At the recent Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington DC I ran into three people whom I’ve known for a long time. Only after the event did I realize that this marks the 40th anniversary of when I met them, a long time ago in what seemed like a different life. I thought I should write about my earliest memory of each of them. I am struck by how old the men look compared to the woman — more remarkable considering that what binds the three guys together is that we were all her students at about the same time.
First – Alice Powers. Alice was my first psychology professor, teaching the first segment of my team-taught introductory psychology course at Bryn Mawr College. This was the segment of the course on learning – not her normal area but Dick Gonzalez was on sabbatical so the task fell to her. I took the course at Bryn Mawr (I was a Haverford student) because at the time the two psych departments were quite distinct (at least in the eyes of the students). We described the two this way: “Bryn Mawr is rats and cats; Haverford is nuts and sluts.” I was way over on the science end of things, so I gravitated to the biological, learning theory end of psychology (plus my then-girlfriend was a psych major at Bryn Mawr).
Alice taught the segment very well, or at least I assume that she did. Learning is my favorite area of psychology, and I am sure that my being partial to it came in part from Alice’s teaching and from Gonzalez’s 200-level Learning course. Gonzalez’ course was theoretically challenging and offered my first experience of writing a detailed APA-style paper (and I’m sorry to say that I just learned that Gonzalez died last March). Alice did (and still does) research in turtle vision and turtle learning, informing our understanding of our mammalian brain by looking at its evolutionarily distant ancestor. I never did any research with Alice (I worked with her colleague Earl Thomas) but I have remained close to her – we get together at nearly every SfN meeting.
Tony Reiner (behind Alice in the photo) was a graduate student working with Alice on turtle vision. He has had a successful career as an anatomist at the University of Tennessee. I remember Tony showing me microscope slides of turtle brains — my first real experience with neuroanatomy. He explained to me that brain areas really are distinct from each other, that you come to appreciate the subtle differences that constitute their boundaries. I had no real understanding of how brain areas were organized; I knew that they had names, and I imagined very obvious differently-colored blobs of clay molded together into a brain shape. It was Tony’s willingness to spend a few minuted (probably the whole discussion lasted 15 min at most) with a lowly undergraduate that helped me to comprehend the nature of anatomical differences in the brain. In order to do his research Tony needed an atlas of the turtle brain. Such an atlas did not exist, so he created one for his masters thesis (that’s my memory of the situation, anyway).
Finally, Bruce Baron was a year ahead of me at Haverford. Like me, he was interested in what was then called Physiological Psychology, and did his research with Alice, although I can’t recall the nature of his project. Bruce was the first person to demonstrate to me how one removes the brain from a formalin-soaked rat’s head. I remember him telling me that after you do it you can’t eat chicken for a week. I also recall Bruce getting five grad school rejection letters before getting his first acceptance – to the University of Rochester, I think. He lived one floor up from me in our dorm, and I recall hearing the fire doors in the corridor slamming open and closed as he ran down the hall toward the staircase to come down to tell me that he had gotten in. He has spent a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry, working at Sanofi.
It’s hard to know for sure, but it is likely that my scientific life would have been quite different had I not met these fine people. Forty years ago…