals for their five children. Unable to go to college themselves, they emphasized the importance of education, particularly in math and science. Dr. Feinberg-Zadek’s sister is an engineer. One brother is a gastroenterologist, another is a nuclear engineer and the third is a computer engineer. Their father would not permit any of his children to take over his variety store in Fitchburg. The store closed when Mr. Feinberg died.
Dr. Feinberg-Zadek returned to school at the urging of her sister, Cynthia Feinberg Kessel. Having majored in biology at Brandeis, Dr. Feinberg-Zadek took biochemistry and then molecular biology at UMass in Lowell. Before she knew it, she had a master’s degree.
She went right on to her doctoral course work in Worcester. When she started researching in Dr. Treistman’s lab, she would leave in the morning and be gone all day.
“My mom would come over after school and make sure the children got dinner,” Dr. Feinberg-Zadek said. “She was a huge help. I couldn’t have done it without her.”
Yet, she said, what she did shows that most people have more time than they think. She set her priorities – the house and lawn were low on the list. “I’m a better mother for having done what I did,” she said, adding that she believes she set a good example, particularly for her daughters. “They understand you can be a stay-at-home mom or a working mom,” she said. “It can be done either way.”
Dr. Feinberg-Zadek is now looking at current flow in ion channels in an anesthesia and critical care laboratory at Mass General. “We’re all looking at these channels that are affected by volatile anesthetics and alcohol,” she explained. “Many people vomit a lot after surgery. How can we stop these critical responses from happening?”
At one point in the evening, Dr. Feinberg-Zadek turned her spot on the couch over to the triplets, urging them to “say nice things about each other.”
Brittany and Tascha are identical, but on this day they were easy to tell apart. Tascha had straightened her naturally curly hair. Brittany said they really do look so much alike that sometimes even she gets confused. They have beauty marks at the same spot but on opposite cheeks. Brittany recounted the time she walked past a mirror in a store and thought she saw her sister. “Oh my gosh, Tascha, what are you doing here?” she exclaimed. Her mother told her, “That’s you in the mirror.” Laughter filled the air.
The girls said their mother inspired their interest in science. Brittany also is researching ion channels.
“I was always interested in science, but it was definitely something to bond with my mom on,” Brittany said.
The triplets claimed that, contrary to their mother’s impression, they constantly compete. Then they proceeded to talk about each other. Alec pointed out that at their graduation, Tascha won a coveted Brandeis prize. Alec and Tascha declared that Brittany will one day win the Nobel Prize. In Brittany’s view, her brother will make a terrific lawyer; he settles all their arguments.
The three agreed that their mother’s accomplishment is pretty impressive, and they quickly retrieved photos taken at a graduation party family and friends threw for Dr. Feinberg-Zadek a couple of months ago. All 50 guests portrayed mad scientists. They dressed in disposable lab coats and wore thick eyeglasses.
Asked if he was proud of his wife, Mr. Zadek replied that, rather, he is happy for her.
“It’s something she has wanted to do her whole life,” he said.