Six Albion students in the Neuroscience Concentration attended the 2013 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego, CA, November 9 — 13. Two, Melissa Baguzis and Holly Paxton, presented their research done with me on the tendency for the brain to be depicted as if seen from the left side. Four other neuroscience concentrators, Emily Morlock, Megan Nuzzolillo, Chelsea Weiss, and Megan Wickens, attended to learn more about neuroscience.
WIth the leaders of WIL.
In addition to hearing about cutting-edge research in the field, students had two meetings over dinner with successful neuroscientists. We met with four women instrumental in leading a national organization, Women in Learning, whose goal is to provide “advice, support, and guidance on the advancement of female researchers from a notable female researcher who has already carved a path in the field.” Moriel Zelikowsky, who founded WIL, is a post-doctoral researcher at Cal Tech; Marieke Gilmartin is an assistant professor at Marquette University; Sarah Hersman and Jennifer Perusini are graduate students at UCLA. Our students got insight into success in graduate school during our dinner.
With Ki Ann Goosens (MIT)
We also met with Ki Ann Goosens, an assistant professor at MIT. Her research focuses on brain mechanisms of fear, with an eye toward treatments for PTSD. In addition to sharing her perspective on what it takes to succeed in science, Dr. Goosens recounted her experience of nearly being eaten by a pack of lions.
And in what has become a tradition, we met with Albion alums who have gone on in the field and who attended the meeting. This growing group also willingly shared good advice with our students about planning for the future.
I was struck this week by the dedication shown by scientists, and by the initiative that they take to get answers. Most of us recognize motivation as an important attribute of a successful scientist, but few of us realize the lengths to which the motivated scientist will go to achieve his/her goals. This was brought home to me this week as I read Galvani’s Spark: The Story of the Nerve Impulse, a fascinating history of neurophysiology by Alan McComas. Much of the info that I relate here comes from that book; the sense of awe comes from me.
As early as the 1700s people who cared enough to wonder about it came to realize that the signals that travel through nerves must be electrical. But exactly what was the nature of this electrical signal? What did it look like? How quickly did it occur? How fast did it travel? Even the idea that it took any time at all to travel was somewhat revolutionary; the great sensory physiologist Müller (1838) was convinced that nervous signals traveled at something approaching the speed of light, a speed too quick to be measured in his estimation.
Today we know the answers to these questions; in fact if you have $100 and a smart phone or computer you can see a neural signal for yourself. All you need is an amplifier and an oscilloscope; components than can be purchased off-the-shelf from any electronic supplier, from Amazon, or from ebay.
But suppose you lived 100 years ago, or earlier? What was an aspiring neurophysiologist to do? Here’s a hint: that budding scientist had to be skilled in various fields, including electronics, or no science would get done. According to McComas’ account, a rite of passage for the young physiologist in the early 20th century was to build his own amplifier! Yes, that’s right; passing the final in Physiology 101 (or more likely Physiology 499) wasn’t enough. To be successful you had to know enough electronics to build your equipment.
One of the first successful measurements of the nerve impulse was achieved by Bernstein in 1868, well before reliable amplification of the tiny nerve signal was possible. Bernstein needed to deliver very brief pulses of electricity to a nerve, and then record the signals created by the pulse at a very precise time after stimulation. No problem today: adjust the Length of Stimulation dial on your stimulator, allow it to trigger the sweep on your oscilloscope, and you’re set. Bernstein had to invent a device that would both deliver the brief pulse and time the recording: his differential rheotome did just that. A metal pin on the circumference of a wheel spinning at a known rate (simple for clockmakers to achieve) contacted a wire once per revolution, closing a circuit and stimulating a nerve. Elsewhere on the circumference were two leads that would be dipped into a mercury bath once per revolution, allowing the minuscule voltage in the nerve to be recorded. By varying the angle between the stimulating pins and the mercury bath, Bernstein could vary the time between stimulation and recording. Without amplification of the tiny nerve voltage Bernstein had to allow the effects of many stimulations to accumulate in order to be measured, but his rheotome was precise enough that this was not difficult.
Bernstein didn’t simply buy a stimulator and the timing equipment; he envisioned it and built it! And not 30 years after Müller had declared that it would never happen, Bernstein had measured the nerve signal.
Nerve Signal constructed by Bernstein
The difficulty created by the tiny size of the signal disappeared with the invention of the amplifier, but another problem persisted. The nerve spike (its shape was pretty well established by then) happened very quickly, and measuring devices, being physical objects, possessed inertia that had to be overcome. If the nerve spike rises in 1 millisecond (and it does) then a physical object that is slow to start moving and then slow to stop will likely distort the signal. In the early 1900s the cathode ray tube (CRT) had been developed: a beam of electrons (almost, if not totally, inertia-less) could be deflected by electrical fields, changing the spot where it hit a fluorescent screen. If one constantly cycling voltage caused the beam to sweep across the screen at a known rate, and another voltage from the amplified nerve signal moved the beam up and down, the shape of an undistorted nerve signal would be readily apparent.
Gasser and Erlanger, at Washington University, recognized this use of the CRT. All they had to do was get one. Westinghouse wouldn’t sell one of these rare and valuable CRTs to a pair of scientists, so Gasser and Erlanger built their own! Yes – they built a CRT, then used it to build an oscilloscope, then were the first to actually “see” the nerve impulse. I can not imagine even thinking this way: “it would be great to have an oscilloscope, but I can’t buy one, so I’ll build one.”
Fountain's Octagon Chamber for Rule Learning in Rats
On the other hand, maybe I can imagine it. I was attracted to the study of animal behavior in part because of the challenge of measurement. How can I ask a non-verbal animal a question, and understand the answer? This often involves instrumentation not readily available for purchase, or perhaps not even imagined yet by anyone. So learning theorists devise the behavioral equivalents of oscilloscopes and rheotomes to get their answers: Want to study how rats learn and remember rules? Devise a device that allows them to get a reward only if they follow a rule. Interested in short-term memory in the mouse? Invent the radial arm maze. Need to measure a behavioral response in an earthworm? How about a running wheel?
When an inquisitive scientist hits a wall, and can’t find the necessary instrument, s/he invents and builds it. The process of building has gotten easier (Electronic device? Use an Arduino as the base, or simulate it with a computer. Complex 3-D shape? Print it.), but the creative spark is unchanged. The successful scientist today might not need to build her own amplifier or oscilloscope, but in order to succeed she would be ready to do so.
The world doesn’t make it easy, but it rewards persistence and drive.
I realized that there are several posts here that relate to gaining admission to grad school, so I’ve created a page on which I consolidate those posts. (A link also appears in the menu bar above.) As I add other relevant posts I will place a link on that page so that all of these grad-school-related materials can be found more easily than via a search. Feel free to email me (email@example.com) to let me know if my comments are helpful.
And of course, current students are encouraged to come see me at any time to talk about issues related to grad school (or about anything, for that matter).
After several hours of trying various combinations of audio settings on my laptop, I finally managed to record some cockroach action potentials. I never managed to do it with Audacity, the free audio processing file that others have used for this purpose. Instead I recorded the audio input from The SpikerBox using GNOME Sound Recorder.
My recording was almost overwhelmed with 60-Hz noise. I used Audacity to make this less apparent with the envelope tool; probably not the best approach, but it made the spikes sound better (although the baseline looks a little odd).
Close-up View of some spikes.
Click to hear the sound represented here.
What you are seeing (and hearing if you click the image) is the output of sensory neurons in the cockroach’s leg when I tap on the barbs on the leg. Enjoy!
I was greeted by life in progress when I got to the lab today. One of my newly acquired discoid cockroaches was molting, and it had perched at an easily visible location to do it. I got there mid process – took some photos, then started videoing. After 38 minutes the newly molted bug emerged from its cuticle. Enjoy a time-lapse version of the event here:
Only die-hard cockroach fans will watch the next two videos. They’re long and not much happens. A least the fourth video is brief, and has some movement.
Watch the whole 38-min video here:
Another 19 min of video after molting. (I was hoping it would quickly dart away for a dramatic ending to the video. No such luck.)
And finally, a brief clip of our friend moving after molting:
It’s hard to imagine that these animals can survive, given how vulnerable they are when they are molting. If I had been hungry, and my culinary tastes were less Western, I might have had an easy meal.
My lab will soon be home to 50 large cockroaches – more if they start breeding. These animals will be used for studies of neurophysiology (see Backyard Brains for many of the studies that my students will try), including examinations of how temperature affects firing of neurons, and how sensory information is coded. We will also examine the effects of some common drugs on the activity of the roach’s nerve cells.
Those of you who know me, though, will expect this to go beyond neurophysiology to the far more interesting realm of behavior. Anyone can examine neurons; it takes a clever person to do a good behavioral study. My work with earthworms is proceeding well – we now have evidence that the earthworm can learn, and that it is most active in the evening hours (even when it is housed in constant darkness). With cockroaches around it is a near certainty that my earthworms will have classmates in their learning studies. What will we do with the roaches? I have lots of ideas, but how about this: Drooling Roaches. Yes, just like Pavlov’s dogs, cockroaches will learn to drool in anticipation of food. OK – it’s not likely that I will measure salivation in the roaches – the surgical preparation is not that attractive to me – but there are other measures of Pavlovian conditioning that I can consider. I’m looking forward to learning more about these animals.
And for my friends in Olin Hall who are concerned about escapees: this is a tropical species. They might survive at room temperature, but they will not breed unless it is over 85°F, so no worries!
My Honors Class “Neurophysiology for Beginners” got off to a good start in the lab today. Before we can do neurophysiology we need the equipment; students spent the lab building Spikerboxes – the flagship product in DIY neurophysiology from our friends at Backyard Brains. Many of the students had never soldered before, and by the end of class they were pros (OK – they were better than at the beginning; seriously negative feedback will be left at Amazon regarding the quality of the soldering irons…).
Many of you know Milgram for his (in)famous “obedience to authority” studies: under what circumstances will someone obey orders to shock another person against his will. Fewer of you are aware of Milgram’s “lost letter technique,” but that study is responsible for my inability to run for public office.
Milgram was aware that it might be difficult to gauge public opinion accurately if the topic is controversial. For example, if I were to ask people today how they feel about gay marriage, some might hesitate to be honest because of their concerns about how their opinion might color them in the eyes of others. He reasoned that a method that measured public opinion without the knowledge of the people being measured might be desirable. To test the idea, he “lost” many stamped and addressed letters around a large city and determined how many were returned. Some were addressed to the fictitious “Mr. Walter Carnap;” many of these were mailed by people who found them. Others were addressed to “Friends of the Nazi Party;” few of these were mailed. Milgram assumed that this reflected a desire not to help a disliked group – a reasonable assumption.
As an aspiring psychology undergraduate taking Social Psychology, I saw a potential confound: maybe people were more likely to open the Nazi letter out of curiosity, and having opened it were then less likely to mail it. To test this my lab partner Camille and I decided to repeat Milgram’s study, with a twist: we would “lose” letters addressed to Carnap and to the Nazis, but the envelopes would be unsealed and the letters would be lightly glued into the envelopes. Our hope was that we would be able to determine how many of the letters had been removed from the envelopes (and presumably read) before they were returned.
To conduct the study, we needed a post office box in the names of “Walter Carnap,” and “Friends of the Nazi Party” — here’s where the trouble begins. Actually, this explains the title and could be the end of the story; taking out a post office box for the Nazis almost certainly put an end to any political aspirations I might ever have. But there is more to it — it’s worth reading further. Aware that this might cause problems, I explained to the postmaster in my small college town in suburban Philadelphia exactly what I was doing, “It’s for a psychology experiment.” Not wanting to take any chances, though, I contacted the FBI and the uber-Postmaster for the region, explaining that there is not an influx of Nazis, but that it’s just a couple of college students doing a psychology experiment. I thought all was well… Cue the “Jaws” music.
My home town post office.
Camille and I went to our respective homes for Spring Break, each planning to type (yes, “type;” this was pre-computers and we wanted the letters to look authentic) a whole lot of letters and envelopes. I volunteered to buy the stamps. To set the stage for what happened next, you need to know that I grew up in a small town (population about 2,500), where the postmaster had known me since I was a little kid. I went to the post office to buy the stamps, and asked Mr. Gutshall (who looked to me to be ancient – approaching 90 or so – but who was probably no more than 50) for a roll of stamps. He obliged, handing me a roll of very nice, patriotic U.S. flag stamps. Given the nature of our study, I realized that these probably wouldn’t work (would Nazis use U.S. flag stamps? I wasn’t sure, but it didn’t seem likely to me), so I handed them back and asked if he had anything else. He could no longer contain himself.
Apparently in order for me to get the post office box in my college town, the postmaster there had to confirm my permanent (i.e., home) address by sending a card to my home postmaster. Mr. Gutshall had gotten the card linking me to the Nazis. It was his sworn duty to maintain the confidentiality of the postal clients, but this was just too much for him. ”JEFF!!! You’re getting mixed up with the wrong bunch of people down there at college!!!” He was beet red, and fighting to control himself. I tried to explain that, “No, I’m not a Nazi – it’s for a Psychology experiment.” He was not convinced. I even went back later that day with a copy of Milgram’s original study to show him that it’s for an experiment; I am not sure he was convinced. He probably went to his grave (I’m assuming that he is no longer with us) thinking that I was a Nazi.
No, Mr. Gutshall. I was just a curious Psychology student. But if this guy who knew me and my family well would believe that I was a Nazi, there is no way that I could ever run for public office; as soon as my opponent found my Nazi past I would be doomed: ”Explain to me, dear opponent, why you had a post office box in the name of ‘Friends of the Nazi Party?’” That’s all it would take. Landslide.
And for those of you wondering how the experiment turned out, well, Camille and I spent a nice spring afternoon losing letters in Philadelphia. As expected, far more of Mr. Carnap’s letters came back to us; we saw very few of the Nazi’s letters. Many of the Nazi letters had messages written on the envelopes or on the letter itself; some contained biblical literature. And how about our hypothesis, that more of the Nazi letters would have been opened and read? Unfortunately we couldn’t answer that — the small glue spot did not remain reliably intact, so we could never determine with certainty which letters had been opened. If any aspiring psychology students are reading this, here’s your chance for an easy study. Just make sure you won’t ever run for office.
I worked with rats for more than 25 years, and I was pretty good at thinking like a rat. No, I don’t claim to have had any special insight into “what it’s like to be a rat,” but I could anticipate their behavior well enough to know how to measure it. Now, after a few years of working with earthworms, I believe that I’m beginning to think like a worm.
Earthworms have a very limited behavioral repertoire. It seems that where instrumental learning is concerned, the response of choice needs to be locomotion. Automating the measurement of earthworm locomotion in real time has proven to be difficult, but I think I finally have a functional and effective running wheel for worms. The plan is to use the wheel to assess escape, then later avoidance, learning in the worms.
Unfortunately, escape learning has not been going well. Until now… maybe… I’m afraid to get my hopes up. Some ambitious students a few years ago demonstrated escape and avoidance learning, but the instrumental response was movement of the worm, visually scored by the students who were not blind to the conditions. I am confident that their worms learned, but until I can automate the recording the rest of the world will not be as confident. Now with the running wheels I should be able to do that.
Recently we’ve been trying to have the worm learn to escape (i.e., turn off) a bright white light by moving a small distance in the wheel. This was not going well, until I started to think like a worm. Worms are slow – their neurons fire at a low frequency compared to the typical mammal. They typically live in a relatively unchanging environment where rapid “decisions” are not often required. Dirt is pretty constant, after all. The exceptions (being grabbed by a bird, say) seem to activate hard-wired circuits that control behaviors that increase the chance of survival: spread your tail to grab the sides of the burrow, and writhe quickly to get out of the beak. The temperature or chemistry of the dirt will change slowly, when it changes, and behavior can proceed slowly as well.
We were asking our worms to respond to the bright light within 2 minutes. This is an eternity to a rat, which will escape from an unpleasant stimulus within seconds, but to a worm 2 minutes might be just enough time to realize that a change has occurred. So, today I re-thought our escape procedure. Instead of 60 learning trials over 12 hours, with each trial consisting of presentation of a light for 2 min, I am giving the worms 70 learning trials over 24 hours. And to cast the trials in what I think is a more worm-like time frame, the light will be on for 10 minutes or until the worm makes the escape response. A 10-min opportunity to make the correct response might be just what the worm needs.
I’m pretty happy about this – in part because when I left the lab this afternoon, the worm had made escape responses in 7 of the first 9 trials, and a cursory look at the data suggested that the worm was getting faster at escaping. This is exactly what I would expect if the good old Law of Effect was taking over. I hope that this keeps up through all 70 trials. Then (and after a few more worms behave the same way) I’ll be more certain that my brain is working like an earthworm’s.
As I arrived at my office today I was struck by the number of cars in the parking lot adjoining our main administration building. It’s summer; classes are not in session and most students are gone, enjoying a much deserved break or working to earn money so that they can return in the fall. Faculty are not on contract; some are on campus, engaged in research or overseeing projects by the small number of students fortunate enough to have received summer support for their work. And yet the administrative parking lot is full.
This got me thinking. How many administrators are there, and what are they doing when the college is not in session? An examination of the college Catalog (its official record of courses, regulations, and personnel) reveals that there are 170 people listed as administrators. The college’s web page indicates that there are 1382 students enrolled; that’s 1 administrator for every 8.1 students. How does this compare to the number of faculty? According to the Catalog there are 112 faculty — a ratio of 1 professor for every 12.3 students.
As a professor, I know what faculty members do. We teach classes, engage in research and scholarship, and serve many hours on committees that keep the college running. I am less knowledgeable about the duties of the college’s many administrators, but to serve the same number of students it takes 3 administrators for every 2 professors, so the administrative requirements of the college must be myriad.
Has the discrepancy between faculty and administration always been so large? Apparently not. The college web page’s oldest available Catalog, from 2007-2008, lists 161 administrators and 137 faculty — even then more administrators than faculty, but a more even ratio. The printed Catalog from 20 years earlier (1987-1988) lists 92 administrators for 116 faculty; with an enrollment that year of 1600 students (based on the Catalog) there was 1 administrator for every 17 students, and 1 faculty member for every 13 students. Since 1988 the size of the administration has grown while the size of the faculty has declined (as has the enrollment). With fewer students enrolled a college needs fewer professors, and one might expect fewer administrators as well, but this is apparently not the case. While the efficiency of the professors has remained constant, with each serving 12 or 13 students, the efficiency of the administrators has declined: each now serves about 8, while in 1988 each served 17 students.
So when you get your bill for tuition, at this or any college, don’t complain about the high price, or about how much the cost has increased over time. Instead be grateful that your money supports the teaching and scholarly activities of the fine faculty, and feeds the many administrators who are necessary to keep a college running smoothly.
[I'll be glad to add comments from anyone who wants to explain the growth in the size of the administration compared to the decline in enrollment and the relative stability in the size of the faculty. Email comments to me at wjwilson-AT-albion.edu.]
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