2023 Graduate Student Commencement Speaker Forges Dual Path in Music and Science

3 min read

Emma Breen is completing her master’s in trumpet performance and preparing to continue her studies at UCLA this fall as a doctoral student. She has also staked out terrain in the world of science, a passion she holds equally with music and plans to continue. 

2023 Graduate Student Commencement Speaker Emma Breen

“You have to be versatile,” said Breen, reflecting on her decisions to pursue multiple paths. “And UCLA is a great place to prepare for a career in the twenty-first century.” 

The 2023 Graduate Student Commencement Speaker came to UCLA very consciously. She chose UCLA over the Royal Academy of Music, both because she wanted to work with trumpet professor Jens Lindemann, and because UCLA offered a different kind of education.

“The Royal Academy is much more traditional in their approach,” said Breen. “I felt like UCLA would give me opportunities to do other interesting things, and that was great. I was also fortunate to receive a Mimi Alpert Foundation Scholarship, which really made it possible to come to LA.”

Breen has amassed quite the record while doing her graduate work at UCLA. She was selected to play with the Disney All-American College Band. She won the principal trumpet position in the American Youth Symphony. She is an active session recorder and has performed across the United States. 

“There are a lot of opportunities for musicians in Los Angeles,” said Breen. “You have to keep your eyes open and be active. It can be a great place to work.”

Prepping for a gig this May at The Catalina Jazz Club

Breen has jumped with both feet into the life of a professional musician. In addition to recitals and performances with ensembles at UCLA, her most recent session work includes recording for Unicorn, a forthcoming animated series on HBO by the director of The PowerPuff Girls. That in turn led to an invitation to play at Comic-Con in San Diego this summer. And all of this came on top of being in a position of leadership with American Youth Symphony (AYS).

“It’s so much work,” said Breen. “I got the most recent music for AYS when the trumpet studio was in Boulder, Colorado for the national trumpet competition. And I sat in the hotel room, looking at the material, I thought to myself, ‘This is too much. I’m going to have to quit trumpet.’” 

But then Breen got to work, discovering that she was capable of learning the music and maintaining her demanding schedule. She credits the welcoming culture of the AYS. 

“Most of the other musicians are a little older than I am, and they have more experience,” said Breen. “But they welcomed me right in and they’ve been so supportive. It’s really made all the difference.”

Then there’s Breen’s scientific work. Breen doesn’t have an undergraduate background in science, but she has worked in a lab ever since high school. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, she was part of the university’s famed Pinkett Lab as well as the SONIC/ATLAS lab, collaborating with NASA’s long-range space missions by conducting cognitive research in both Russian and English. 

Straight from the Laboratory

How Breen ended up with four years of lab experience—without a single undergraduate science class—is a story we’ve covered before, and worth reading. But it was not just an undergraduate job. Breen currently conducts stem-cell research at the Zamudio Lab within UCLA’s Department of Molecular Cell Developmental Biology.

“Science is important to me,” said Breen. “It feeds a part of me that music doesn’t. And I don’t see a need to make a choice between the two. I know that sometimes people think if you aren’t laser-focused on one thing you can’t do it well. But I disagree.”