Serenos — 2005
Serenos — 1967
Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
April 24, 2009
DeKalb, Ill. — It was the “campus car,” a hand-me-down beige, four-door Plymouth with a green interior. During the late 1970s and well into the 1980s, it became a fixture on the Northern Illinois University campus, passed on from one sibling of the Sereno family to the next.
That old car took the two brothers and four sisters on countless trips between their hometown of Naperville and the NIU campus in DeKalb, where the Serenos began an extraordinary life’s journey that has taken them to the highest reaches of academia and all corners of the planet.
All six Sereno siblings are alumni of NIU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, where they pursued an array of fields, from psychology and philosophy to geology, biological sciences and mathematical sciences. Each went on to earn his or her Ph.D., studying at the nation’s elite universities, including Harvard, Brown and Columbia.
Today, few families can boast such combined intellectual might. All of the brothers and sisters now have flourishing scholarly careers—from the oldest, Martin Sereno, director of the NeuroImaging Centre at University College London and Birkbeck College; to the youngest, Sara Sereno, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.
For their many accomplishments, the Sereno family has been named as the recipient of the 2009 Outstanding College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Alumni Award.
“This award usually goes to an individual, but for the first time we’re presenting it to an entire family,” says Jack Tierney, president of the NIU Alumni Association.
“This is an incredible accomplishment, and it needs to be recognized in its totality,” he added. “Each of the Serenos has made extraordinary contributions to science, research and education. Together they demonstrate the value and potential of a liberal arts education. And best of all, it all started at NIU; Northern was their school of choice.”
The award was presented at the annual Alumni Awards Dinner on Thursday, April 23.
“What we proved is that from Northern you can go anywhere,” says Paul Sereno, the second oldest of the siblings and now a University of Chicago professor and world-famous paleontologist.
Paul has led expeditions to such diverse places as the Sahara desert and the Tibetan plateau, and his discoveries include the earliest known dinosaur, Eoraptor, and the largest crocodile, dubbed “SuperCroc.”
“Northern was a place where we were able to hatch our own journeys,” he says.
Unlike some of his siblings—three of whom, Joan, Anne, and Sara, were high school valedictorians—Paul struggled academically as a youngster. His sister Margaret also struggled with math for a time in middle school. Both eventually turned it around, becoming stellar students at NIU. Margaret went on to get her Ph.D. in computational modeling at Brown and shortly thereafter published a ground-breaking book entitled “Neural Computation of Pattern Motion” (MIT Press).
Paul explains, “It underscores the fact that you are what you make of yourself and your talents, and you can almost begin at any time.” He preaches that life lesson to children involved in his Project Exploration, a nonprofit organization that makes science accessible to the public and urban youth.
It’s the same kind of encouragement the six Sereno children, born within a span of just eight years, received in the home of their parents, Rena and Charles, who nurtured their children’s intellectual curiosity. Family members would pile into their Volkswagen Bus for trips to Chicago museums or “vacations” to such places as Stratford, Ontario, where they once took in four plays in a weekend at the annual Shakespeare festival.
Meanwhile, the Naperville home was a whirr of activity. Charles, a mail carrier and former civil engineer, built a giant backyard seesaw and pulley-operated swings and devised games and mini-experiments for the children.
Rena is an artist, educator and innovator. She taught art in Naperville schools for 35 years, mostly at Prairie Elementary.
“My mother by example really transformed the way art was taught in the suburbs of Chicago,” Paul says. “Some of the things she did are legendary. She even taught color theory to first graders.”
She created a learning environment at home, too, filled with books, music and works of art.
“You could always ask questions around our house,” says Rena, who now lives in Batavia. “Everybody draws, everybody paints and they all played musical instruments. I think it’s essential for the development of the brain.”
It was Rena, in fact, who first blazed the trail to NIU.
While raising the children and teaching full time, she began making the trek to DeKalb, where she earned a master’s degree in art education in 1976. By then, her two sons—Marty and Paul—were already students on campus.
“I feel their education up at Northern was tops—they had wonderful professors,” Rena says. “They liked the atmosphere because it gave them freedom, and they wanted to learn.”
Northern was affordable for a big family, and the Serenos appreciated that it wasn’t far from home.
“We never had to pick them up from college because they had that one car up there,” Rena says. “It must have stayed on campus for 10 years.”
Although they won academic scholarships, all of the Serenos held part-time jobs to help put themselves through college.
They worked as dormitory night guards, in the Blackhawk Cafeteria and at a DeKalb movie theater and took various summer jobs. Joan—now a professor of linguistics and the director of undergraduate studies and honors at the University of Kansas—drove a dump truck. Anne—who received a full scholarship to attend graduate school at Harvard and now is an associate professor in neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston and in psychology at Rice University—assembled, deep-fried and served up egg rolls.
Sara, the youngest in the family, says she can remember having her sights set on NIU from an early age. On visits to see her brothers and sisters, she found the campus exciting.
“NIU was the only school I applied to. By the time I arrived, I knew about the whole curriculum,” Sara says. “I even knew the names of some professors because my siblings had told interesting stories about their classes. I lived with one sister in Neptune East and halfway down the floor were my two other sisters.”
At Christmastime, when family members returned from their studies, they would present their graduate-level research in “mini-conferences,” often to the amusement of their siblings, who would feign falling asleep or throw things at the speaker.
“Those turned out to be too chaotic,” Paul says.
Family members would also pick up their instruments and play Christmas carols, Handel’s Water Music and bits of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. “We still have some recordings of these musical massacres,” Sara says.
When they get together nowadays, the Serenos still discuss their work. Most of their research is in the field of psychology and neuroscience, and they’ve collaborated with each other on research projects.
They also continue to get that positive parental feedback that helped them flourish at NIU and set them on a journey of discovery.
“When she says goodbye to us, my mother hugs one and says, ‘You’re the best,’ ” Sara laughs. “Then she goes to the next and says, ‘You’re the best.’ ”
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