Interview Series: Kenneth Furlough
Meet Kenneth: wide-receiver on Georgetown's football team and a pre-med psychology major.
What does psychology have to do with football? For Kenneth Furlough, the answer is “a lot.” A fourth-year psychology major and wide receiver on the Georgetown football team, Kenneth can tell you something about the psychology needed to perform well on the sports field, as well as in life. “There’s executive management of attention, stress management, and the neuroplasticity involved in practicing plays. You have to imagine them mentally and practice focus.” A pre-med minor, Kenneth plans to be a neurosurgeon.
“Picture this,” he says. “A play lasts for six seconds, but you’re getting hit, tackled, and confused. You have 300-pound guys running at you. In those six seconds, you have to think about the play you’re running, the different signals and strategies for that play, the quarterback’s cadence, and the crowd reaction, all at once.”
“The key,” he adds, “is to stay focused.”
Kenneth says his interest in neuroscience began as a kid. He was 13 when his father died of a stress-related heart attack. He grew up on the south side of Chicago, where he says he witnessed the power of stressful environments on the mind. “In everything, you have to have mental strategies for maintaining balance and focus.”
In conversation, Kenneth avidly describes famous case studies of individuals who suffered brain trauma. Neuroscience is full of these. The American railroad worker Phineas Gage famously survived an explosion in 1848 that left a 12” tamping iron in his brain. Gage survived, but suffered personality changes. Subsequent studies on ablation have been used to determine the activity of different parts of the brain in human functions such as speech, mobility, and abstract reasoning.
What interests Kenneth isn’t trauma. It’s resilience. “If you take out a small piece of the brain, you affect its overall function in a major way. But the brain is neuroplastic, it’s able to accommodate for some kinds of loss.”
Kenneth adds, “If you think about it, the brain is small compared to the rest of the body, but it’s vastly important at the molecular level.” At 225 pounts, Kenneth isn’t joking around about body size. When he isn’t managing 300-pound linebackers on weekends, he’s studying neuroplasticity with psychology professors Abigail Marsh and Darlene Howard, or taking courses with Jim Lamiell and Jennifer Woolard.
What turned him onto psychology as a major was Abnormal Psychology with Professor Francis Warman. “We had to do a case study, and one of the topics was heart disease, so I did a case study on my father.” He examined the way stress, diet, and family history had impacted his father’s health. “That assignment really brought a sense of closure to me and my family. It was really important.”
Kenneth knows something about the psychology of overcoming obstacles. “I was raised by a single working mom, and I know what it’s like to have something very traumatic happen. It’s easy to go in the wrong direction without a father figure in your life.” Then Kenneth comes back to resilience. “There is interaction with the environment, but no matter what, if you have willpower, you can change yourself. It’s important for mental health.”
Time management is important too. Every day, Kenneth is up by 6am for several hours of daily football practice. “It’s like having a job,” he says. “It’s a commitment.” Most weekends are filled with practice and games; away games mean he has to miss Friday classes.
But Kenneth probably wouldn’t be at Georgetown if it weren’t for football. At his all-boys school of about 1200 students on the south side of Chicago, Kenneth hadn’t heard of Georgetown until Georgetown’s football recruiter arrived. “I planned on going to Penn State, I knew they had a good team. I didn’t even know Georgetown had a team. Then I started learning about its academic reputation. That sold me, I knew I could have a future there.”
His advice for new students? “Come to Georgetown with an open view.” While Kenneth has set his sights on neurosurgery, he doesn’t recommend pre-med or pre-law for everyone. “A lot of students come here with the view of declaring a major immediately, wanting to become a doctor or a lawyer or some specialty. Come here with an open mind and take advantage of the opportunities.”
“That’s what I did," he continued. "And I grew from it.”
--- Zachary Warren